Early Sunday morning, right around last call, a gunman walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and opened fire with an assault rifle and handgun, killing 49 people and injuring 53. The suspect, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, allegedly was upset about seeing two men kissing in Miami, and his father said that might be related to the attack. Mateen also claimed loyalty to the Islamic State during the attack, according to various news outlets.
The violence marked the deadliest mass shooting in American history, and has reignited the debate about gun control.
In the first six months of 2016, 58 people have died in mass shootings across the United States, with the majority of those casualties occurring during Sunday’s massacre. The deadliest year on record for mass shootings was 2012, when 72 people died in total. Data on mass shootings is collected by Mother Jones and visualized by Graphiq below.
Although these are sobering totals, they’re only part of a larger, more disconcerting picture. A Vox article on firearm deaths found that more Americans have died by gunshot since 1968 than have died in all of America’s wars combined.
Since the United States was founded, approximately 1.17 million people in total have died in combat. Since 1968, just shy of 1.5 million people in the United States have died from gunshots, according to data from the story. Vox points out that most of these deaths are a result of suicide, followed by homicide and accidents. In 2013, for example, there were 11,208 firearm homicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As in the wake of other mass shooting incidents in the U.S., politicians, pundits and activists used the violence in Orlando as a springboard to talk about gun control. In October 2015, after a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, President Obama connected stricter gun laws with fewer gun deaths. At the time, he said: “We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don't work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens, and criminals will still get their guns, is not borne out by the evidence.”
Soon after the Oregon shooting last year, InsideGov examined state-by-state data on gun deaths and gun laws. When connecting the two sets of data into one visualization, a pattern did develop that supported Obama’s assertion.
The overall trend may hold true, but important cases do run counter to it.
California, for example, has the highest gun law score and a relatively low number of gun-related deaths. However, many mass shootings in the United States since 1984 have occurred in California, according to a list maintained by the L.A. Times.
Although California is the most populated state in the U.S., the 11 mass shootings that have taken place there since 1984 make it a far-and-away outlier. California’s population is almost double that of Florida’s, for example. But Sunday’s violence in Orlando marks only the second mass shooting that has occurred in the state in the last 26 years. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Florida is among the states with less strict gun laws.
Data shows that gun legislation remains a highly divisive topic in American politics. A Pew Research Center poll from 2012 found that reports of shootings don’t impact people’s views on the subject. The poll looked at three mass shootings — at Virginia Tech in 2007; in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011; and in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012 — and found that public opinion shifted by only a few points from before and after the events.
Fewer than 24 hours after the Orlando shooting, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., renewed calls for firearm legislation, saying Congress has “the power to act, and we must.” He also said if his colleagues on Capitol Hill don’t take the opportunity to do anything, Congress would be “complicit in the next killing.”
A 2015 survey by Pew indicates many Democrats agree with Durbin’s calls for increased gun control. As the visualization shows, 70 percent of Democrats support a ban on assault-style weapons. Among Republicans, 48 percent support such a proposal. Democrats also overwhelmingly support a federal database to track gun sales, by a margin of 30 percent.
Republicans and Democrats find closer agreement on background checks and laws that would prevent mentally ill people from buying guns. Although Americans have found common ground here, similar proposals did not pass Congress in April 2013, the last time a package of gun laws went before Congress. During that legislative fight, Obama and gun control supporters advocated for more background checks and a ban on some semi-automatic weapons.
News outlets are reporting that Mateen, the suspect in the shooting, legally purchased two guns the week before the violence. That detail led Obama to talk about the availability of such weapons.
“The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle,” Obama said during his remarks from the White House on Sunday afternoon. “This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
Despite the calls for stricter gun laws, public opinion surveys and previous legislative battles indicate this is an incredibly complex and nuanced topic for the United States, and show why it has been so difficult to find consensus on the issue.