May 25, 2022 - 11:45am

Every murder is a unique tragedy — and yet there’s something horribly familiar about the headlines this morning. “Texas shooting: 19 children among dead in primary school attack” is the BBC’s top story today; but it probably won’t be long before we’re reading about a similar event — with only the precise location and casualty count changing.

We can also expect the follow-up stories to run their usual course: Firstly, the big picture statistics on gun violence and mass shootings in the US. Then the impassioned calls for gun reform from the Democrats — plus some defensive mumbling from the Republicans. Finally, after the initial shock has worn-off, we’ll get the fatalistic op-eds arguing that America’s gun culture will never change. 

But is that really true? Last month — in the wake of another mass shooting (this one on a New York subway train) — the BBC published a feature entitled “America’s gun culture — in seven charts”. Some of these make the point that the US really is an outlier among western nations. For instance, while gun-related killings account for 79% of American homicides, the equivalent proportions are 37% in Canada, 13% in Australia and just 4% in the UK. Combine that with a comparison of overall homicide rates and it really does seem that America is gun-crazy.

And yet another chart, based on Gallup polling, shows a decade-long increase in US voter support for gun control. While around half were in favour of stricter laws in 2008, that had risen to two-thirds in 2018.  Spurred by atrocities like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 and the Charleston church shooting in 2015, it really did seem as if a head of steam was building up for change.

Credit: BBC

However, over the last couple of years, support for stricter laws has fallen-off again. Indeed support for a ban on all handguns, except those carried by the police and other authorised persons, has hit a record low. 

What explains this very recent change in public opinion? One factor looms large — the surge in violent crime that took place in 2020 and which has yet to subside. According to official figures analysed by the Manhattan Institute, “America’s homicide rate increased by an astonishing 30%, even as many less serious types of crime held steady or even declined.”

Credit: Manhattan Institute

The authors point out that the divergence from 2019 began before the George Floyd protests and riots, but widened afterwards. 

It’s difficult to prove a direct causal link between the sudden increase in criminal violence and the sudden decline in support for gun control; but it doesn’t seem likely that the progressive call to “defund the police” was the best way of persuading citizens to disarm themselves.

Of course, no one is more to blame for America’s insanely lax gun laws than the gun lobby and their Republican allies. Nevertheless, in showing such disregard for law and order, their progressive opponents have damaged the cause of reform.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.