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Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff;

November 13, 2018

By James Alan Fox

Susan Orfanos, whose 27-year-old son Telemachus perished in last Wednesday's mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., after having survived last year's Las Vegas massacre, had just four words when asked her reaction to the latest act of carnage: "I want gun control."
An increasing vocal majority of Americans (if not a majority of our elected officials in Washington) apparently agree with the grieving mother. A recent Pew survey found strong public sentiment for tighter gun restrictions, including two-thirds being in favor of banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and nearly 90 percent supporting background checks for gun shows and private transactions.

It has become routine that any large-scale mass shootings will spark furious debate concerning the role of guns and regulations governing their sale. The higher the body count, the louder the calls for action.

Unfortunately, we only seem to see traction at the margins. For example, on the anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting spree, President Trump announced, "We're knocking out bump stocks," referring to the seldomly used accessory that facilitated just this one mass killing.

Ironically, mass killings generate the most support for gun control but are the least impacted by such measures. Keeping guns away from dangerous individuals is easier said than done. Most mass killers are not on terrorism watch lists and do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric commitment; they are able to purchase their guns and ammo legally. Even if denied, they can always beg, borrow, or steal the weapons needed to perpetrate a bloodbath.

Mass killers do not just snap and grab the closest gun they can find. Rather, these are typically well-planned and deliberate executions. Full of rage or hate, most will find a way no matter what roadblocks are placed in their path to destruction. California, for example, has some of the strictest gun laws, yet many massacres, including the latest, have occurred there.

It is of little consolation to those impacted by the latest string of deadly attacks, but there has not been an increase in the number of mass killings over the past few decades, notwithstanding a few cases with particularly large body counts. They remain only about 1 percent of all homicides annually. What has increased, however, is the level of fear in part resulting from the extensive media coverage that these tragedies receive.

Just because mass killings are not a raging epidemic and are especially difficult to prevent doesn't mean we should allow lawmakers to stall until the demand for action quiets down. After all, the urgency for gun control is ever-present in the nearly three dozen firearm homicides that occur daily in America, a third of which are within families or among friends.

In the wake of dreadful shootings, we often hear comparisons with Australia. In 1996, following a massacre with 35 fatalities, the Australian government passed sweeping gun law reforms, despite certain pockets of opposition. The legislation prohibited private firearms sales, mandated that guns be registered, and required purchasers to present a compelling reason for needing a weapon. The country then went decades without a similar episode.
It is naive to expect the same kind of legislative response in the United States, given the sacrosanct Second Amendment and the more than 300 million guns already in circulation. Still, we must accomplish much more than just eliminating bump stocks.

Let the Thousand Oaks mass killing add impetus for tightening US gun laws. That's the right thing to do, whatever the impact on mass shootings. Enacting sensible gun legislation would be a fitting legacy for the victims of the senseless attacks at schools, entertainment venues, and houses of worship. We owe this to Susan Orfanos and others who have lost loved ones on our domestic battlefields.

James Alan Fox is a professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University and coauthor of "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder."