Mass shootings are just one part of the US’s gun problem

As we mourn last week’s killings in California, we should not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Half Moon Bay resident Susana Gutierrez visits a memorial for shooting victims at Mac Dutra Park in Half Moon Bay, California.
A Half Moon Bay resident visits a memorial for shooting victims in California on January 25, 2023 [Fred Greaves/Reuters]

Mass shootings were once again top news last week in the United States. Monterey Park, Half Moon Bay, Oakland, Beverly Crest – one after the other, communities across California experienced mass shootings, joining what survivors of these tragedies often refer to as the club that no one wants to belong to.

In their coverage of California’s recent tragedies, media organisations were quick to draw attention to the increasing prevalence of mass shootings in the country. Using data from the Gun Violence Archive, they reported that the US has already experienced nearly 50 mass shootings in the first month of the year. However, these reports, alarming as they have been, fail to capture the full extent of gun violence in the country.

Some – though not all – mass shootings garner considerable media attention, making many people believe they are the most prominent and the deadliest symptom of America’s gun violence problem. However, mass shootings, defined by the Gun Violence Archive as an incident in which at least four people are hit by gunfire, are actually rare. In fact, mass shootings are one of the rarest forms of gun violence and crime in general in the country. Homicides make up less than one percent of all crimes known to law enforcement, and mass shootings account for less than one percent of all homicides and all firearm-related fatalities.

The loss of even one life to gun violence is one too many, and every mass shooting is undoubtedly a tragedy. But if we are to truly understand and address America’s gun problem, we need to be able to look beyond mass shootings that make headlines and recognise the many more lives that are being lost to gun violence in contexts outside of these tragedies.

According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firearm-related deaths in the US are increasing at alarming rates. In 2020, the most recent year data has been compiled, there were 45,222 firearm-related deaths in the US. This was an increase of nearly 14 percent over 2019. Perhaps even more alarming was that firearm-related deaths among children and adolescents (defined as individuals aged one to 19) increased nearly 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, becoming the leading cause of death for the age group, ahead of car accidents.

In 2020, firearm homicides accounted for 79 percent of all homicides in the US. This meant 19,384 people fell victim to a firearm homicide in the country in the span of a single year. Yet most deaths by firearms were not homicides – they were suicides. In 2020, more than half the nearly 46,000 people who died by suicide in the US used a firearm. In fact, firearm suicide was more common than suicide by suffocation, poisoning or any other means combined.

Beyond the disproportionate emphasis on deadly mass shootings, the media’s coverage of gun violence in America also fails to communicate to the public who actually suffers the most from this problem. Despite what media reports underlining the prevalence of mass shootings and gun deaths may make you believe, firearm violence does not impact all Americans equally.

Like most societal ills, gun violence impacts America’s marginalised and underprivileged communities the most. While the mass shootings in middle or working class neighbourhoods that are expected to be “safe” grab the most media attention, in many of America’s lowest income communities, firearm violence is an almost daily occurrence. Compared to counties with the lowest poverty levels, high-poverty counties have firearm homicide and suicide rates that are 4.5 and 1.3 times as high, respectively.

Communities of colour, which suffer from systemic discrimination and racism as well as higher poverty rates, also experience more harm from guns – in all its forms – than the general population. In 2020, the number of Black males aged 10 to 24 who fell victim to firearm homicides was 21 times higher than that of their white counterparts. That same year, American Indian and Alaska Native people accounted for the largest proportion of firearm suicides.

When it comes to gun violence, the US is an outlier among high-income nations. Its firearm homicide rate has long been the highest among its developed peers. In 2019, it was 22 times greater than that of the European Union. It also has the second highest firearm suicide rate in the world after Greenland.

The tragic events that unfolded this month in California underlined yet again the urgency of addressing gun violence in America. As argued in countless think pieces since last week, it is indeed time that we work to understand what paves the way for so many mass shootings in the country. It is time we figure out what exactly causes so many perpetrators to pick up firearms and take the lives of others in large numbers, and it is time to take meaningful action to prevent such tragedies in the future.

As we mourn those we have lost and chart a path forward, however, we should not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Mass shootings are just one aspect of pervasive gun violence in our country. If we are to stop American lives being needlessly lost to gun violence, we should try to understand all the nuances and context of this complex issue and take action to prevent all harms from guns, not just those that grab news headlines.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.