U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) speaking at a press conference of the Senate Democratic caucus leadership. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

The massacres in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, were carried out by 18-year-olds who cleared background checks and legally purchased AR-15 semiautomatic rifles. Yet the framework for national gun safety legislation, announced Sunday by a bipartisan group of senators, does not ban the sale of semiautomatic rifles to those under 21, let alone ban a class of weapons or ammunition.

Instead, the centerpiece of the plan calls for “major investments to increase access to mental health and suicide prevention programs,” combined with state incentives to adopt “crisis intervention” programs (also known as “red flag” laws) that would confiscate weapons from, and ban purchases by, those determined to be a danger to themselves or others. Additional provisions in the agreement would crack down on illegal gun trafficking and close what’s known as the “boyfriend loophole”—so all domestic abusers and not just abusive spouses would be prohibited from purchasing firearms.

To secure at least 10 Senate Republican votes and overcome a filibuster, negotiators are not considering ambitious ideas that could dramatically reduce the number of gun deaths, such as banning semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines and imposing strict permitting and registration requirements on gun owners. But while the emerging package might be lacking in size, it does not lack in scope.

Negotiators did not limit themselves to proposals directly relevant to Uvalde and Buffalo, which is a good thing.

Public mass shootings get our attention because—like any other terrorist attack—they inflict public mass trauma. But they only represent a tiny fraction of firearm deaths in America.

Annual gun deaths between 2016 and 2020 averaged 40,620, according to statistics tabulated by the gun safety advocates at Everytown for Gun Safety. Of those, 23,891, or 59 percent, were suicides. Based on numbers from Mother Jones, the average annual number of deaths from public mass shootings in the same period was 70. If we include mass shootings beyond those committed in public spaces, as the Gun Violence Center does, the average annual death toll from mass shootings is 418. That does not match the annual number of women killed by guns in intimate partner domestic violence incidents; in 2016, FiveThirtyEight’s Hayley Munguia estimated that number to be 765. (Some domestic violence murders are committed during mass shootings.)

As I’ve argued previously, gun control advocates have had immense difficulty pressuring Congress to act on guns in part because public attention inevitably fades between major public mass shootings. There is no wall-to-wall media coverage of the daily toll from suicides and nonsensational homicides. In turn, we barely talk about policy solutions that would address the vast majority of gun deaths.

For example, the white whale for many Democrats is an assault weapons ban. But the FBI reports that between 2015 and 2019, in homicides for which the type of gun was known, handguns were the weapon of choice 90 percent of the time. Handguns are more likely to be used than rifles for suicides; furthermore, suicides using a firearm result in death 82.5 percent of the time, compared to 61.4 percent for suicides by hanging, jumping (34.5%), and ingesting poison or drugs (1.5%).

Illegally trafficked guns play a significant role in homicides and other violent crimes. According to a 2019 Department of Justice study, 43 percent of imprisoned violent offenders who had a gun during their crime obtained the weapon “off-the-street or [from] the underground market.”

The bipartisan gun agreement, which has yet to be turned into legislative language, doesn’t go far to stop easy access to guns, handguns or otherwise. How effectively it will prevent non-spousal domestic abusers from buying guns, or whether it can slow the flow of trafficked guns, can’t be assessed until we see the text of a bill. But we know already that red flag laws are not a panacea. New York has a red flag law, but when the Buffalo shooter joked in school about perpetrating a “murder-suicide,” he was able to convince mental health professionals that he was joking and avoid being flagged. Passage of this compromise will not end America’s gun problem by itself, and, to be fair, none of its backers are claiming as much.

Nevertheless, the agreement’s focus on mental health provides an opportunity to educate the public about the complete nature of America’s gun problem—that the problem extends well beyond gruesome mass shootings and visually menacing weaponry that horrify us—at least until the news cameras chase the next story.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.