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Gun debate lacking in sorely needed facts

– When we first collected much of this data, it was after the Aurora, Colo., shootings in July, and the air was thick with calls to avoid “politicizing” the tragedy. That is code, essentially, for “don’t talk about reforming our gun control laws.”

Let’s be clear: That is a form of politicization. It’s just politicization favoring those who prefer the status quo. Since then, there have been more horrible, high-profile shootings. In Connecticut, 28 are dead – including 20 children – after a man opened fire on Friday at an elementary school.

Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. But that’s unacceptable. Talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of shootings isn’t “too soon.” It’s much too late.

What follows is simply a set of facts – many of which complicate a search for easy answers – that should inform the discussion we desperately need to have.

1. Shooting sprees are not rare in the U.S.

Mother Jones has tracked and mapped every shooting spree in the last three decades. “Since 1982, there have been at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii,” it found. And in most cases, killers obtained their weapons legally.

2. Eleven of the 20 worst mass shootings in the last 50 years took place in the U.S. In second place is Finland, with two entries.

3. Lots of guns don’t necessarily mean lots of shootings.

As David Lamp of the Cato Institute writes, “In Israel and Switzerland, for example, a license to possess guns is available on demand to every law-abiding adult, and guns are easily obtainable. … Both countries also allow widespread carrying of concealed firearms, and yet, admits Dr. Arthur Kellerman, one of the foremost medical advocates of gun control, Switzerland and Israel ‘have rates of homicide that are low despite rates of home firearm ownership … at least as high as those in the United States.’ ”

4. Of the 11 deadliest shootings in the U.S., five have happened since 2007.

That doesn’t include Friday’s shooting. A death toll of 27 would make it the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

5. America is unusually violent. But we’re not as violent as we used to be.

Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, in July made a graph of “deaths due to assault” in the United States and other developed countries. The United States is a clear outlier, with rates well higher than other countries.

6. The South is the most violent region.

Healy drilled further into the numbers and looked at deaths due to assault in different regions. The South is a clear outlier in the national context.

7. Gun ownership is declining overall.

“For all the attention given to America’s culture of guns, ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows,” Patrick Egan of New York University wrote in July. The decline is most evident on the General Social Survey; it also shows in Gallup polls.

8. More guns tend to mean more homicide.

The Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that there’s substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders. This holds true whether you’re looking at different countries or different states.

9. States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.

Last year, economist Richard Florida dove deep into the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. Some of what he found was, perhaps, unexpected: Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence. But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. Correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive.

10. Gun control, in general, has not been politically popular.

Since 1990, Gallup has been asking Americans whether they think gun control laws should be stricter. The answer, increasingly, is that they don’t.

11. But particular policies to control guns often are.

An August CNN/ORC poll asked respondents whether they favor or oppose a number of specific policies to restrict gun ownership. And when you drill down to that level, many policies, including banning the manufacture and possession of semi-automatic rifles, are popular.

12. Shootings don’t tend to substantially affect views on gun control.

That, at least, is what the Pew Research Center found in a poll taken after the Colorado movie theater shooting that killed 12.

Ezra Klein is a Washington Post columnist.

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