U.S. Mass Shootings and the Burden of Proof
Many lament the path that the United States has been on. In a country, where mass shootings are more common than anywhere else, complacency with the status quo, particularly in Washington, has led to a decoupling of reality from politics. What began with the shooting in Camden, NJ has only been reinforced by deadly shootings such as those in San Ysidro, Killeen, Columbine, Blacksburg, Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, and Parkland. Yet, the ever-increasing danger of mass shootings have been met with mostly stagnant efforts to ensure that the public does not have access to weapons like the ones responsible for each of the aforementioned U.S. shootings. In stark contrast to the United States, many countries around the world have instead actively pursued a course that can tackle what is increasingly understood as a gun epidemic.
Halfway across the world, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised for how she handled the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque terror attack. Where U.S. politicians stumbled, the Prime Minister has taken stride. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, she announced legislation banning nearly all military-style semi-automatic and assault rifles would be introduced to Parliament in the first week of April 2019. On April 1, the New Zealand legislature followed through, and the bill became law yesterday. Prime Minister Ardern acted as if the solution were obvious: ban the weapons themselves. She based this sweeping policy change from a single mass shooting showing that the burden of proof is crystal clear. The U.S., on the other hand, may be generations away from meaningful change on gun policy despite a significantly higher frequency of deadly mass shootings.
This could not be a better case study of how people apply the burden of proof. As made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his podcast of the same name, the burden of proof refers to the question, “At what point do you act?” In other words, what amount of evidence is needed before people believe that meaningful action must be undertaken to address a problem. In the podcast, Gladwell refers to the CTE epidemic with American football players and black lung disease with coal miners as examples of skepticism and inaction on the part of the National Football League and the coal industry, respectively. Conversely, he tells the story of how NYU responded to two suicides (albeit after criticism for the way they handled the first suicide) in its Bobst library in 2003 by building a see-through barrier, and then responded to one more suicide a few years later by building the perforated aluminum screens in place today. Once the issue became endemic, the university promptly acted. The burden of proof is not specific to these examples; it is quite prevalent in daily life. Is one fatal Boeing 737 MAX crash enough evidence to determine that the model needed to be grounded? Maybe. After all, flukes happen. Now, how about two? For most countries, yes. For the U.S.? Not until after days of mounting pressure did broad consensus supersede corporate aviation interests. In many cases, the burden of proof remains contingent on political and diplomatic considerations – a disappointing reality.
Prime Minister Ardern’s response parallels NYU’s actions in the wake of the Bobst library suicides: one mass shooting was all she needed for to call for stricter gun policy and actually push for reform. On the other hand, U.S. gun policy fits the archetype of the football and coal mining examples. Despite significant evidence mounting and pointing towards action, nothing has been done. How come? The largest obstacle to persuasion: ideology.
The Second Amendment in the Constitution, meant to ensure that Americans have the resources to fight back if a tyrant were to seize the nation, is ingrained in the ideological framework of many Americans. The right to bear arms is viewed as both reassurance of self-defense and an affirmation of what many perceive as a crucial freedom of a liberal democracy. It also transcends generations and is seen as the singular issue that will dictate American’s lifestyles, voting preferences, and political affiliations. Any attempt to ban a gun will lead to a slippery slope, according to many gun rights activists. As such, any gun restriction policy manifests in their minds as an attack on their way of life. The U.S.-based National Rifle Association (NRA) thrives off of this single issue, reliably resisting calls for gun restriction legislation after each mass shooting. Meanwhile, the New Zealand NRA merely serves as the county’s governing body for its long-range target shooting sport and has even mulled a name change.
Even without Prime Minister Ardern’s proposed bans, legally buying firearms in New Zealand requires multiple steps, including interviews with family members, a home security inspection, a gun safety course, and a lengthy waiting period. However, the Prime Minister did not take this process for granted and recognized that the system had flaws. Thus, she took action on the weapons used to perpetuate the mass shooting based on the evidence: white supremacists used semi-automatic weapons to slaughter 49 innocent people. According to the Prime Minister the burden of proof had been met after the first mass shooting in New Zealand in 20 years. The U.S. as a whole has not deemed action necessary, despite the increase in gun-related violence, and has allowed the issue to polarize the public. Simply put, the importance of guns to U.S. history has made Gladwell’s at-what-point-do-you-act question a nearly impossible standard to reach. What future consequences could be in store? Just look at the football players and the coal miners.