Conflict & Justice

How other countries can help us understand America's mass shooting crisis

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James Bell from Nashville, Tennessee, looks over rifle scopes during the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meetings and exhibits show in Louisville, Kentucky in 2016. America has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.

Credit:

John Sommers II / Reuters

When Devin Kelley entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5 and shot and killed 26 people, it became the 308th mass shooting of 2017 in the United States. It came four weeks after the Las Vegas shooting, when Stephen Paddock killed 59 people from a 32nd-floor hotel room above an open-air country music concert.

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Since the Sutherland Springs shooting, there have been more than 10 mass shooting events, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a website that tracks incidents where four or more people are shot. The bleak totals for 2017 in mass shootings in America: 415 killed and more than 1,700 wounded.

Both events have reignited America’s gun debate. Earlier this week, Senate Democrats reintroduced an updated assault weapons ban, but no Republicans have supported the measure.

The World devoted its Friday, Nov. 17, show to discussing gun culture in America and around the globe.

America leads the world in gun ownership

A sign for Recon Tactical is displayed at the Guntoberfest gun show

A sign for Recon Tactical is displayed at the Guntoberfest gun show in Oaks, Pennsylvania, US, Oct. 6, 2017.

Credit:

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The US doesn’t require gun owners to register guns the way many other countries do, so researchers have to estimate ownership. A 2013 study estimates there are between 262 million and 310 million guns of various kinds in the United States — which calculates to roughly 101 guns per 100 people. 

It’s the high rate of gun ownership, says University of Alabama criminology professor Adam Lankford, that is directly correlated with America’s mass shooting problem.

“It’s not that we have higher homicide rates,” Lankford says. “It’s not about wealth. It’s not about urbanization. It’s not about suicide rates. The difference between us and other countries that explains why we have more of these attacks was firearm ownership rate. We have almost double the firearm ownership rate of any other country.”

Related: When trying to determine why the US has so many mass shootings, only one statistic matters

Lankford studied 171 different countries and tallied up mass shootings across the globe from 1966 to 2012. Of the 272 events he found, 31 percent occurred in the US. (The US has only 5 percent of the world’s population.)

“Purely in terms of numbers, we have more than 200 million more guns than the next highest country, which is India,” Lankford says. “And India has a much greater population than ours, so purely in terms of the number of guns, which is really the product of American gun culture, really, there’s no comparison between us and anywhere else.”

In El Salvador, guns fuel world’s highest homicide rate

Salvadoran army reserve soldiers wait to board trucks after an official ceremony prior to their deployment to deal with gang violence in San Salvador,

Salvadoran army reserve soldiers wait to board trucks after an official ceremony prior to their deployment to deal with gang violence in San Salvador, El Salvador June 14, 2016. 

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Jose Cabezas/Reuters

Susan Cruz was 6 years old the first time her mother taught her how to shoot a gun. 

“Feeling both that shock and that amazement and that adrenaline, that power of something — that didn’t look like much of something to me at the age of 6,” Cruz remembers. “I still remember the feeling of the gun going off and then going to the cinderblock wall and seeing where the bullets lodged.”

Cruz grew up in El Salvador but fled at age 8 when civil war broke out. That first lesson was only an introduction to a life surrounded by guns. After moving to Los Angeles, Cruz joined a gang as a teenager and lost friends to gun violence.

She moved back to her home country in 1993, but gang violence followed as the US began deporting gang members back to El Salvador. El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world in 2015, according to the most recent United Nations data, with 108.6 killings per 100,000 inhabitants. Honduras was second, with 64 per 100,000.

“On any given day in El Salvador, there’s an average of at least 12 homicides per day,” Cruz says. “That’s a dozen people being murdered.”

Cruz now lives in the Washington, DC, area with her family and is the founder of Sin Fronteras, a organization dedicated to helping troubled youth on both sides of US-Mexico border. After a lifetime surrounded by guns, she says she feels more anxious with them around, but not everyone agrees. 

“I have friends and family who will argue with me that they need this gun to stay safe,” Cruz says. “The ethos of ‘good guy with a gun will prevent a mass shooting, good guy with a gun will make sure the family’s protected’ — it is a very prevalent mentality and I think it has a lot to do with the infusion of a military culture.” 

Cruz says gang members think in similar ways as well: They want to be armed to protect themselves against others, a “kill or be killed” worldview. 

“When you have an entire country that thinks that way, it’s no wonder countries like El Salvador have the highest per capita homicide rates in the world,” she says.

In Yemen, a thriving gun culture, but half the US ownership rates

Followers of the Shi'ite Houthi movement shout slogans as they attend a rally

Followers of the Shi'ite Houthi movement shout slogans as they attend a rally commemorating the death of Imam Zaid bin Ali in Sanaa, Yemen Oct. 26, 2016. 

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Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Yemen ranks No. 2 in the world in gun ownership, with an estimated 55 guns per 100 people, according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, the best count of global gun ownership in countries where people are not required to register firearms.

Yemen’s gun culture is visible in the streets, in the open-air markets, or souks, says reporter Tik Root, who lived in Yemen before civil war broke out in 2015.

He remembers visiting a gun market in Jihana, near the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.

“When you get there, the street looks like a normal market in a lot of ways,” Root says. “There’s shops down both sides. But the majority of the shops are selling firearms — everything from pistols to automatic weapons to [rocket-propelled grenades] RPGs. I saw tank shells and I’m told if you ask the right person you could get a tank itself.”

At those markets, people can go and buy as many weapons as they want. Guns are both status and safety in Yemen, Root says.

“It’s definitely a tool of culture, it’s a tool of status,” Root says.

But the mass shootings in Yemen — Lankford counted 11 in his study — are different from those in the US.

“The shootings that happen seem to have more relation to either tribal conflict or an ongoing dispute with something,” Root says. “The shootings that I heard about or saw in Yemen usually had maybe more of an explanation than they do in the US. You didn’t hear the mental health argument as much as usually a clear reason why somebody had used their gun.”

In Norway, a struggle to understand shooters’ motivations

wreath laying ceremony on Utoya Island July 22, 2014
 
Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg (front L-R), leader of the Labor Party Jonas Gahr Stoere, National Support Group's leader Trond Henry Blattmann and leader of Labor Youth of Norway (AUF) Eskil Pedersen take part in a wreath laying ceremony on Utoya Island July 22, 2014. The ceremony marks the 3rd anniversary of a shooting rampage where Anders Behring Breivik killed 69 people on the island. 
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Heiko Junge/Reuters

Bjørn Ihler was 20 when Anders Behring Breivik detonated a car bomb in Oslo and then, dressed as a police officer and, showing false identification, took a ferry to the island of Utøya and opened fire on Norway’s Labor Party youth summer camp.

“He started shooting at our group and the kids and I jumped in the water,” Ihler remembers. “I kind of swam straight outwards and sank, so I dodged his bullets somehow.”

Breivik shot 68 people that day, over the course of more than 90 minutes, before police arrived.

“I stood up again in the water, I looked back to the marshland,” says Ihler. “I saw Brevik take aim at me.”

An officer arrived later and had to convince Ihler and the others with him that he was a real police officer.

“Feeling safety after that has been difficult,” Ihler says. “After the shooting I felt a need to understand Breivik. He wanted to kill me and my friends. As I saw it, we didn’t pose any threat to him or his identity.”

Breivik, who ultimately killed 77 people that day, was convicted and sentenced to 21 years in prison, Norway’s maximum penalty. On the day of the attack, he published a manifesto that lays out a far-right, anti-Islam, anti-feminist worldview.

Since then, Ihler has sought to understand political extremism and he claims to have met with more reformed extremists than anyone else in the world.

“It was really difficult to deal with the fact that someone coming out of my community wanted to kill me for essentially being me,” Ihler says. “That’s kind of why I started ... going around traveling to meet with former extremists and learn their path into extremism."

In the US, ‘a normal thing now'

People hold candles during a memorial service for Charleston Hartfield

People hold candles during a memorial service for Charleston Hartfield, an off-duty Las Vegas police officer who was killed during the Route 91 music festival mass shooting, in Las Vegas, Nevada, US, Oct. 5, 2017.

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Chris Wattie/Reuters

The deadly attack at Southerland Springs’ First Baptist Church was the 14th fatal shooting at a house of worship since 2012, according to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which tracks gun violence. 

“It’s only gotten worse as the power of the NRA and the gun industry has grown and is holding Congress hostage,” says director Rabbi Jonah Pesner.

Along with representatives from 50 religious organizations, Pesner signed a letter calling on US lawmakers to take tougher action on gun control.

“Enough is enough with empty thoughts and prayers that are not followed by action,” Pesner says. “As a Jew, I believe that every prayer is a call to action.”

Related: After a mass shooting, thoughts and prayers. But then what?

And Pesner is reassured by polling that shows broad support from American voters for what he calls common sense gun regulations.  

“Evangelicals tend to see it differently,” says Joe Carter, editor at The Gospel Coalition, a network of evangelical churches founded in 2005.

“One reason is regional,” Carter says. “A lot of evangelicals are from the South. A lot of them served in the military. A lot of them are more familiar with guns than the average American, and they own more guns than the average American.”

Related: The origins of the Second Amendment

“I mean, if you’re going to shoot up a church, you’re not going to worry about a gun control law,” says Carter, who is also a vet and a gun owner himself.

Gun ownership is not the solution in all cases, Carter says. But a good guy with a gun can prevent somebody who is armed and prepared to do innocents harm, he says.

Carter says many of the mass shootings at US churches or elsewhere are the result of domestic violence, which is something religious leaders need to take more seriously.

“That’s the problem with the gun control issue,” Carter says. “That’s always the go-to thing. And it drowns out other conversations we should be having.”

The recent shooting at the Texas church brought back horrific memories for people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, where a white supremacist fatally shot six people in 2012.

“It's coming to be a normal thing now,” says temple spokeswoman Nirmal Kaur-Singh. “It can happen anywhere.”

Asked if she thinks that more guns in more people’s hands might be good for safety and security at places of worship, Kaur-Singh says, “I don’t know.”

“But I don’t like guns.”

The sound of mass shootings in America

The Gun Archive was created in 2013 to track gun violence in the United States. 

PRI’s data team used the archive and a library created by Reveal to sonify one year in mass shootings in the US. Each note represents a day when a mass shooting occurred. A mass shooting is defined as an incident in which four or more people are shot and/or killed. (This standard is not as strict as that used by criminologist Adam Lankford to tally global mass shootings. Lankford also excluded domestic violence incidents and only included shootings where bystanders were killed.)

The volume of each note corresponds with how many people were killed. Shootings in which no one died are represented with a low note. 

The loudest note is the Las Vegas shooting, where 59 people died. The last note is from Nov. 16, when a shooting in Columbus, Georgia, injured seven. (PRI chose to represent injuries with a faint note.) 

Here, you can listen to just the sound of shootings from January through Nov. 17 of this year.  

Matthew Bell, Karolina Chorvath, Sophie Chou, Joyce Hackel, Alex Leff, Alex Newman and Stephen Snyder contributed to this report.