The horrific events in Orlando in the early hours of June 12 remind us once again of the cowardly failure of our political leaders over many years to take action against America's No. 1 public health crisis.
They have failed to study, much less adopt, obvious measures that would offer some protection to innocent civilians from this one form of senseless violence—the lone gunman walking into a crowded public space and murdering dozens of people within a few minutes with a weapon of war, the semi-automatic rifle.
It happened in Orlando to gay Hispanics and their friends. It happened in San Bernardino to public employees and their families. It happened in Sandy Hook to elementary school children and their principal. It happened in Aurora to moviegoers and passersby.
The level of carnage in every one of those incidents—as well as others—was determined by the battlefield power of the weapons wielded by the murderers.
Are these terrorist incidents? Of course, but only because they were carried out by deranged perpetrators who, having given up on their own lives, decided to simultaneously end the lives of as many others as possible while sowing fear among the general population.
Despite irresponsible talk about Islamic terrorism, these incidents have not been directly connected to overseas terrorists. Nor were all of them even political acts.
The endless maelstrom caused by collapsing regimes in the Middle East has spawned a dead-end movement of Islamic fanatics whose medieval ideology has no place in the 21st century. The irony of the modern era is that the miracle of social media enables them to spread their hateful messages to similarly lost souls in every corner of every continent with the click of a mouse.
But there's no evidence that anyone in ISIS ordered Omar Mateen, a homophobic wife beater, to attack the Pulse nightclub. Nor did the social media viruses spawned by ISIS set off the noises in Adam Lanza's head before he went to Sandy Hook Elementary.
It's important that we spend more government funds on behavioral health, emergency preparedness and anti-terror surveillance, of course. But as the FBI's multiple investigations of Mateen revealed, no surveillance program can ever catch someone acting on their own when their life trajectory has taken him or her to a place where they have lost contact with what it means to be human.
What we can do—what we must do—is make it more difficult for someone in the midst of their descent into madness to make innocent civilians pay with their lives. That's why at a minimum, Congress—and anyone running for Congress—should declare that we have a public health emergency that requires an immediate ban on the manufacture, sale and resale of semi-automatic weapons to civilians.
There was a partial ban on selling assault weapons between 1994 and 2004. But Congress allowed it to lapse. As our Data Points suggests, the law appears to have succeeded in most years in holding down the number of mass shooting incidents, defined as three or more killed in an incident (1999, the year of the Columbine shootings, was the outlier).
We can't say definitively that the ban had a direct impact in the same way we know that seat belts sharply reduced the number of car accident deaths, however. Why? Congress, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, enacted a law that has effectively kept the federal government from funding research into the causes and potential cures of gun violence.
Every major medical group in the U.S. has come out against the research ban. Some have had the courage to call for an assault weapons ban.
We mandated vaccines to prevent the spread of deadly diseases. We passed rules for car manufacturers that saved tens of thousands of lives.
It's time to immediately reinstate the ban on assault weapons and fully fund research into the causes, effects and, most importantly, prevention of gun violence in our society.