Ten years ago, Joe Nocera, an Opinion columnist I worked for at The New York Times, published a column where he laid out the circumstances of shootings that had occurred during the previous seven days in America. The nation was still reeling from the Sandy Hook massacre, and he wanted to capture the shootings between the mass shootings, the ones that didn’t get national attention.
The entries were presented without commentary: “A 4-year-old boy has died after being shot in the head Wednesday.” “An 11-year-old girl is in critical condition after being shot in the face by her father.” “A man has been charged with murder for fatally shooting his brother during a domestic dispute.” On it went, for 14 paragraphs.
The next day, Joe used his Times blog, which served as a companion to his columns, to publish a post called “Go Ahead: Google ‘Shooting,’” where he provided links to Google news searches of the prior week’s shootings. The feedback was instant: keep going, readers said. On January 30, 2013, we started compiling the circumstances of each shooting in the news. He called it “The Gun Report.”
For 16 months, we presented a line or two about every shooting we could find. A typical daily entry included 40 incidents; weekend entries had twice as many and ran for 5,000 words — the length of a long feature story. Hundreds of readers flocked to the comment section each morning to voice their frustration, argue with each other, and urge us to keep going.
Back then, the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings in near-real time, didn’t yet exist. Slate had started tweeting news clips about fatal shootings under the Twitter handle @gundeaths — which Gun Violence Archive later inherited — and Mother Jones compiled data on mass shootings. But Joe and I were stunned to learn that no government entity was keeping track of shootings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tallies gun deaths, but we don’t know who the victims are, or the circumstances of their shootings. And the CDC doesn’t have reliable data on injuries. For every person killed by a gun, two survive.
The Gun Report provided a picture of who gets shot every day in America. Most shootings were the result of disputes that probably would have ended in a fistfight 20 years ago. People were reaching for guns in moments of crisis because there were so many more around.
Today there are even more guns circulating in the U.S. — 400 million. And gun death rates are approaching the high-water mark of the early 1990s. The first year of The Gun Report, there were 33,636 deaths caused by firearms. In 2021, there were 48,830. Population increases alone don’t account for the rise. If more guns solved the problem, as some gun-rights researchers have claimed, shootings would be declining, not rising.
It’s hard to imagine now, but when The Gun Report launched, simply stating that gun violence was a problem in America was seen as a political statement. Most reporters felt like they couldn’t say the obvious. It was considered advocacy to say that guns are inherently dangerous when so many Americans felt so strongly about their Second Amendment rights. So the news media focused on other things: Mental health. School security. Violent video games.
But no other country has this problem. In New Zealand, where annual gun homicides are in the single digits, people who want guns must furnish character references, and the authorities interview their partner and next of kin. Not to carry a gun — just to own one. In Japan, which has fewer than 10 gun deaths a year, police inspect your gun storage, and your doctor must attest that you’re mentally fit. In Canada, you have to prove you belong to a shooting club. In Austria, you need psychological testing.
In each of these countries, background checks go beyond criminal history and take into account past arrests that didn’t lead to convictions, and behavioral disturbances that don’t rise to the level of an involuntary mental health commitment. The Monterey Park gunman, who reportedly was quick to anger and often lashed out, and the Half Moon Bay gunman, who told police he didn’t have any problem getting a gun despite his belief that he was mentally ill, would have been denied a gun in most other countries. And since those countries didn’t wait until there were tens of millions of guns in circulation before trying to curtail access to them, as ours did, there are fewer to be found on the black market.
Most Americans believe that registering a gun with authorities, as California requires, constitutes a strong gun law. And California’s laws are strong, compared to the 25 states that don’t require a permit or training to carry a gun in public, or the 29 states that don’t require a background check. But even in California, gun issuing authorities don’t check in periodically with gun owners to see if their mental health is stable. That’s a level of scrutiny we’re not used to. But without it, signs of crisis go unnoticed, and opportunities to disarm potential gunmen slip by.
People may disagree on the solutions. But those are the facts.
The Gun Report ended in June 2014, and The Trace launched a year later. We’ve worked to demystify a topic that’s been cloaked in ambiguity for far too long. In my decade on this beat, the only thing that’s really changed is that it’s no longer controversial to state the obvious: America is an outlier when it comes to gun violence. The drumbeat of shootings continues, the vast majority still unnoticed. The political stalemate around guns has only deepened, with Democrat-run states tightening restrictions and Republican-run states loosening them. Two Americas have formed: one with lax gun laws and high rates of gun death, and the other with tighter laws and lower rates of gun death.
But guns flow from states with lax controls to states with strict ones, undermining their safety laws. Cities like Chicago feel the consequences of Indiana’s lax gun laws. The Iron Pipeline supplies the Northeast with guns easily acquired in the South.
Over the last 10 years, the National Rifle Association has weakened significantly, its political power diminishing along with its disgruntled membership base. But the NRA isn’t even necessary now — the NRA’s Second Amendment fundamentalism has permeated the GOP. A pro-gun vote is a reliable Republican vote, and no lawmaker wants to risk a primary. Americans who aren’t even pro-gun have internalized gun industry messaging that many people need guns to feel safe, and that our gun laws are strong enough.
The bloodshed of last week — and this past decade — suggests they’re not.