On Thursday evening, as details trickled in from the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, President Obama pointed the finger of blame at America’s glut of privately held weapons. “We are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses or [who] want to do harm to other people,” said Obama. And yet, he noted, “We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”
Obama now makes this point routinely. After the 2013 Navy Yard attack, he recalled the massacres at Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown:
No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence. None. Here in America, the murder rate is three times what it is in other developed nations. The murder rate with guns is ten times what it is in other developed nations. … [W]e Americans are not an inherently more violent people than folks in other countries. We’re not inherently more prone to mental health problems. The main difference that sets our nation apart, what makes us so susceptible to so many mass shootings, is that we don’t do enough. We don’t take the basic, common-sense actions to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous people. What’s different in America is it’s easy to get your hands on [guns].
The issue and the data are a bit more complicated than that. A country’s gun laws and its gun supply are two different things. Neither factor correlates precisely with gun deaths, and even where correlations can be shown, it’s hard to sort out whether shootings are common because people are buying guns, or the other way around. But Obama does have evidence to back up his point, and he’s raising a question that Republican candidates for president ought to answer: Our country has a strikingly high rate of killings. If it’s not because of our prodigious stockpile of firearms, what’s your explanation?
Obama’s hypothesis—that the problem is the gun supply—relies on logic and comparative statistics. According to figures detailed by the Council on Foreign Relations and summarized by Factcheck.org:
The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world—by far. And it has the highest rate of homicides with guns among advanced countries. … The firearms homicide rate, and homicide rate overall, is also higher in the U.S. than other advanced countries, such as Canada, Australia and those in Europe, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
PolitiFact presents a more complex table, using data from researchers who looked at mass shootings in 11 countries from 2000 to 2014. During this period, four high-fatality incidents in low-population countries—Norway, Finland, and Switzerland—inflated their per capita death tolls from mass shootings, making them appear more dangerous than the United States. Statistically, this is an artifact of extremely low sample size. We easily surpassed every other country in per capita mass shooting victims—including all the countries with three or more mass shooting incidents—and our homicide rate was at least three times higher than the rate in every country but Mexico.
Republicans don’t buy the gun-supply theory. They blame our homicide rate on culture and mental illness. In January 2013, shortly after the Newtown massacre, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is currently on the rise among GOP presidential candidates, rejected Obama’s plea for new firearm restrictions. “Guns are not the problem,” Rubio asserted. “Criminals with evil in their hearts and mentally ill people prone to violence are.” In a Fox News interview, Rubio elaborated: “The issue America faces is not guns. It’s violence. I think the fundamental question is what is happening in our culture and in our society that’s leading to people committing these atrocities, whether it’s mental illness or some other violent propensities that have come into our culture.”
John Kasich, the governor of Ohio and another GOP presidential candidate, expressed a similar view. A month after Newtown, he argued that gun control didn’t work. Instead, Kasich touted his state’s increase in funding “for people who are potentially violent and have mental illness.” Rather than crack down on weapons, Kasich explained, “My focus is on what I believe is the most important part of this, and that is a person who has violent tendencies who has nowhere to go.”
Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, takes the same approach. Since Newtown, he has allowed tougher penalties for violating existing firearm laws, but he has also repeatedly vetoed new restrictions. Last year, when state lawmakers sent him a bill that would have trimmed the maximum capacity of gun magazines from 15 rounds to 10, he stripped out that language and rewrote the bill to propose changes in the state’s mental-health system. “It simply defies common sense,” the governor argued, “to believe that imposing a new and entirely arbitrary number of bullets that can be lawfully loaded into a firearm will somehow eradicate, or even reduce, future instances of mass violence.”
These politicians aren’t just tossing around idle rhetoric about depravity and mental illness. They’re betting people’s lives on the hunch that these factors—not the supply of weapons—account for gun fatalities. After Newtown, Rubio and his Senate colleagues killed legislation that would have tightened background checks for gun buyers. This year, Rubio introduced a bill to facilitate interstate gun purchases and remove local control of firearms laws in the District of Columbia. Christie vetoed a ban on .50 caliber rifles, as well as the 10-round limit on magazine capacity. Kasich signed laws that made it easier to carry a concealed weapon and to bring it into a bar or stadium. Both governors have waived or relaxed safety training requirements.
At no point has any of these men—or, for that matter, any other Republican presidential candidate—offered a plausible reason to believe that something unique in American psychology, rather than our high volume of firearms, explains our homicide rate. They have yet to answer the challenge Obama put to them not just on Thursday, but a year ago during a conversation with tech executive David Karp:
The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It’s not the only country that has psychosis. And yet we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than anyplace else. Well, what’s the difference? The difference is that these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses, and that’s sort of par for the course.
It’s not enough for Republicans to poke holes in Obama’s theory. They have to present a credible alternative explanation. And they have to square it with their perpetual insistence that they, unlike Obama, believe there’s something wonderfully exceptional in our nation’s character.
Last year, in a speech to the National Rifle Association, Rubio exalted the Second Amendment and America’s tradition of firearms ownership. “I’m always amused at those who come up to me and say, ‘No other country has a constitutional right like this’—as if to imply that there is something wrong with us,” Rubio marveled. “But we say, ‘No other country has a constitutional right like this,’ not with scorn, but with pride. Because, yes, America is different.”
It sure is, senator. Just ask the folks in Roseburg.