Opinion: Is it too late to stop America’s gun epidemic?

Gun Rights

As the University of Virginia and Charlottesville community mourn the loss of three student-athletes who were gunned down Sunday night after a charter bus trip to Washington, D.C., another round of the relentlessly unproductive debate over gun control is upon us. Why didn’t the university more aggressively investigate a report that the suspect, UVa student Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., had a firearm on campus earlier this fall? How is it that UVa leaves it up to students to self-report weapons charges that occur off campus, as university police Chief Timothy Longo Sr. told reporters on Monday?

Maybe a more aggressive threat assessment team could have prevented this shooting. Maybe it wouldn’t have. No number of red flag policies, however, can do much to address the real problem: the widespread proliferation of firearms in the United States. There are 393 million privately owned guns in America, or roughly 120 guns for every 100 people, according to a 2018 Small Arms Survey out of Switzerland. And that’s really just a best guess. The impenetrable influence of the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby has ensured that the incredibly robust firearms industry in the U.S. — the least-restrictive gun market in the world — will continue to churn out deadly weapons unabated.

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As I write this, it’s not yet known how or where Jones, charged with three counts of murder in the shooting deaths of three UVa football players (Devin Chandler, D’Sean Perry and Lavel Davis Jr.), obtained the gun used in the triple homicide. Did he obtain the gun legally or illegally? Did he stop off at any number of retail shops in Virginia and purchase the weapon? Did he buy it on the street?

In truth, it probably doesn’t matter. Despite the passage of new gun control legislation in Virginia two years ago — which included requiring background checks for all purchases and restricting access to domestic abusers — it’s still easier to buy a gun in Virginia (you must be 21 to buy a handgun but only 18 to purchase a shotgun or rifle) than it is to buy alcohol or even cigarettes.

Perhaps a slate of new gun safety bills and government-buyback programs could reduce the number of firearms in circulation. But it’s worth reminding: There are nearly 400 million of them. And that’s just an estimate. It’s impossible to know for sure how many civilian guns exist in America, and that’s because the gun lobby and Republicans in Congress have for years blocked federal funding for substantive research into America’s gun epidemic. Thus, there is no federal database.

Only in the last year has the Justice Department even been tasked with assessing the state of gun trafficking in the U.S. In a report released by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives earlier this year, the initial numbers are staggering:

“Between 2000 and 2020, the number of Gun Control Act [GCA] firearms and National Firearms Act [NFA] weapons that were domestically manufactured, exported by U.S. manufacturers, or imported into the U.S. increased by 187%, 240% and 350% respectively,” the report states. While most of the attention in the last few years has been focused on military-style assault rifles used in high-profile mass shootings (Buffalo, N.Y.; Uvalde, Texas; and Highland Park, Ill., this year alone), most people have been arming up with handguns, per the ATF report: “Trends in firearm commerce highlighted by this report include the pistol becoming the dominant firearm type manufactured and imported into the U.S. over the last decade, and an increase of 24,080% in annual manufacturing of short-barreled rifles in the period from 2000 to 2020.”

In the last few years, the numbers are likely higher. According to an analysis of federal background check data by The Washington Post in July, roughly 43 million guns were purchased in 2020 and 2021 alone, the highest number on record.

Even if the political will existed to begin regulating the size and scope of this enormous market, how many years would it take to substantially reduce the number of guns on the streets? How many buyback programs could get the job done?

It helps to understand why people buy so many guns. According to a Gallup survey in October 2021, 88% of gun owners said they purchased a firearm for “protection against crime.” But how many have considered what that really means?

In a country that mythologizes gun ownership, it’s a critical question. If you think a “good guy with a gun” is the answer, ask yourself: Have you ever had a weapon fired at you? Do you really know how you will react when an active shooter shows up at the grocery store, your workplace or your child’s school? Ask any police SWAT team member how easy it is to prepare for live rounds downrange. Ask the deputies in Uvalde why they waited to rush into a hail of bullets. Train down at the firing range all you want — none of it can prepare you for the terror of a gun pointed at you.

As we await a more detailed picture of what happened in that UVa campus garage on Sunday night, the debate will pick up again. Gun-friendly Republicans will decry that Democrats are “politicizing” another tragic loss of life, and Democrats will spew fire over lax gun laws and demonize the gun lobby.

The problem, however, has outgrown the political posturing. If there are 400 million guns in private hands in the U.S., how does anyone — law enforcement officers, elected leaders, mayors, governors, or even the president — propose to stop the next shooting death?

— Times-Dispatch Editorial Board

— Times-Dispatch Editorial Board

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