Since the shocking killings of 20 elementary schoolchildren and six of their teachers in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, less than three years ago, mass shootings have claimed the lives of college students in Santa Monica, California, and Isla Vista, California, and high school students in Marysville, Washington.
Gunmen have taken the lives of military servicemembers in mass shootings at Fort Hood, Texas,and the Washington Navy Yard, and slain worshippers as they prayed in Charleston, South Carolina. Mass shootings have occurred every 64 days
on average since 2011, and these high visibility tragedies are on the rise, occurring three times as often as they did between 1982 and 2011.
Mass shootings are so normal in the U.S. that pundits -- myself included -- already know what we're going to say. We'll hear that mass shootings are a price we pay for a broken mental health screening system, that the actions of a lone madman shouldn't erode a constitutional right, that concealed carry would have prevented the shooting, that we should mourn the shooting deaths, but not "politicize" a tragedy.
We'll hear that the U.S. has almost three times as many firearms per capita
as any other developed nation, that our firearms homicide rate
is more than six times any other comparable country, that more young people will be killed by guns in the U.S. this year than will die in cars from crashes.
What we won't hear is anyone predicting that the tragedy in Oregon will lead to changes in U.S. gun policy.
Other nations have made dramatic changes to their firearms laws after a mass shootings. After the 1996 Port Arthur massacres, where a man armed with a semiautomatic rifle killed 35 and wounded 23, the Australian government pushed through legislation
that restricts, but does not ban, firearm ownership. Australia has not suffered a mass shooting since, and many gun control advocates hope that the U.S. could adopt Australian-style legislation.
But that's not how it works in America. Our "national dialogue" after Sandy Hook led to legislative changes around firearms... in the wrong direction. The New York Times
found that of 109 firearms laws passed in the year after the Sandy Hook massacre, 70 loosened gun restrictions.
Instead of waiting for the nation to be shocked into action on gun control, we should look to other moments in U.S. history where what had once seemed normal, though deadly, became seen as aberrant and intolerable.
Consider smoking. Despite research linking smoking and lung cancer in the early 1940s and a definitive surgeon general's report in 1964, smoking in U.S. public places was routine through the 1980s. The shift of smoking from normal to abnormal began in earnest when a union, the Association of Flight Attendants, convinced Congress that secondhand smoke was killing their members, who spent hours a day inhaling recirculated toxins.
Smoking went from being an individual risk --and individual choice -- to being a public health hazard. As flight attendants, then barkeepers and waitstaff, then office workers began asserting their rights to a safe workplace, smoking was banned on airplanes, in restaurants and bars and then in offices. What was normal became, over the course of two decades, abnormal and far less common: U.S. adult smoking rates, which peaked near 50% at the end of World War II, are now around 15%.
The tragedy in Oregon reminds us that our nation's relationship with firearms is also a public health issue. Like with tobacco, potential reforms are blocked by a powerful commercial lobby. But unlike with tobacco, where virtually everyone experienced some exposure to secondhand smoke, gun violence in the U.S. disproportionately affect one group of people: African-Americans in general, and young black males in particular, who are eight times more likely to be killed with guns than their white peers.
The concentration of firearms violence makes it harder to build a mass movement around gun control. When communities of color have fought for strict gun control laws, as they did in Chicago, they are undermined by lax gun control laws in bordering cities and states.
Much as the right of a businessman to smoke on a flight, at risk to his own health, trumped the right of a flight attendant to breathe in her workplace, the right of an Indiana resident to have easy access to firearms currently trumps the rights of African-Americans on the south side of Chicago to a safe community.
Mass shootings are the secondhand smoke of America's dysfunctional relationship with guns. They are the moments where something we know to be dangerous to their owners and those around them become deadly to the public as a whole. As we mourn those killed in Roseburg, Oregon, we should think of the 33,636 people
killed with firearms in America, and ask how we learn to stop seeing this as normal and see it as madness.