I recently spent a weekend in Canada. In the breakfast area at the hotel, the television was tuned to a Canadian news network that briefly highlighted story after story after story. The network focused on Canadian news, but regularly mentioned events in the United States. What events? It was quite clear that one kind of event dominated the Canadian network’s attention concerning the United States: mass shootings.
Certainly, many Americans are aware that people in other countries are perplexed and shocked at the number and kinds of firearms in civilian hands in the United States. But are we aware of the extent to which Americans’ easy access to and misuse of firearms may define us in the eyes of people elsewhere in the world? To what extent does the image of gun violence pop into the minds of people overseas when they think about our country? We do not know the answer to that question, but obviously, Monday’s horrific high school shooting in St. Louis will not enhance our reputation as a sensible, safe country—not when a teenager with malevolent intentions can acquire a military-style rifle and 600 rounds of ammunition (Nan, Reiss, and Salahieh, 2022).
Last week, I was interviewed by a television news crew from TV2, a national news network in Norway. They were traveling around the United States interviewing various “experts” about the role of policy issues in our upcoming November elections. The interviews are intended to inform viewers in Western Europe about American politics. They asked me questions about gun violence and American politics.
Two questions, in particular, were quite striking. I was asked, “Why isn’t the issue of gun violence more prominent in analyses of issues of concern to American voters and policy proposals discussed by political candidates?” Sadly, I replied that I fear that the American people have become numb and fatalistic when confronted with news about mass shootings or statistics about gun violence. In many respects, horrific incidents are, in some sense, “routine,” and Americans have become accustomed to expressions of “thoughts and prayers” by many political leaders who are unwilling to initiate policy actions. As a result, we all know that such incidents will inevitably happen again and again, seemingly now a “normal” component of American life. A tragic reality.
I was also asked, “What kind of event would need to occur to push voters to demand action from policy makers and lead policy makers to act?” The Uvalde, Texas, school shooting helped to push legislation through Congress, but it was legislation with very limited impact that permitted certain members of Congress to claim that they had “done something” about gun violence. Thus, my response to the question was, in essence, “We have had so many terrible incidents without seeing substantive policy action that I am unsure that any incident will move recalcitrant policy makers to take significant action.” I feel disheartened to have reached this conclusion.
In light of my pessimistic response to that question, a follow up question asked, “What will it take to initiate policy attention to the issue of gun violence?” My response to this question was much clearer: increased voter turnout in elections. American voting rates are lower than those of democracies in Western Europe. If we set aside the two European countries with compulsory voting (i.e., people can be fined for failing to vote), Belgium and Luxembourg, voting rates for Americans have been fifteen to twenty percentage points lower than those of citizens in such countries as Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden (DeSilver, 2020). I also expressed hope that voting rates will rise, especially as young people increasingly demonstrate their concerns about climate change. Even if their votes are focused on that issue, they could very well elect leaders who show greater willingness to act on the problem of gun violence than many of the politicians of today.
Obviously, this set of questions is a powerful reminder of the importance of Americans casting their votes right now. The moment is upon us when voters can create their own good news about policy issues. The November election presents the opportunity to choose legislators who will advance the will of the people on important issues affecting health, safety, and the other critical policy problems facing government. Your vote is your voice. Please make your plan to vote and strongly encourage everyone you know to vote, too. If there are problems that you see as persistent and unaddressed by current policy makers, then this is the opportunity to take action to advance the changes that you want to see.
If we increase voter turnout and elect new decision makers who are willing to tackle difficult problems, can we begin to change how the rest of the world views us? Can we change the nature of the stories about the United States that are highlighted by overseas news programs? I don’t know. But this could be a first step toward changing many things, including the risks and harms of gun violence.
Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President
Drew DeSilver, “In Past Elections, U.S. Trailed Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout,” Pew Research Center, November 3, 2020 (pewresearch.org).
Holly Yan, Rebekah Reiss, and Nouran Salahieh, “St. Louis School Shooter Had an AR-15-Style Rifle, 600 Rounds of Ammo, and a Note Saying, ‘I Don’t Have Any Friends. I Don’t Have Any Family,’ Police Say,” CNN, October 25, 2022 (cnn.com).