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What unites mass shootings? It's not an ideology — it's the guns.

Trying to pin America's mass shooting crisis on individual motives ignores that the U.S. is awash with weapons of destruction.

A day after Monday’s shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, we know much more about the shooter and the dead. But one question remains: “Why?” Why this school, why these victims, why was the shooter motivated to take these lives?

The search for a motive is a logical one. There’s a deep desire to understand what pushed a person to carry out such a heinous crime, especially when three children are dead. Nashville police have said that the shooter left behind writings that would potentially showcase their reasoning. But already many on the right have seized on reporting that the shooter was transgender to put a new spin on their anti-trans hate.

We know that America is simply awash in firearms.

My inbox was relatedly filled this morning after my article on Monday with people who were outraged that I didn’t mention the shooter being a transgender former student of the school. This is less of a “gotcha” than they seem to assume. As many pro-gun voices have said before, it’s impossible to legislate against whatever “evil” lies in a mass shooter’s head. This argument is often deployed as a defense against stronger gun laws. What it does not then grapple with is that it is entirely possible to legislate on the availability of guns in our society.

That fact remains true no matter the motive of the shooter. It’s true when talking about the Santa Barbara, California, gunman who left behind a “manifesto” detailing his hatred of women in 2014. It’s true when talking about the Charleston, South Carolina, shooter who walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 and killed nine people, whose white supremacy fueled his rampage. And it’s true when talking about the 2017 Las Vegas massacre that remains the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, even though to this day we have no solid answer about what prompted the slaughter.

What we can say with certainty though is that the shooter had “two AR-style rifles” with them on Monday afternoon. Nashville police said on Tuesday that the shooter had legally “bought seven firearms from five different local gun stores here” ahead of the shooting. As I noted on Monday, there is no waiting period or license required in the state of Tennessee before purchasing guns.

We also know that the AR-15 and similar weapons do unspeakable damage to the human body. “The AR-15 fires bullets at such a high velocity — often in a barrage of 30 or even 100 in rapid succession — that it can eviscerate multiple people in seconds,” according to The Washington Post. “A single bullet lands with a shock wave intense enough to blow apart a skull and demolish vital organs. The impact is even more acute on the compact body of a small child.”

It’s therefore all but a fool’s errand to focus on individual mass shooters.

And we know that America is simply awash in firearms. This country has more guns than people, according to 2018 data from the Small Arms Survey. That ratio has likely only gotten more extreme after a spike in sales during the pandemic. Even with a drop in new gun purchases since the peak in 2020, estimated using background check data, there were at least 16.4 million guns purchased in 2022. That nothing resembling a cap on gun manufacturing or ownership exists is a testament to how deeply ingrained firearms are in both society and the economy.

Yes, mental health is a factor, despite it so often being deployed as a deflection from guns themselves. But if that explanation wasn’t just a cover for inaction, we’d see Republicans in favor of stronger “red flag” laws that give courts the power to remove guns from homes where there’s a danger of them being used against the owner or others. They’d push for stronger health care and treatment options for suicidal ideation, given that the No. 1 cause of firearm deaths is their owners turning a weapon on themselves. And if conservatives truly believe that all transgender Americans are mentally unwell, as has been suggested repeatedly to me in the last 24 hours as the real issue to focus on, then they should be working to help them, not demonize them.

The cliché from gun rights activists that a gun is merely a tool and it’s the person who wields it that’s the problem is inherently backward. Guns are weapons of destruction no matter who wields them. Their capacity to kill is not limited by identity or ideology. It’s therefore all but a fool’s errand to focus on individual mass shooters. In the end, it is only their ability to obtain these readily available instruments of death that unites them.