What we talk about when we talk about guns

In the wake of last week’s Navy Yard shooting, we enter another round of the now familiar national conversation about gun violence in America.

Image from Demand Action To End Gun Violence
Image from Demand Action To End Gun Violence

Mother Jones has an in depth analysis of mass shootings since 1982. According to their criteria, the Navy Yard shooting is the fifth such incident in 2013.

According to another compilation of gun violence incidents by reddit users, the fifth mass shooting of this year happened back in January, and the Navy Yard shooting was #247.

Why the huge discrepancy? Whether there have been 5 mass shootings this year or 247 depends on how you define the terms.

Most of the time, “mass shootings” and “gun violence” are defined by the stories that get the most attention and that get under our skin. The stories that are hard to shake because the randomness makes it feel like any one of us could be a target. Studying domestic violence homicides, I am used to thinking about violence as anything but random. But even I was surprised to find out that 57% of mass shootings (defined as 4 or more people killed) involve domestic violence. More than half.

When I heard that number, I thought how is it I have never heard this before? Domestic violence is actually behind most mass shooting deaths in America and yet it is almost never part of the conversation. Until just recently, most analysis of mass shootings doesn’t include domestic violence. Mother Jones defines the term in a way that excludes shootings that happen at home, even if the same shooting in a public place would count.

The media coverage is different too. We read about the deeper social significance of random, public violence. What it says about our society. Domestic violence rarely prompts the same soul searching. That double standard reinforces old myths. That the “real” danger is outside your home, not inside. That men’s violence against their families is a private tragedy, not a social injustice, not a matter for collective action and public policy.

Focusing on men’s violence against women won’t make the solutions to gun violence easy or obvious. But at least it will help us see the problems more clearly.

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