Executing shooters will not stop gun violence. The solution requires us to overcome apathy.

Messages written in sidewalk chalk are seen as people gather for a Sept. 1, 2019, vigil following an Aug. 31mass shooting in Odessa, Texas. (CNS photo/Callaghan O'Hare, Reuters) 

Immediately after the El Paso mass shooting on Aug. 3, President Trump spoke about adopting universal background checks for gun purchases. He later backed away from considering them after a phone call with the president of the National Rifle Association. The fact that universal background checks are widely popular with the American people, including those who favor gun ownership overall, seems to make no difference. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found overwhelming support for both background checks and allowing authorities to take guns away from individuals who have been found by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others.

While the Trump administration has spoken positively about red flag laws and rejected background checks, it is also reported to be proposing legislation to make it easier to swiftly execute mass shooters. Despite the lack of evidence that the death penalty effectively deters any kind of murder, despite arguments from gun-rights advocates that criminals will blithely ignore any proposed gun restrictions, somehow the threat of capital punishment is imagined to deter mass murderers—who often kill themselves or are killed by police in the course of committing their crimes. This proposal is nothing more than the desire for vengeance masquerading as policy.


The ongoing violence itself is shocking and depressing, but another grim facet of the American plague of mass shootings is the way we have become inured to it. 

Meanwhile, these shootings go on. At a Friday night football game in Mobile, Ala. on Aug. 30, nine teenagers were shot by another teenager, 17 years old, who is now being charged with attempted murder. The very next day near Odessa, Tex., a gunman murdered seven people and injured 22 before he was killed by police officers. Three days later, a 14-year-old boy in Elkmont, Ala., was arrested on murder charges after confessing to killing five members of his family, including his 6-month-old brother. All three mass shootings came less than a month after El Paso and the shooting that killed nine in Dayton, Ohio.

The ongoing violence itself is shocking and depressing, but another grim facet of the American plague of mass shootings is the way we have become inured to it. None of these more recent shootings captured the attention of the country as intensely as the El Paso and Dayton tragedies did in the first week of August. But the even more striking gap between the beginning of August and its end is that we seem to have reached the point of resignation more quickly. After Las Vegas in 2017 (58 dead, 422 wounded), after Parkland in 2018 (17 dead, 17 wounded) and after El Paso in 2019, the United States at least went through the motions of a debate on gun policy. But another set of shootings not even a month later, with the El Paso round of the gun policy debate not yet resolved, barely even registers.

The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that charts gun violence in the United States, says there have been 275 mass shootings (which they define as any incident where four or more people, excluding the shooter, are shot or killed) in the country so far this year. In 2017, almost 40,000 people died because of firearms. That is more than 13 times the number who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Even incremental steps toward curbing the availability of the assault weapons that are so often used in mass shootings face resistance from gun manufacturers and industry lobbyists. When Walmart announced on Sept. 3 that it would no longer stock certain kinds of ammunition, the N.R.A. denounced the chain: “It is shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of the anti-gun elites,” the N.R.A. said in a statement. “Rather than place the blame on the criminal, Walmart has chosen to victimize law-abiding Americans.”

Our collective inability to respond to the epidemic of gun violence in our country or even to its one of its most tragic manifestations in mass shootings is a kind of spiritual paralysis.

Even as mass shootings continue to attract a high level of public attention and sympathy, the vast majority of gun-related deaths in this country, including suicides, take place within homes and families, and most often by means of handguns. None of the proposals to curb gun violence that are realistic politically—with the possible exception of so-called “red flag” laws—begin to address this deadly reality. And even those laws have faced opposition. In Colorado, a number of sheriffs pledged to refuse to enforce a state-level red flag law because they considered it unconstitutional.

Our collective inability to respond to the epidemic of gun violence in our country or even to its one of its most tragic manifestations in mass shootings is a kind of spiritual paralysis. Both the sense of apathy following terrible news and the idea of countering violence with more “efficient” violence in response are marks of desolation, a withdrawal from God marked by a lack of hope. At the same time, the resistance to even the most practical and simple reforms highlights a disordered attachment to guns and, even more basically, to violence as a means to power and security.

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

There are many questions about what policies will most effectively reduce mass shootings or gun violence overall and even more about what sort of reforms are politically and constitutionally possible. Yet it is clear that the United States has been trapped for too long in the lie that our government can do nothing to limit gun violence.

This lie and the apathy that it induces are part of the logic of sin and evidence of the evil spirit at work. Trapped in this pattern of sin, we as a nation can barely muster attention for shootings whose victims do not number more than 10.

Better laws alone will not solve the nation’s gun violence problem, but in addition to the good they do as policy, they can also help us break through this moment of paralysis. We are not powerless in the face of suffering, nor are we limited to answering violence with violence.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
2 months ago

Who believes executions will solve anything? This form of deterrence is too far removed from the act. But a high percentage of the shootings take place where guns are prohibited. Why? They must be afraid of something.

There are a lot of people who support the right of responsible people to own guns who don’t own guns themselves

Christopher Lochner
2 months ago

"Better laws alone will not solve the nation’s gun violence problem, but in addition to the good they do as policy(??!!!), they can also help us break through this moment of paralysis." ....This is an example of a meaningless FeelGood reaction to the problem. It certainly sounds like yet another decision by committee, as in, "Sure, our new policy will have little effect but it shows we're doing something and this makes us appear to be active. Hey, politics are great are they not? We came, we saw, we set policy, we did nothing." For the traditionalists, "Vēnī, vēdī, victus sum, dormito." (With many apologies to the late Fr. John Sheridan, S.J.)
Again, NYC has very strict laws in place involving use of a firearm especially during the commission of a felony. Gun violence appears to be at a low. Could the issue be that in showing forgiveness for everyone we thus allow and create protection for no one? Recall the article on this site by a former Lt. Gov. of PA who, in allowing parole for an individual who then did kill again, claim that he was justified in his action of parole and would do it again as the call to forgiveness.
We want laws but we do not want to actually punish anyone. Is this what is meant by living in "the ivory tower"?

Charles Morgan
2 months ago

I do not believe in capital punishment and view that issue as a moral matter. Imposing the death penalty in a timely manner, reasonably close to the commission of, say, a mass shooting, is an empirical question as to whether it would deter such acts. That is an entirely different matter from the moral question. At this time in the United States hardly anyone is executed for anything, and when it does happen, it is often many decades removed from the crime. Essentially, then, there is no meaningful relationship between the crime and the punishment for the offender. You might want to analyze the situation more closely in your editorials.

Robert John Zagar
2 months ago

The editors are not experts on violence. The solution to mass or active shooters is the same that Pope Francis admitted 23 March after reading my latest research paper published 15 February 2019 in dealing with pedophilia. It is machine learning internet tests. There are 210 studies spanning a century of research on over 320,000 persons demonstrating a 7 point violence profile, much like an EKG or EEG or blood or urine test, on psychological tests, namely the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Second or Adolescent Edition and the Standard Predictor of Violence Potential consisting of deception, depression, psychopathic deviance, paranoia, schizophrenic thinking, addiction and violence potential. The profile is the same for homicide, overdosing, sex offending and suicide. Only a machine learning internet test can discover such a high risk person because there are 40,300 ways to deceive or lie and times 1000 neurological or psychiatric illnesses, that is 40,300,000 deceptive self presentations. No professional can possibly memorize that many equations to find a high risk person who will do harm to others or themselves. So when we begin using machine learning internet tests in emergency rooms and clinics and human resources and courts on a regular basis the mass or active shooting incidents will decrease and only then.

Kathie Hanneke
2 months ago

I read this a couple times and I think what you're proposing is to use AI to test people to see if they will become mass shooters. Future crime is the subject of the movie Minority Report, putting people in jail before they commit a crime. See how well that worked in the movie. Scary thought.

Randy Watts
2 months ago

I believe there are two deficiencies in this article:

1) No distinction is made between the "mass shootings" described in the article and criminal shootings, prevalent in many of our major cities, that kill or injure many of our citizens. Many of our large city governments have negligent law enforcement, and have failed to make their cities safe from criminal gun use. As a result, innocent citizens suffer.

2) And, random mass shootings throughout our country are a result of inaction by our Congress which has the clear responsibility for legal action to protect our citizens from random acts of aggression, including gun violence. The Congress avoids this responsibility like the plague because of significant gun-related campaign contributions. And the public avoids the responsibility of electing Senators and Representatives who will defend the public from the misuse of firearms.

We have met the enemy and they are us!

Michael Bindner
2 months ago

The personal protection view of the 2nd Amendment is contingent upon guns preventing more deaths than the cause. That can be all guns or just assault weapons. The National Guard has taken over militia duties and the protection against federal power provisions were overcome by burning Richmond and Atlanta. Their repeal was codified by the section 3 of the 14th Amendment disenfranchizing rebels and section 5 allowing Conress to prevent rebellion.

On execution, it must be reserved for those who pose continuing danger to society, including society inside prison. Prolonged solitary confinement is simply slow execution with mental torture. Incarceration should end with successful long term treatment and a decent interval for victims' families to heal.

Red Flag laws should have red card provisions allowing the self-committed to put themselves on a no gun list and putting on anyone who accepted voluntary commitment who would otherwise be civilly committed. Give them a hearing, but make it stick.

Sadly, such solutions are too sane to implement in a society that loves guns and retribution. Sadly, Colorado legislators get a pass for not passing sensible protections while Governor Sebelius is sanctioned for vetoing an abortion ban that was clearly unconstitutional.

Michael S
2 months ago

Thou shalt not kill means thou shalt not kill.
Outside of "love thy neighbor as thyself", forgiveness is Jesus' most compelling teaching.

Michael S
2 months ago

Thou shalt not kill means thou shalt not kill.
Outside of "love thy neighbor as thyself", forgiveness is Jesus' most compelling teaching.

Michael S
2 months ago

Thou shalt not kill means thou shalt not kill.
Outside of "love thy neighbor as thyself", forgiveness is Jesus' most compelling teaching.

More: Guns

The latest from america

The decision by the High Court of Australia comes nearly a year after a unanimous jury found Pope Francis’ former finance minister guilty of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1990s.
Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, responds to a question during a news conference at the fall general assembly of the USCCB in Baltimore Nov. 12, 2019. Also pictured are: Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., and Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford, Conn. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
U.S. bishops: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself.... At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”
Michael J. O’LoughlinNovember 12, 2019
Refugees and migrants at a camp on the Greek island of Samos, on Oct. 18.  (AP Photo/Michael Svarnias)
More people have been forced to flee their homes than at any time in recorded history, writes Kevin White of Jesuit Refugee Service. But there is good news about global initiatives to address the problem.
Kevin White, S.J.November 12, 2019
On Nov. 12, the U.S. bishops elected Archbishop Gomez to be the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the first ballot.
J.D. Long-GarcíaNovember 12, 2019