This is an interesting question in that a lot of people who ask it do not actually ask it in good faith. They ask it assuming the answer based on their prior position on gun control. If you are a gun critic you consider guns the sum total of our woes, if you are a gun nut you assume everything except guns are the cause. Like with many things though, both of those positions take their claims too far.
I am not expert on everything regarding to topic, and I do not claim to be. However, I am not blind to current events, so I do a lot of fact-checking of claims and I have done a reasonable amount of research informed by my general academic training. Based on all of that I have identified three primary contributors to the considerable upsurge of mass shootings in the last twenty years. In order of importance:
- Constant bombardment by the public with news coverage of shootings.
- Abysmal access to mental health.
- Availability of guns/lax gun laws/lax gun-law enforcement.
Number 1 is probably the largest contributor for several reasons. When something is fresh in your mind it is much more likely to be utilized because of the Availability Heuristic, a cognitive short-cut you automatically use to save mental energy. There is a whole host of these heuristics, and they often work quite well to reduce your cognitive load. But they are also quite prone to errors with issues that become complex.
News outlets run 24-hour stories on a regular basis keeping shootings on our mind. This means that if you are a disgruntled person looking to make a splash, shooting a place up comes to your mind before less readily available options that may not even involve murder. Moreover, you see how (in)famous people get when they commit a mass shooting, and it sounds like the solution to your feelings of people ignoring you.
This sort of thing has happened before. After the first person committed suicide by jumping in front of a subway in the new Austrian subway system, their news outlets reported it vigorously. Lo and behold, lots of people started killing themselves via jumping in front of a subway. The authorities saw what was happening and laid down some guidelines on how news outlets were allowed to cover these suicide stories. Shortly after, these suicides plummeted in frequency (Sonneck, Etzersdorfer, & Nagel-Kuess, 1994; Stack, 2003). A similar situation played out when a host of people started committing suicide by jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Number 2 is one that zealous Second Amendment enthusiasts very often cite, and they are right to cite it. Unfortunately though, it seems they only cite it for argumentation’s sake because whenever anyone wants to do something about it, they just accuse that proposed fix of equaling socialism.
Mental healthcare needs to receive more public funding. It needs to be covered with general healthcare, and it needs to be easily accessible without stigma. I am not a healthcare administrative expert, so I cannot give a step-by-step explanation on how to accomplish this increase in access. However, due to the fact that many of the mass shooters were identifiably disturbed weeks before the massacres, it is clear enough is not being done.
Number 3 is the issue gun control activists only focus on. This is understandable given the traumatic nature of mass shootings, but this issue seems to be somewhat less of a factor than Number 1 is.
Despite that, easy access to guns is still part of the issue. Buying a gun or stealing one from your parents takes distinctly less effort and determination than searching the internet to find out how to make explosives, purchase and successfully construct the explosive, construct the detonation device, and carry out your attack.
Opponents of gun control would point to knives, but they are not really comparable. Sure, there are occasional examples of deadly mass stabbings. But by and large gun incidents have more victims and more fatalities; there is a reason mass killers look past their kitchen knives to the gun closet (Fox & Delateur, 2014). Among over 24 shootings involving more than 10 victims up to 2014, 3/4th involved a firearm.
This does not mean a complete ban on all guns is the most appropriate response. The US still only has a ~4.7 per 100k people homicide rate. Higher than most other 1st-world countries, but not crazy all things considered. Additionally, less than 1% of those homicides occur during mass shootings, and the vast majority of homicides are done using handguns rather than “assault rifles.”
That said, universal background checks need to be enforced, and perhaps regulation on how people with children are allowed to store their guns. I believe concealed carry permits need to entail more stringent training and stricter requirements, and open carry should be out of the question; easily available weapons tend to escalate situations rather than save people.
Fox, J. A., & Delateur, M. J. (2014). Weapons of Mass (Murder) Destruction. New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement, 40(2), 313–344.
Sonneck, G., Etzersdorfer, E., & Nagel-Kuess, S. (1994). Imitative suicide on the Viennese subway. Social Science & Medicine, 38(3), 453–457. https://doi.org/10.1016/0277-9536(94)90447-2
Stack, S. (2003). Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 57(4), 238–240. https://doi.org/10.1136/jech.57.4.238