President Barack Obama's condemnation of America's latest mass shooting was no less striking for how often we have heard him say essentially the same thing. The White House podium lamentation is routine because the killings are routine, and the utter lack of any substantive response is just as routine. In his years in office, Mr. Obama's reaction in such circumstances has gone from outraged to bewildered because he knows that if the murder of praying churchgoers in Charleston didn't prompt reform, if the mass killing of elementary school children didn't spur action, if the near fatal wounding of a member of Congress didn't inspire Congress to act, that nine more deaths at a community college in Oregon won't change anything either. The stranglehold of gun absolutists on our politics is so strong that no outrage ever seems strong enough to shake it.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama suggested that the media look up the numbers of how many Americans have been killed through terrorist attacks in the last decade and how many through gun violence "and post those side-by-side in your news reports."
We did, and the answer is this: From 2004 through 2013, the last decade for which all relevant data are available, 80 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks worldwide, excluding those related to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database. During that time, 93,502 people were murdered with firearms in the United States, according to the FBI, and 186,168 people killed themselves with a gun in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control, for a total of 279,670. (We exclude accidental gun deaths from our calculation, but they would push the total substantially higher.) Even if we adjust the time frame to include the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the comparison remains stark: 3,066 terrorist deaths between 2001 and 2013, but 121,387 gun homicides and 237,052 gun suicides.
"We spend over a trillion dollars, and pass countless laws, and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so," President Obama said. "And yet, we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?"
It can be, and it is, simply because of the influence of the National Rifle Association. The CDC effectively stopped doing gun violence research in 1996, after the NRA accused it of promoting gun control and the Republican-led Congress threatened to strip its funding. This summer, immediately following the Charleston mass killing, Democrats tried to include an amendment in an appropriations bill that would have allowed the CDC to study the root causes of gun violence, but Republicans voted it down. The contrast between Congress' willingness for years to allow the government to collect reams of data on the communications of ordinary Americans in the name of fighting terrorism and its refusal to allow research into what is clearly a bigger threat is outrageous.
But it is hardly the only way Second Amendment fanatics seek to prevent us from having a rational conversation about gun violence. They will assert that one or another gun control measure would not have stopped this particular shooting, as if that is a justification for doing nothing. Seat belts don't prevent every auto fatality, but we nonetheless require them. They will argue that we should really be talking about mental health, as if we haven't made vastly greater strides in that area (in no small part thanks to Obamacare) than we have in gun control.
But the most galling tactic to shout down any talk of connecting gun violence with our lax regulations on guns is the charge that to do so is to "politicize" the deaths and, by implication, disrespect the victims. That's hogwash. As President Obama said, "This is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to our body politic." We would go further: It is of an importance that trivializes most everything else we consider in the sphere of politics. To ask what we might do to prevent more innocent deaths does not disrespect these, but to do nothing, to say nothing, would.