Discussing firearm violence at your holiday party

An investigator works the site of a mass shooting where 14 people were killed at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino.
An investigator works the site of a mass shooting where 14 people were killed at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. The Associated Press

Topic A at your holiday party this year is likely to be firearm violence. Just under the surface gaiety will be the awful thing that happened in San Bernardino. Maybe there will be nervous laughter and anxious glances as “it could happen here” ripples through the room.

It won’t just be the party. You might think twice before going to the parade. The movies. The mall. Will you bring your kids?

It won’t just be the holidays, either. Mass shootings, which are occurring more frequently, could reshape the character of American public life.

This is in part because they defy conventional logic; usually there’s no connection between the shooters and the victims. More importantly, the absence of such connections prevents us from imagining that we are not involved.

Public mass shootings don’t happen to “them,” whoever they might be. They happen to people like “us.” They don’t happen “there” – places we know to avoid – they happen in places we recognize as “here.” So much for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, our usual explanation for the death of an innocent. Suddenly, no place is a safe place; no time is a safe time.

The data suggest that we overestimate our risk. However they are defined, public mass shootings account for a very small fraction of firearm violence in the United States. The death rate from these events is approximately 1 per 10 million persons per year. The death rate from firearm homicide in 2013 was 355 per 10 million persons; for firearm suicide, it was 670.

Let’s make the comparisons more specific. Altogether, the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook and now San Bernardino resulted in 97 deaths, not counting the shooters. But in 2013, we lost 89 people per day, on average, to firearm homicide and suicide. In the 10 years ending in 2013, we lost more civilians to firearm violence than we lost in combat during World War II – more than we lost in combat during all other conflicts in our nation’s history, from the Revolution through Iraq and Afghanistan, combined.

Today, we are afraid. That’s understandable, even if not justified by the numbers. But as the nation again fails to respond effectively to a tragedy and the larger crisis it represents, we are also developing what clinicians call a sense of learned helplessness. That’s a very serious problem all by itself, because it incapacitates us. The solution is not to pretend that we’re unafraid; it’s to transmute our fear into action.

Ready or not, the nation is at war – just look at the body count. If we do nothing, this growing tyranny of the gun will gain the upper hand. If we want a society that is free and safe, we must fight for it.

How do we fight? This week, as in weeks following tragedies past, we’re focused on how the most recent horror might have been prevented. That’s the wrong approach, or at best only a small part of the right one. Military strategists talk of the mistake of refighting the last war, and the lesson applies here. The next mass shooting will be different. And even preventing all mass shootings – would that we could! – would only modestly lighten the burden of death, injury and grief we bear now.

Instead, we must attack firearm violence the way we attacked deaths from motor vehicle crashes, which have fallen by nearly 60 percent even as we log more miles on the road.

Our aggressive campaign must target firearm violence in all its forms, mass shootings among them. It would include evidence-based, widely supported policies such as a nationwide requirement for background checks for all firearm sales and a prohibition on purchases by people who have been convicted of violent crimes (we have that now only when the crimes are felonies or involve domestic violence).

The campaign would include new training and tools for our law enforcement officers. It would provide improved treatment for severe mental illness; the benefits will be predominantly for suicide as mental illness is a minor contributor to interpersonal violence. It would support research, because knowledge is power.

This campaign must grow from actions we all take as individuals. You can prevent firearm violence simply by keeping your eyes and ears open. “See something, say something” applies here, and not just to mass shootings. If you’re aware of someone making threats, take those threats seriously. You might be dealing with a person motivated by a radical worldview who plans to kill others, but you’re more likely to be dealing with someone who’s depressed and contemplating suicide. Beginning Jan. 1, California will allow for firearms to be removed from such high-risk situations to prevent a tragedy, even when no crime has been committed, and other states may soon follow our example. You might well save a life, or many lives.

You can fight strategically, too. You have at your command one of the most powerful weapons in the world. It’s democracy’s weapon. It’s your vote. The day after terrorists committed the San Bernardino massacre, the U.S. Senate voted to allow people on the FBI’s terrorist watchlist to buy firearms. They voted not to enact background checks for all firearm purchases. If your representatives in Congress don’t reflect your commitment to preventing firearm violence, replace them with others who will. It’s time to take our country back.

Talk about it over the eggnog.

Dr. Garen Wintemute is a professor of emergency medicine, Susan P. Baker and Stephen P. Teret chair of Violence Prevention, and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis School of Medicine.