An SUV with a bullet hole in the windshield and a flat tire sits in the parking lot following a shooting in Alexandria, Virginia on June 14, 2017.
Soon after James Hodgkinson brought a 7.62-caliber rifle and a handgun to a baseball field in suburban Virginia and opened fire, injuring Republican politicians and staffers, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich offered his explanation for this horrific incident.
“It's part of a pattern,” Gingrich said on Fox News. “An increasing intensity of hostility on the left.” Rush Limbaugh called Hodgkinson part of “the deranged based of the Democratic Party.” The National Review’s David French referred to the shooting as “a textbook example of lone-wolf progressive terrorism.”
We’d expect no less from right-wingers like Gingrich, but this view was also parroted in a New York Times article under the headline “Attack Tests Movement Sanders Founded” by reporter Yamiche Alcindor. She wrote, “The suspect in the shooting in Virginia put a new spotlight on the rage buried in some corners of the progressive left.”
These were among many comments by pundits and journalists who sought to pin Wednesday’s violence on Hodgkinson’s political views: his hatred of Donald Trump and his support for Bernie Sanders.
This is nonsense. Hodgkinson, 66, who died from injuries sustained during a shootout with police, was a psychopath who had a history of domestic violence and run-ins with law enforcement. He may have justified his rage with a layer of political rhetoric, but that has nothing to do with Sanders, Sanders’s supporters, or the broader American left. The attempt to “normalize” Hodgkinson as a typical Sanders supporter—or even as a strident Sanders supporter—is totally off-base.
From what we’ve learned already, it is clear that Hodgkinson had come unhinged. His previous run-ins with law enforcement over the years were totally unrelated to politics. According to another story in the Times, in 2006, Hodgkinson was charged with domestic battery, aggravated discharge of a firearm, and criminal damage to a motor vehicle after confronting his daughter at a neighbor’s house. The charges were later dismissed.
Hodgkinson’s neighbors and coworkers reported that he appeared to be a “normal” person, but of course that is often the case with psychopaths, whose rage is hidden until they open fire.
The claim that Hodgkinson’s actions have anything to do with Sanders or the left is ridiculous. Yes, many Sanders supporters were angry about his defeat in the Democratic Party primaries. Some of them even believed that Hillary Clinton and the DNC stole the election. Some of them went to meetings and rallies to express their frustrations. They were sometimes loud and rude. A few of them occasionally shouted down, and even pushed and shoved, Clinton supporters. They posted angry comments on Facebook. But all this is a far cry from using guns to try to kill people. It is, to use a baseball metaphor, in a totally different ballpark.
Sanders has consistently aimed his outrage at corporate plutocrats and encouraged his supporters to engage in nonviolent protest. In contrast, throughout his campaign and his presidency, Trump has demeaned and demonized women, Muslims, immigrants, Jews, Latinos, and liberals. At his rallies, he routinely incited and encouraged violence by throwing rhetorical red meat to his hardcore followers, including white supremacists and nativists.
When it comes to inciting violence, the person on whom the media and politicians should be focusing is not Bernie Sanders but Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. While Sanders immediately condemned the Virginia shooting, we haven’t heard a peep from LaPierre or his organization. You’d think that LaPierre would at least express his concern for Representative Steve Scalise, the House majority whip whom Hodgkinson shot and who is now in critical condition in the hospital. Scalise has a 100 percent rating from the NRA.
Nor has LaPierre or the NRA weighed in on another mass shooting that occurred on Wednesday. This one was in San Francisco, where Jimmy Lam, a 38-year-old UPS driver opened fire with a handgun inside a UPS delivery center, killing three coworkers and injuring seven others before fatally shooting himself as police closed in. According to news reports, Lam had a history of mental illness and arrests for drunk driving.
Not surprisingly, these two incidents have triggered another round of debate about violence in America. This always happens after a mass shooting. The media immediately began framing the incident in predictable ways. First they investigate the shooter’s psychological and social background—and in Hodgkinson’s case, his political leanings.
Incidents like the Virginia and San Francisco shootings inevitably lead to a debate over gun control. Here again the media, politicians, and advocacy groups play their scripted roles. The media quote Republicans and conservatives repeating their claims that tougher gun-control laws wouldn’t have prevented the Virginia shooting, because the shooter could have obtained the gun illegally. And, they add, gun control undermines our liberties.
To provide “balance,” the media quote Democrats and gun-control advocates, repeating their claims that this specific shooting, and the epidemic of mass shootings, would be dramatically reduced if we restricted the sale of guns and ammunition, including sales across state lines, because shooters often obtain guns in states with lax laws and bring them to states with tough laws.
But like the debate over climate change, the even-handed reporting on gun violence—and the media’s focus on shooters’ psychological conditions and motives—is misleading. There are plenty of deranged people in the world, but in most well-off countries they can’t easily get their hands on a firearm. It is no accident that the United States ranks first in the world—by a wide margin—in gun-related civilian deaths and injuries. Compared with every other democracy, we have the most guns per capita and the weakest gun laws. Likewise, the focus on mass shootings downplays the reality of daily gun violence.
People killed in mass shootings make up less than one-half of 1 percent of the people shot to death in the United States. Since 1966, there have been 130 events in which four or more people were killed by a lone shooter (or, in three of those incidents, two shooters), according to an analysis of data from the Gun Violence Archive by The Washington Post. An average of seven people died during each event, often including the shooters. The Post concluded, “Mass killings in the United States are most often carried out with guns, usually handguns, most of them obtained legally.”
The incident in Virginia on Wednesday does not qualify as a “mass killing” because no one died. Instead, according to another Washington Post analysis, it is called a “mass shooting.” This refers to incidents where four or more people are shot, even if no one is killed.
The number of “mass shooting” incidents has increased from 274 in 2014, to 334 in 2015, to 384 in 2016, according to the Gun Violence Archive data. Wednesday’s incidents in Virginia and San Francisco were the 154th and 155th mass shootings this year. In those incidents, 189 people have been killed and 599 have been injured.
But those mass shooting incidents are only the tip of the iceberg of gun violence in America. So far this year there have been 27,767 incidents of gun violence, resulting in 6,900 deaths and 13,558 injuries. (These figures don’t include suicides in which guns are used.)
In 2014, there were 33,594 deaths from firearm violence in the United States, including 11,008 homicides and 21,386 suicides, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many gun deaths are the result of accidents, not intentional killings. And many victims of gun violence are killed by someone they know—often spouses, partners, children, and friends, often in a moment of passion or anger.
Like climate-change deniers, Wayne LaPierre doesn’t care about facts. He’s the NRA’s hit man when it comes to intimidating elected officials into opposing sensible gun-control laws that would make it harder for troubled people like Hodgkinson and Lam to obtain guns. The NRA opposes a federal law requiring background checks on would-be gun buyers and a national registry of guns. It defends the rights of Americans to carry concealed weapons in schools, universities, churches, bars, and elsewhere. LaPierre likes to fulminate about gun owners’ rights. But he’s typically silent about America’s daily epidemic of gun violence.
Hodgkinson apparently had a permit for the rifle he used on Wednesday. In contrast to NRA claims, most gun-related deaths are committed by people who purchase their weapons legally. Others purchase or steal them illegally, but their ability to get access to guns is due to our lax laws on gun ownership. The NRA’s job is to make it easier for people to buy and use guns. And so far it has been very successful. Since the assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn’t enacted any major gun regulations.
Since then, Republicans have gone in the opposite direction. Upon taking office, the Trump administration has taken steps to make it easier for both fugitives and the mentally ill to buy guns. Congressional Republicans have introduced a bill to allow people without permits or training to carry firearms across state lines (which they call “concealed carry reciprocity”). After Wednesday’s shooting, House Republicans canceled a scheduled hearing on a bill to make it easier to purchase gun silencers. The measure was pushed by the NRA and sponsored by Representative Jeff Duncan, who was at the baseball game but wasn’t injured. Last year Duncan had a 93 percent rating from the NRA.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, the gun lobby, led by the NRA, has contributed more than $41 million to candidates for Congress and the White House, 89 percent of it to Republicans. It has also invested, since 1998, more than $130 million in lobbying federal government officials.
In 2015, the NRA’s revenue totaled $336 million, according to its 990 report to the Internal Revenue Service. Although the NRA likes to portray itself as representing grassroots gun owners, much of its money comes from gun manufacturers. LaPierre, who makes over $5 million a year, is essentially a corporate lobbyist.
Gun companies like Beretta, Smith & Wesson, and Sturm, Ruger & Company are big contributors to the NRA and its affiliates. The NRA’s board members include top executives of the major gun and ammunition manufacturers, internet arms sellers, and other merchants of death.
LaPierre, who has worked for the NRA since 1978 and served as its top official since 1991, has not only dramatically expanded its ties to the gun manufacturers, but has also linked the NRA to the far right. LaPierre is a regular presence at gatherings of extreme right-wing groups, whose paranoid warnings about the threat of tyranny—and government officials’ secret plans to confiscate all guns—are meant to scare Americans into buying more guns and joining the NRA.
For example, in a speech at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, LaPierre said that President Barack Obama was part of a “conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep.” Obama’s plan, he said, was to “erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution.” During last year’s presidential race, LaPierre told delegates to the NRA’s annual convention in Louisville that “You can kiss your guns goodbye” if Hillary Clinton became president. The group endorsed Trump, who told the same crowd, “If I win, the Second Amendment will be totally protected, that I can tell you.”
In reality, the positions of the NRA—which represents less than 5 percent of all gun owners—are at odds with those of most Americans and even most gun owners. An August 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that there is broad public support for background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows (81 percent), for laws to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns (76 percent), for barring gun purchases by those on government screening lists(71 percent), and for creating a federal database to track gun sales (68 percent). About half support bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
Gun owners are even stronger supporters than the general public of some restrictions, including background checks, laws to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns, barring sales of guns to people on no-fly lists. Over half of gun owners support creating a federal database to track gun sales. Almost half of guns owners support both bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
Despite this, the NRA is able to mobilize a small but very rabid and vocal group of gun owners—as well as owners of gun shops—to attend rallies, write letters to newspapers, comment on blog sites, and contact elected officials.
Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the nonprofit Violence Policy Center, who has written extensively about the NRA, says that the organization’s most vocal members are a small proportion of its members for whom “guns are their life.” They represent perhaps a few hundred thousand members. Yes, they can make lots of noise, but they don’t represent the general public or even most gun owners who don’t fall for LaPierre’s extremism.
Every American grieves for the families and friends of the people killed and injured by gun violence, whether in mass shootings or the much larger number of people victimized by one-on-one incidents.
But don’t expect to see a serious public discussion of gun control so long as Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress are running things in Washington. Until we tame the power of the NRA, we can expect more incidents like the two that occurred on Wednesday. Such events are part of the deadly daily diet of murders throughout America committed by angry and unstable gun-toting people whose “freedom” to own weapons of mass destruction Wayne LaPierre and his political allies defend.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Hodgkinson used an AR-15 assault rifle. The gun was a 7.62-millimeter caliber SKS rifle, and Hodgkinson also brought a 9-millimeter handgun. The article has been corrected.
About the Author
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).