Their innocence underlies our horror. In any mass shooting, we speak of the innocent bystanders, but for children to be gunned down prior to the end of their first semester in school leaves us speechless. While the victims remained anonymous, President Obama demanded “meaningful action.” But what do we, as a nation, do to slow the loss of innocent lives?
Almost immediately as the words “gun control” began to be uttered, opponents defended the status quo with their beliefs: that no law could have prevented this because the gun used by the shooter was legally purchased and registered; that if teachers had been armed lives would have been saved; that guns don't kill people, people kill people.
I'm hearing an eerie echo of the partisan disavowal of data showing the immediate perils of climate change, of Darwin’s theory of evolution and, in the days leading up to the election, the data of the polling aggregators, who predicted an Obama victory.
Indeed, the Pew Research Center found that previous mass shootings have not altered people’s core values regarding gun control, so despite slaughtering 20 children, we can expect the Newtown, Connecticut, mass shooting, to also have no such effect. This is a prediction based on the data, which as a scientist, I know to be the best basis available to both understand and address any issue.
And yet, we should hear the data as loud as we heard the gunshots (data which Ezra Klein conveniently compiled in his Washington Post blog on Friday). Mother Jones reported that 61 mass shootings have occurred in the US in the past 30 years, mostly with legally obtained guns. We witnessed 5 of the 11 most violent mass shootings since 2007, when most of the kindergarteners killed in Newtown were born. According to economist Richard Florida, writing in the Atlantic, states with the tightest gun control laws correlate to the states with the lowest gun related deaths.
As with climate change, we possess data that that documents a growing problem as well as a clear suggestion of actions that could ameliorate the problem. In the case of climate change, a recent report from the National Center for Atmospheric Research showed that the most ominous climate change algorithms best predicted what has occurred in the past decade. These algorithms forecast a global eight-degree temperature rise by 2100, a prediction that is incompatible with life as we know it.
The data also argue for tough gun control: when guns are not as easily available there are fewer gun deaths.
The science dictates that we need to take action, yet somehow it is acceptable in America to discount science as political maneuvering. How it is acceptable to speak of whether we “believe” data is incomprehensible to me. Data is for interpretation. Even Obama, whose election was predicated on data, is so far unwilling to answer the demands of data on climate change. And now we wait to see what he means when he says he is ready to act to prevent future mass killings.
Gun defenders will say the second amendment protects every Americans right to bear arms, but that clearly should not include semi-automatic weapons developed for soldiers who fight lawfully for our freedoms. Tightening access to guns would actually test whether the correlation of limited gun access and lowered deaths is causative. Our current experiment of lax gun laws has failed. As a scientist, I deal daily with failed experiments, and the solution is to change the approach.
Science is not partisan. It is a methodology of observation, generating models with clear predictions and testing whether the predictions are born out. If stopping mass shootings were easy, we would have done it. The data tell us there is a problem, so we must look to it to find the best solution. We need to end our failed experiment of the status quo and do the experiment that may work. This is how we can use science to help explain and improve our world.
Climate change threatens our common existence; mass shootings threaten our communities and now, our young children. As a scientist, the data indicate to me where we need to focus our efforts; as a mother of 5 year old twins in kindergarten, my conviction is that the time is now.