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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Politics of Gun Violence

In the aftermath of two deadly mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, U.S. political leaders made a series of statements on gun violence that were unsubstantiated, lacked context or were seemingly contradictory.

Here we look at some of those statements and present the facts.

As of this writing, 22 people were killed and 26 were injured on Aug. 3 in a shooting at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas. Police reportedly believe the alleged shooter, Patrick Crusius, 21, who is being held in custody, posted an anti-immigrant manifesto shortly before the shooting. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” the document reads.

Hours later, in the early morning hours of Aug. 4, nine people were killed and 27 were injured in the streets of Dayton, Ohio. The alleged shooter, Connor Betts, 24, was killed at the scene by police. Law enforcement officials have yet to establish a motive for the shooting, which claimed the life of Megan Betts, the shooter’s 22-year-old sister.

Mass Shootings/Mass Killings

The statements: “Well, first of all, our condolences to the victims and families in Dayton. Miles separate us, but our grief unites us. So be strong Dayton. You know, it’s a tragic thing. Something like this is just shocking. It is the 250th mass shooting. El Paso is 249. It is unfathomable these things continue to happen all over the country.” — Democratic state Rep. César Blanco of Texas, “CNN Newsroom,” Aug. 4

“When you look at the 250-plus mass shootings in this country this year, about 17 to 20 of them led to the loss of four lives or more. About half of those were suicides and/or domestic situations.” — Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Aug. 4.

The facts: Both men are referring to a list of mass shootings so far this year, as compiled by Gun Violence Archive. The nonprofit defines mass shooting as any single incident that involved four or more people shot or killed, excluding the shooter.

As of Aug. 3, the day of the shooting in Texas, there had been 250 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Using the nonprofit’s list, we found that there have been 31 “mass killings,” which federal law defines as “3 or more killings in a single incident.” (The law does not specify if the number of those killed in a “mass killing” should include the shooter, so incidents in which the shooters were among the dead are included in our count.)

Scott used a higher death toll when he said “about 17 to 20 of them led to the loss of four lives or more.” That number is actually 20, including the shooter. As for “domestic situations,” we found that 13 of the 31 mass killings involved family members or people in relationships.

We mapped the mass killings, which occurred in 17 states, and provided a short summary of each incident in our story “Mass Killings Across America.”

Influence of Video Games

The statements: “[W]e must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.” — President Donald Trump, in remarks made on Aug. 5

But the idea of these video games that dehumanize individuals to have a game of shooting individuals and others — I’ve always felt that is a problem for future generations and others. We’ve watched from studies shown before of what it does to individuals. When you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others.” — House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, interview on Fox News, Aug. 4

The facts: Trump and McCarthy both suggested that one way of tackling the problem of mass shootings is to address violence in video games. There is little evidence to support that idea, although researchers have not ruled out that media violence could play a role in criminally violent behavior.

As we’ve explained before, numerous studies have documented a link between violent video games and aggression, including increases in aggressive behaviors, thoughts and feelings, and decreases in empathy, sensitivity to aggression and helping others. But that is not the same as establishing a link to mass violence — and there is still some debate among scientists about how strong some of these effects may be.

Whether video games or other forms of media violence are related to criminal violence is less clear. A 2015 American Psychological Association report reviewed the literature and could not find “enough evidence of sufficient utility” to come to a conclusion. If there is a causal relationship between video games and violent criminal behavior, researchers note that exposure to violent media, by itself, wouldn’t transform a normal teen into a criminal or mass shooter.

As for mass shootings, their rarity makes them difficult to study. Experts on media violence told us that in the United States, a clearer risk factor for such events is the availability of guns. 

“The single most obvious and probably largest difference between a country like the US that has many mass shootings and other developed countries is the easy access to guns,” Duke psychology and neuroscience professor Kenneth A. Dodgeone of the authors of the 2015 APA report, told us. 

For more, see:The Facts on Media Violence,” March 8, 2018

Effectiveness of Gun Laws

The statements: “The House of Representatives has passed a [universal] background check [bill]. We can fly back into Washington on Monday morning. We could pass the background check bill and people could fly back and be home for dinner. And the president needs to sign this bill. We know what to do. We know that background checks worked. We know that a ban on assault weapons worked.” — Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Aug. 4.

“I have the boldest plan. But my plan is actually based upon evidence. If you need a license to drive a car in this country, you should have a license to buy a gun and possess it. And we know that states that have done that have dropped — have dramatically dropped the levels of violence.” — Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, also a Democratic presidential candidate, NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Aug. 4.

The factsFederal law requires background checks on those who buy guns from federally licensed firearm dealers. The Democratic-controlled House has passed legislation requiring universal background checks — which would cover private sales by unlicensed individuals, including some sales at gun shows and over the internet. But President Trump signaled that he would veto the legislation if it ever passed, and the bill has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. 

Some states have enacted universal background check laws and, as we wrote in May, a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in March found that universal background checks are associated with about a 15 percent reduction in firearm homicide. The study, led by Boston University Community Health Sciences Professor Michael Siegel, looked at homicide and suicide rates in all 50 states over a 26-year period and analyzed the relationship between various firearm laws, including universal background checks.

“After reviewing the overall literature, I would estimate that the association is somewhere between a 10% and 15% reduction” in firearm homicides, Siegel told us back in May.

Siegel, who has extensively studied gun violence, noted that his research found an “association” between universal background checks and reduced homicide rates, “but did not definitively conclude causality.” Siegel said he’d like to see another study or two confirm this research using similar methods before concluding causality.

In 2018, the RAND Corporation released several reports as part of its Gun Policy in America initiative, including one on the “Effects of Background Checks on Violent Crime.” The review identified eight studies since 2003 that examined the relationship between background checks and violent crime, and that met its research criteria. The report concluded, “Evidence that background checks may reduce violent crime and total homicides is limited, and studies provide moderate evidence that dealer background checks [which exist now] reduce firearm homicides. Evidence of the effect of private-seller background checks on firearm homicides is inconclusive.”

Research on the federal assault weapons ban, which was in place from 1994 to 2004, has been misused in the past by proponents and opponents alike.

As we wrote in our 2013 story, “Did the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban Work?” a series of three studies of the ban concluded with a 2004 study led by Christopher S. Koper, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003.”

The final report concluded the ban’s success in reducing crimes committed with banned guns was “mixed.” Gun crimes involving assault weapons declined. However, that decline was “offset throughout at least the late 1990s by steady or rising use of other guns equipped with [large-capacity magazines].”

Ultimately, the research concluded that it was “premature to make definitive assessments of the ban’s impact on gun crime,” largely because the law’s grandfathering of millions of pre-ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines “ensured that the effects of the law would occur only gradually” and were “still unfolding” when the ban expired in 2004.

In a presentation on his findings at a Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America in 2013, Koper, who is currently an associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University, provided this summary:

Koper, Jan. 14, 2013: What we found in these studies was that the ban had mixed effects in reducing crimes with the banned weaponry due to various exemptions that were written into the law. And as a result, the ban did not appear to affect gun violence during the time it was in effect. But there is some evidence to suggest that it may have modestly reduced shootings had it been in effect for a longer period.

Koper reiterated that the study found “clear indications that the use of assault weapons in crime did decline” and that assault weapons were becoming rarer as the years passed. But the use of other semi-automatic guns with large-capacity magazines increased.

Koper, Jan 14, 2013: In general we found, really, very, very little evidence, almost none, that gun violence was becoming any less lethal or any less injurious during this time frame. So on balance, we concluded that the ban had not had a discernible impact on gun crime during the years it was in effect.

But Koper went on to say that an assault weapons ban “could potentially produce at least a small reduction in shootings” if allowed to remain in place for a longer time frame. Koper concluded by saying that “a new ban on large capacity magazines and assault weapons would certainly not be a panacea for gun crime, but it may help to prevent further spread of particularly dangerous weaponry and eventually bring small reductions in some of the most serious and costly gun crimes.”

After reviewing two studies on the effect of assault weapons bans on mass shootings, the RAND Corporation in March 2018 said its verdict was “inconclusive.”

Regarding Booker’s claim about license-to-purchase laws, two studies on the effect of a permit-to-purchase law enacted in Connecticut in 1995 did find an association with drops in gun violence and suicides. But, as we wrote when Booker made a similar claim during the first round of Democratic debates in June, the studies stopped short of claiming the decline was caused by that law.

Currently, 10 states have enacted permit-to-purchase laws that require gun purchasers to obtain a permit or license, and three states require a license to own firearms, according to the Giffords Law Center.

A study of the Connecticut law published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2015 concluded that “the law was associated with a 40% reduction in Connecticut’s firearm homicide rates during the first 10 years that the law was in place.” A second study, published in Preventive Medicine in 2015, found a 15.4% reduction in suicide rates associated with Connecticut’s law (and a rise in suicide rates in Missouri after it repealed its permit-to-purchase law).

Another study, one that looked at licensing laws in large, urban counties around the U.S., found that permit-to-purchase laws “were associated with a 14% reduction in firearm homicide.”

‘Charleston Loophole’

The statement: “Congress passed a bipartisan legislation to help fix the background check, something that I know a lot about. The shooter in Charleston, South Carolina, who shot my friend from the South Carolina Senate, Dylann Roof, bought the gun because the background check system was broken. We fixed that.” — Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, “Meet the Press,” Aug. 4

The facts: Dylann Roof, who was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering nine people in 2015 at a historically black church in Charleston, was able to buy the gun he used in the mass shooting because of an error in the background check system. Then-FBI Director James Comey said in a statement in 2015 that a “mistake” in the process caused a delay that allowed Roof to buy the gun after waiting the required three business days. Comey said the National Instant Criminal Background Check System examiner didn’t see a police report showing Roof had previously admitted to possessing drugs, which would’ve disqualified him from getting the gun, because the wrong arresting agency was listed.

If the NICS doesn’t deny a firearm purchase within three business days, the licensed dealer can continue with the sale, which is what happened in this case, Comey explained.

As for Mulvaney’s statement, “We fixed that,” a senior administration official pointed us to the Fix NICS Act, a bipartisan measure aimed at improving the background check system records. It was incorporated into an appropriations act in 2018 and signed into law. The Fix NICS Act required federal agencies to submit semiannual certification reports to the attorney general on their compliance with record-keeping and transmission requirements, and to come up with plans to increase coordination and automated reporting. It included financial penalties for political appointees for noncompliance. It also required the attorney general to create a domestic violence initiative to prioritize domestic violence records in the NICS and called for incentives and improved information-sharing for states. And it reauthorized a state grant program for identifying and communicating criminal justice information.

The House Democrats, meanwhile, (joined by three Republicanspassed a bill in February aimed at fixing the so-called “Charleston loophole” by requiring a 10-day waiting period, instead of three days, for background checks to be conducted before a sale can proceed. Trump threatened to veto the bill if it passed the Senate as well, but the legislation hasn’t been taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate. It’s unknown, of course, whether either measure would have changed the outcome in the Roof case.

Trump’s ‘Fine People’ Quote Revisited

The statement: “When [President Trump] says after Charlottesville that Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis are very fine people, the commander in chief is sending a very public signal to the rest of this country about what is permissible and, in fact, even what he encourages to happen.” — Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, a Democratic presidential candidate, CNN’s “State of the Union,” Aug. 4

The facts: Trump’s “very fine people” remark came on Aug. 15, 2017, three days after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. That rally turned violent, and one person, Heather Heyer, was killed and many others injured, when a man plowed his car into a group of counterprotesters. In his remarks, the president repeatedly said there were some people at the rally who were not white supremacists, but who wanted to protest the removal of a statue of the confederate general Robert E. Lee. “You had some very bad people in that group,” Trump said. “But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. … You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”

To put the president’s remarks in their full context, we need to go back to Aug. 12, the day of the Charlottesville rally, which had been organized by the founder of a white nationalist group. The president that day blamed “many sides” for the violence. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides,” Trump said.

It wasn’t until two days later that he condemned white supremacists. “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” Trump said on Aug. 14.

At a press conference on Aug. 15, Trump said that in Charlottesville “you had a group on one side that was bad. And you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.” He added, “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.” 

Here’s the relevant portion when the president said some in the group protesting the removal of the Lee statue were “very fine people”:

Reporter, Aug. 15, 2017: You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides …

Trump: Well, I do think there’s blame – yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. You look at, you look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. And, and, and, and if you reported it accurately, you would say.

Reporter: The neo-Nazis started this thing. They showed up in Charlottesville. …

Trump: Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo — and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name. …

It’s fine, you’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people – and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally – but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats – you had a lot of bad people in the other group too.

Reporter: I just didn’t understand what you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly? …

Trump: No, no. There were people in that rally, and I looked the night before. If you look, they were people protesting very quietly, the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day, it looked like they had some rough, bad people, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call ’em. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know, I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit. So I only tell you this: there are two sides to a story.

Mulvaney directly responded to O’Rourke’s remarks about Trump during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”

The statement: “So here’s the question you could ask Beto — and I would if he were sitting here. … Did anyone blame Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the gentleman — gentleman — for the crazy guy who tried to blow up the DHS office in Washington state, taking I think a homemade bomb and an AR-15 to shoot up what he called a concentration camp, the exact same rhetoric that AOC was using? Did anybody blame her?” — Mulvaney, ABC’s “This Week,” Aug. 4

The facts: Mulvaney is referring to an incident that occurred last month at the privately run Tacoma Northwest Detention Center in Washington. A 69-year-old man identified as Will Van Spronsen tossed “what appeared to be Molotov cocktails” at buildings around the detention center, set his car on fire and placed flares underneath a 500-gallon propane tank, according to the Seattle Times.

“Arriving officers were confronted by Van Spronsen, ‘who had a rifle pointed at them’ that appeared to be an AR-15 style, police said in a statement,” the Times wrote. “When told to ‘drop the weapon,’ says the statement, ‘the suspect failed to comply and the officers fired at him.'” Van Spronsen’s gun malfunctioned, and he was killed.

In a manifesto that reads like a suicide note, Van Spronsen listed “three teachers” who inspired him, including American anarchist Emma Goldman, whom he listed as “my political guide.” He made no mention of Ocasio-Cortez, but criticized “highly profitable detention/concentration camps,” such as Tacoma Northwest Detention Center — a Department of Homeland Security facility that houses people living in the U.S. illegally. A month earlier, Ocasio-Cortez used the term “concentration camps” to describe the detention facilities housing children at the southern border.

El Paso Shooter’s Manifesto

The statements: “I hate to draw attention to the manifesto, but if you actually go and look at it, what the guy says is that he’s felt this way a long time before Donald Trump got elected president.” — Mulvaney, ABC’s “This Week,” Aug. 4

“You cannot not connect the president of the United States and his rhetoric. I read that manifesto this morning a couple of times and the language in there is so similar to the kind of language that you hear at a Trump rally, you see in his tweets.” — Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, also a Democratic presidential candidate, CNN’s “State of the Union,” Aug. 4

The facts: Local law enforcement reportedly believe a so-called manifesto posted to the 8chan online message board not long before the El Paso shooting may have been written by the suspect, Patrick Crusius. The document, filled with hateful comments about Hispanic immigrants, claims to “cover the political and economic reasons behind the attack.”

It’s true the unsigned document says its anonymous author has long held such beliefs.

“My ideology has not changed for several years,” the document says. “My opinions on automation, immigration, and the rest predate Trump and his campaign for president. I putting this here because some people will blame the President or certain presidential candidates for the attack. This is not the case. I know that the media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump’s rhetoric.”

But there are similarities between the language used in the document and language used by Trump.

For example, several times the document refers to Hispanic immigrants as “invaders,” and it pointedly says, “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Trump, too, has used the word “invasion” to describe members of the so-called caravans traveling to the U.S. and immigrants who cross the border illegally.

The document also accuses Democrats of wanting “to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters.” Trump, too, has repeatedly claimed that Democrats support open borders, and at a recent campaign rally he said, “Democrat lawmakers care more about illegal aliens than they care about their own constituents. They put foreign citizens before American citizens.” He also has made the baseless claim that Democrats “want to give illegal immigrants the right to vote.”

New Zealand Shooter’s Manifesto

The statement: “This shooter in the manifesto cites in part for his inspiration the shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who cites Donald Trump as his inspiration.” — Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, CNN’s “State of the Union,” Aug. 4.

The facts: The anti-immigrant screed that the El Paso shooter allegedly posted online just prior to the shooting stated, “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto.” That is a reference to the March 15 shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The suspected gunman in that shooting, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, is charged with 50 counts of murder.

In a 74-page manifesto allegedly left by Tarrant, he describes himself as a racist whose goal was to “crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil” and “ensure the existence of our people, and a future for white children.” In the manifesto, Tarrant said that he had read the writings of Dylann Roof, who was convicted of killing nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. But Tarrant wrote that he “only really took true inspiration” from Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo in 2011.

In his manifesto, Tarrant answered the question of whether he is a supporter of Trump: “As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no.”