Fourteen bodies in San Bernardino, California. One in Savannah, Georgia. Three in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Two in Sacramento, California. One in Boston. In the past week, 21 people have been killed in mass shootings across the United States, according to statistics collected by the Mass Shootings Tracker website.
After a shooting in Oregon in October that left nine victims dead, President Barack Obama said, “This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.” But he actually understated the frequency of such attacks. As of this writing, more than 350 mass shootings have taken place in 2015 — more than one a day.
The frustration shown by Obama and others was on display again this week after the attack in San Bernardino, where two heavily armed assailants opened fire on an office holiday party at a social services center. After such incidents, there is a natural impulse to do something, but nothing ever seems to get done. Advocates of new gun control measures note that relatively easy steps to mitigate the potential harm of these assaults, such as mandatory background checks for gun sales, remain untaken.
The contrast with incidents perceived as acts of international terrorism — which, in practice, usually means attacks by Islamic extremists in contact with foreign groups — is striking. These events, too, are met with the same impulse that we must do something, but in these cases, action seems to come easy. Not only does public policy shift quickly, but the something that typically gets done — a military intervention abroad — often carries incredible costs that political elites and the public seem not to fret about much.
Take the attacks last month in Paris by assailants linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The smoke had barely cleared from the attackers’ gun barrels when several new measures were put in place by the United States. Obama tightened security measures in the visa waiver program, which allows foreigners from select countries to enter the U.S. without specific permission, and pledged to increase the presence of special forces troops fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
The latter move was supported by public opinion. A Washington Post/ABC poll after the Paris attacks found that nearly three-quarters of respondents wanted the U.S. to increase its airstrikes in Syria and Iraq and 6 in 10 supported sending more ground troops.
Americans, in other words, are prepared to bear the potentially extraordinary costs of a military intervention, including billions in spending and the increased risks of troops dying in battle, to deal with the threat from ISIL, and policymakers are more than happy to oblige.
As far as addressing mass shootings at home, however, any step toward gun control gets bogged down in political squabbles. In contrast to sending troops into harm’s way, basic restrictions on purchasing powerful weapons get mixed results in national polls. After the shooting in Oregon in October, Gallup found that a majority of Americans supported tougher rules on buying guns. A similar bump occurred after the Sandy Hook school killings in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, but the majority support for reforms dissipated within a year. A different poll taken after the Oregon shooting found that the number of respondents opposing tougher gun laws had actually gone up.
Meanwhile, the restrictions on gun sales proposed by liberals would come at a very low cost. In an interview following the San Bernardino shooting, Obama suggested at least one simple measure: preventing those on the nation’s no-fly list from purchasing guns. That’s right: There are Americans who the government thinks are too much of a security risk to board planes but who are nonetheless able to purchase the sorts of deadly weapons used to kill scores of people every month.
Another relatively low-cost intervention would be universal background checks for purchasing weapons. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a group that supports gun control measures, notes that a loophole big enough to pass an assault rifle through allows unlicensed gun dealers — gun show vendors and private sellers — to sell weapons without making sure the buyer is allowed to have one. According to the group, licensed gun sellers account for only 60 percent of the gun market, meaning, the coalition says, “2 out of every 5 guns sold in the United States change hands without a background check.”
Why are such common-sense measures so tough to get through the political gauntlet compared with the far more drastic steps taken after terrorist attacks? One explanation lies in the extraordinary role money plays in U.S. politics.
In the case of military interventions, those with entrenched financial interests — defense firms that depend on the government to buy the weapons and other support systems they provide — spend enormous sums on political giving and lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the defense industry has spent at least $20 million on political giving in each of the last four election cycles (including off-year races) and more than $120 million per year over the same seven-year period on lobbying.
But when it comes to gun control, the entrenched interests oppose new measures. The center’s studies show that advocates of gun control spent less than $500,000 on political giving and $7.6 million in lobbying over the past seven years — the vast majority of that latter figure since 2013.
In contrast, gun rights proponents such as the National Rifle Association have given about or well in excess of $3 million to political causes in each of the last four election cycles and spent more than $60 million on lobbying. Even as gun control groups boosted their spending in recent years, pro-gun groups have far exceeded them: In 2013 and 2014, they spent more than $10 million a year on lobbying.
As the Center for American Progress’ Igor Volsky pointed out in an epic Twitter rant after the San Bernardino killings, the NRA alone put $30,650,008 into political races in the 2014 midterm cycle. He told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes later that money was spent to ensure that “lawmakers think and pray and do nothing else” in response to mass shootings.
When it comes to protecting Americans from untimely violent deaths, as with so many other issues facing Washington, action is capable only of following the money.