These are the things you can count on like clockwork after each of the mass murders that have become a grimly familiar American trope: The National Rifle Association’s Twitter account goes silent. The Onion’s painfully on-point satire, “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” makes the rounds again. And there’s a chorus of outrage against “politicizing the tragedy.”
Let’s set aside for a moment the question of exactly how soon after a mass shooting it is okay to talk about the “shooting” part. Here’s when we definitely should be talking about gun violence: all of the rest of the time.
Perhaps the single most terrifying thing we’ve discovered in five years of in-depth reporting on gun violence is how little is actually known about what is now an undeniable public health crisis. This ignorance is not happenstance. It is willful and politically motivated, the direct result of concerted efforts to suppress research and reporting on this topic. And it deprives all of us of the information we need to stop these tragedies and save lives.
Here’s how we, here at Mother Jones, came to realize the scope of this willful blindness. On a grim July morning more than five years ago, we sat in our daily news meeting, debating how to cover what back then seemed a shocking, unprecedented event: A man had walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises and opened fire, killing 12 and and injuring 70 others.
We found ourselves asking: How often does this happen? Is it growing more common? Just a few months before, in our Bay Area backyard, a former student had walked into a nursing classroom in Oakland and killed seven. Surely, there must be data out there somewhere. We’d go find it.
A flurry of web searches and phone calls later, we had an unexpected answer: no data. No one in academia, media, or government had compiled a basic study of how often someone heads to a public place with a gun and murders strangers. Nor had anyone investigated the context to these killings: How did shooters get their weapons? What kind did they use? How many had symptoms of mental illness or psychopathy?
We also found out the reason for this stunning dearth of information: Much like the tobacco industry in its day, the gun lobby sees data as its enemy. Thanks to gun industry advocates in Congress, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been prohibited from using government funds to investigate gun violence since 1996.
A small nonprofit newsroom is no match for the resources of the federal government. But we couldn’t let this go. So we began to compile the data ourselves. We charted 62 mass shootings in the course of 30 years—a dataset that we made available to anyone to use for free, as countless journalists, academic researchers, and policymakers have done since.
As with any reporting project, the more we dug, the more questions started to surface. Chief among them was: How much does gun violence actually cost America every year? Same answer: no data. So we spent two years working with outside researchers to discover the staggering total: $229 billion, more than $700 for every American. Per year.
Updating the mass shootings database became a grim routine in our newsroom. Sandy Hook. The Washington Navy Yard. Santa Barbara. Charleston. Roseburg, Oregon. San Bernardino. Orlando. Vegas.
But don’t let the staccato of tragedy leave you thinking that any of this is inevitable—that mass murders are “the price of freedom” as Bill O’Reilly would have it. Gun violence is not a law of nature or an inexorable disease. It’s a product of decisions we’ve made—and can unmake. The gun lobby knows this: That’s why it fights so hard to quash the research and provide cover for a shadowy $8-billion industry.
And let it be said that it’s not only about guns: How often do you hear about the discipline of “threat assessment” that looks at how mass shootings can be prevented with targeted interventions? As my colleague Mark Follman, who has studied this deeply, noted after the Vegas shooting:
“The ‘pathway to violence’ refers to a series of escalating behaviors leading to an attack, which can comprise a crucial period of time for possible intervention. Typically this process begins with a deep-seated grievance that turns to motivation, followed by planning and then an act of targeted violence. Though the process varies widely in its circumstances and duration, it precedes virtually all mass shootings.”
In fact, one of the key things Mark learned from investigating threat assessment is that we, as journalists, also have a responsibility: It turns out media coverage plays a key part in motivating mass shooters, and careful reporting (for example, avoiding glorifying the shooter with “pseudocommando” pictures and videos) can mitigate that. Instead of focusing chiefly on the shooters—that’s what they want—media can also tell the stories of the victims and families in a way that respects their trauma.
In Vegas, our resident documentary filmmaker Al Kamalizad and reporter Bryan Schatz documented how people are grappling with the aftermath of the shooting. They filmed a security guard, barely old enough to drink, describing how he had to tell concertgoers trying to help their injured and dying friends to simply run. It’s a story that will stay with me forever, and despite the despair it contains a powerful glimmer of hope.
We owe it to the people in Vegas and so many other places to cling to hope. Earlier this year, we published a first-person account from a mother, Sandy Phillips, who lost her 24-year-old daughter, a budding journalist, in the Aurora shooting five years ago.
“On that day, I entered an inescapable nightmare. A fire began to burn inside of me. The following morning, I told Lonnie, ‘We need to get involved.’
“My husband and I respect the Second Amendment. We are longtime gun owners, who for 30 years made our home in Texas. We have no interest in taking away everyone’s guns, as the National Rifle Association and other fearmongers like to claim. However, we believe our nation’s laws can be vastly improved to save lives.”
The more we, as a society, confront the facts on this issue, the more reaction after tragedies like Vegas can shift from wonderment about “inexplicable” violence to insight and action. Mass shootings are only inexplicable if we let them be. Sandy Phillips has stayed involved for five years. If she can find the strength, so can all of us.
For us at Mother Jones, that means continuing to chronicle this important issue, and the work that so many people are doing to find solutions. It’s not our job to decide what those solutions should be. But we can gather the information needed to make sound decisions—and report on it from many angles, because the conventional he-said-she-said approach leads to gridlock.
And needless to say, the only reason we can keep doing all of this is because of our readers. Web traffic and advertising are not going to pay for this kind of reporting. It takes time, and persistence, and we can give it both. For that, as always, thank you.