We witnessed the worst mass shooting in United States history on Sunday morning, a bloodbath that took the lives of forty-nine victims at Pulse, Orlando’s most popular gay nightclub. A horrific crime, this tragic event has once again cast a harsh light on the problem of gun violence in America. As almost everyone will acknowledge, our gun problem in this country is a big one. But even with body counts increasing, these crimes, though terrible, have sadly become commonplace. And to some degree, we’ve all become inured to these shootings, as many of us are to the violence we consume liberally as entertainment.


But this problem is no fiction; it’s real, and it’s getting worse. The first well-publicized mass shooting in US history occurred in 1949 when Howard Unruh, a war veteran, shot thirteen people in his neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey. The phenomenon began accelerating dramatically in the Eighties, and the savage killing of twenty-two people at a San Diego area McDonald’s in 1984 ushered in a new era, and a new standard: periodic mass shootings were no longer the exception in the US, but the regrettable rule.

In the wake of the events in Orlando, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders appeared on Meet The Press on Sunday, where he once again called for an end to the sale of assault weapons. “For twenty-five years now, I’ve believed that we should not be selling automatic weapons, which are designed to kill people,” the Vermont Senator told Chuck Todd.

Sanders is right. We need to finally have a reasonable discussion on gun policy in this country, and that begins with stating what should be obvious: no private American citizen needs to own an assault weapon. Not for their own protection, and certainly not to protect them against the British Army. What’s that? Yes, in the Second Amendment, that’s what those guns were for: to arm militias in the countryside, and defend against any attempts the King might make to reclaim territory in his former colonies. Of course, this applies to absolutely zero in today’s world, but Libertarians and other Second Amendment zealots have inverted the logic to suit their needs: firearms are necessary to protect us from our own government,  which threatens to take away our freedoms. The problem is, that isn’t what the amendment says at all. So, if that reading of the Second Amendment is your argument for unhindered access to guns – well, you lose.

And let’s be frank, the notion is patently ridiculous. If the US government turns on you (whatever that entails), your Glock (or your AR15, or a closet full of them) isn’t going to stop them. Take heart: we have the most powerful armed force in the history of civilization, and as long as we remember to vote for the right people, they are likely to stay on our good side. And if they don’t, nothing in your personal war chest is going to make a difference.

There are also those who will argue that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. OK, I’ll buy that. But that good guy is supposed to be a cop – i.e., someone trained in the handling and use of weapons, and how best to deal with crisis situations. The numbers support this: there hasn’t been a single mass shooting in the past 25 years that has been stopped by an armed civilian (although a would-be hero almost shot the wrong guy when Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in 2012).

Likewise, those who argue that anyone who wants a firearm badly enough will get one are simply ignoring the evidence. Our gun crisis has to do with the proliferation  of guns; over a third of Americans are armed, and there is now more than one gun for every man, woman and child in this country. When you manufacture and sell guns like can openers, there are consequences. We fabricate 5.5 million guns every year  in the US, yet we wonder how they end up beneath sofa cushions, in unlocked drawers, and eventually in the hands of our toddlers. It’s about easy access. In every country where guns have been restricted, there has been a corresponding drop in handgun violence. Every one.

This isn’t complicated. Just one example: as part of a sweeping change to their gun laws following the Port Arthur shooting in 1996, Australia sharply restricted private ownership of firearms and bought back 650,000 guns from their citizens, destroying them. The result: handgun suicides and homicides declined sharply, by 57 percent and 42 percent respectively. I’m not saying this could be done here – the US is a far larger country, and public sentiment would need to be strong to prompt such a change – but the numbers speak for themselves.

Gun violence is epidemic in the US, and fear is the fuel behind this epidemic. Fear is used to sell a lot of things in this country: politicians use it to shoehorn themselves into office; news anchors use it to pump up their ratings and sell soap for their sponsors. The gun lobby takes advantage of all this fear-mongering to convince us that we need more and better guns, to defend us against the malevolent world beyond our front doors. But to what extent are we misled about the dangers we face in modern America?

If I were to ask you how much the rate of violent crime has increased in the US over the past 40 years, what would your guess be? Twenty, thirty percent? More? As it turns out, there has been no increase of violent crime at all  during that period. That’s right, none. In fact, since the mid-Nineties, violent crime rates in the United States have plummeted. If you’re surprised by that, you aren’t in the minority, and something called Mean World Syndrome could be responsible.

Mean World Syndrome is a term created by George Gerbner to describe the way violent content in the mass media leads viewers to believe their world is more dangerous than it actually is. As Gerbner found, there is a direct correlation between the amount of television you watch and your view of the malevolence of the world: the more TV you watch, the bleaker your world view, and the more threatened you tend to feel by the world at large. Online media can serve to counter this tendency, but it is often just as much to blame; a Reddit-inspired rumor last year claimed there had been one mass shooting for every day of the year, when in fact there were six such incidents in all of 2015.

Brandon Centerwall, a former professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, hypothesized in 1981 that the sharp uptick in America’s murder rate that began in 1955 was the direct product of the advent of television. Introduced in the Forties, TVs had been common in most households for about eight years by 1955, just about enough time for a generation of viewers to have become inured to violent behavior. Looking to test his hypothesis elsewhere, he next studied the effects of television in South Africa, where it had been banned until 1975. Sure enough: twelve years after television was reintroduced there, murder rates went through the roof.

As a society, we must acknowledge that we have created this national nightmare. We’ve drenched our popular culture in violence, and ignored the warnings of our mental health professionals when they tell us it breeds sadists and sociopaths. We’ve pumped out hundreds of millions of weapons, and sold them off like hot dogs at a carnival, most of the time without even the flimsiest effort to keep track of where they end up. And we’ve allowed what gun laws we have to be eroded by a piggishly greedy gun lobby, so that we now have military-grade weaponry in the hands of tens of thousands of mostly untrained “enthusiasts” all over the country. It is the perfect storm of bad policy decisions. It is time we take responsibility for our collective failure, and do what gun owners are always talking about: take steps to protect ourselves, and our children.

I understand people’s connection to their weapons; I also understand that the venal gun lobby has successfully conflated guns with the concept of freedom in the minds of many Americans. And I don’t necessarily advocate for strict gun control. There has to be some reasonable limit however, and I’ll say it once more: assault weapons are well on the other side of that limit. These are weapons built specifically for the rapid, efficient elimination of human beings. Murder machines, no more, no less. If we are to continue to view ourselves as a sane, rational society, we need to remove them from our streets, our homes and our lives.