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The South Carolina Shooting Is Tragically Unsurprising

In a state that doesn’t require a permit to purchase, firearm registration, or an owner’s license for both long guns and handguns, is Wednesday’s tragedy really such a surprise?

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, a 14-year-old boy shot a teacher and two six-year-old students at Townville Elementary School in Anderson County, South Carolina, before being subdued by a volunteer firefighter, Reuters reports. The shooter reportedly crashed his pick-up truck into the fence surrounding the school’s playground before opening fire. The shooting was the 37th at an American school in 2016, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, and the 186th since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, four years ago.

While Americans have become virtually numb to the inescapable cycle of mass gun violence in the United States—there have been 290 mass shootings in 2016, according to a tally of media reports by the Gun Violence Archive—the Townville shooting is particularly startling because of its parallels to Sandy Hook. This latest shooter killed his father before his attack on the elementary school, much like Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza murdered his mother. Reuters reports that the Townville shooter was home-schooled (as was Lanza, briefly), and Anderson County law enforcement “did not know the relationship between the shooter and those wounded at the school”—a grim echo of Lanza’s seemingly random targeting of innocent schoolchildren.

School shootings aren’t new to South Carolina. A teenager opened fire at Oakland Elementary School in Greenwood in 1988, killing two and wounding nine. In 1995, another student killed his math teacher and wounded a classmate in Blackville. Once again, as with any shooting (though this one was thankfully less bloody than many past tragedies), distant observers are left with a simple question: Why did this happen?

A South Carolina citizen is killed with a gun every 14 hours.

They’ve got access to guns, for one. While South Carolina is the worst offender when it comes to mass shootings, it still ranks 17th in the country in terms of household gun ownership, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics. That high ownership rate isn’t surprising: South Carolina has some of the weakest gun laws in the country. The state doesn’t require a permit to purchase, firearm registration, or an owner’s license for both long guns and handguns, according to the National Rifle Association (although open carry isn’t permitted in the state — yet). As a result, South Carolina is the fourth-deadliest state for gun homicides; according to a 2015 analysis by the Center for American Progress, a South Carolina citizen is killed with a gun every 14 hours.

This does not come as a huge shock. A 2013 post-Sandy Hook analysis of gun ownership and homicide rates from 1981 to 2010 in the American Journal of Public Healthrevealed a “robust correlation between higher levels of gun ownership and higher firearm homicide rates.” A similar assessment by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found this to be true, whether we’re talking about different cities, states, or regions across the U.S., as did a 2015 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The data is in and the answer is clear: More guns means more gun deaths, period. Mass shootings too: International research suggests that higher national rates of gun ownership is “the strongest predictor” of a country’s rate of mass shootings. The U.S. is home to 31 percent of all global gun massacres.

As to the mental-illness argument, a 2015 review of medical literature published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that less than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related deaths that took place in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010 were carried out by suspects suffering from a mental illness. Meanwhile, 85 percent of shootings are carried out “within social networks,” rather than mass attacks by lone psychopaths. While shooters tend to suffer from serious psychological issues, a psychiatric diagnosis is far from an accurate predictor of gun crime: A 2009 study of more than 34,000 participants in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder “fail to predict future violence unless mental illness is paired with substance abuse,” as TheTrace put it.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about what inspired this 14-year-old boy to open fire on a group of unsuspecting children enjoying an afternoon on the school playground. But we do know that the shooter lives in a state and country awash in guns and gun violence. For many countries, a shooting like the one that struck Anderson County is an appalling tragedy; in the U.S., it’s just another Wednesday.