Editorial: Address the death toll in mass shootings

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Mass shootings, though they feel like weekly occurrences, are statistically rare. How rare depends on how a mass shooting is defined. There is no official standard. Use a loose standard – any incident in which four or more people are killed or wounded – and the rate tops one per day. Change that to one in which four or more people are killed with a firearm in the absence of a gang war, crime or military conflict, the standard used in one Minnesota study, and the rate falls to a bit more than three per year. What’s different is the number of people killed in mass shootings.

The death toll, as in the recent shootings in Las Vegas and Texas, is often in double figures. That can be attributed to the killing power of military weapons configured for civilian use and the availability of large-capacity ammo clips.

There have been many calls, all unheeded by a Congress that cares more about campaign contributions and re-election than public safety, to severely limit both assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines. We support both measures. Focusing on improved mental health assessment and treatment, as the president recently advised, is a dodge.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, less than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun killings in the first decade of this century were committed by people with a diagnosed mental illness. Treatment, while it should be improved and made easily accessible to all, will not prevent all mass murders. Limiting access to exceptionally lethal weaponry won’t either, but judging by the experience of other nations, it will reduce both their number and the death toll.

Restrictions or a ban would come at a price. Some of the weapons used in the horrific shootings in recent years were made by New Hampshire companies, notably Sturm, Ruger & Company in Newport and Sig Sauer in Newington. Between them, they employ more than 2,000 people. Good paying jobs would no doubt be lost if assault rifles are banned, but workers with the skill to manufacture firearms could learn to make other things.

No place is safe when all it takes is one aggrieved, angry and armed person decides to take as many people with him – the shooter is almost always a male – when he dies. The Las Vegas killer considered a number of crowded venues in major cities, among them Fenway Park in Boston, before settling on a country music concert in Las Vegas. But churches, normally places of peace and sanctuary, have also become targets.

New Hampshire has, using the narrow definition of a mass shooting, largely been spared such tragedy, but in 1997, a disgruntled Bow taxpayer named Carl Drega killed two state troopers, a judge and a journalist, and wounded three other people, before he was killed in a firefight with police. Drega was armed with several weapons, including an assault rifle. He was a frequent letter writer to this newspaper.

Four years earlier, John Albro, another disgruntled property owner, killed two employees of the town of Newbury and wounded a third before taking his own life. Albro used two weapons, one a modern version of a gangster-era Thompson submachine gun, the assault rifle of its day. At the time, Albro was a member of a downtown Concord gym. It can, and has, happened here. And will again, unless Congress acts.