It's time to look for ways to reduce tragic toll of guns

Photo of Perry High School is by Richc80, available via Wikimedia Commons

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and can be reached at

Like many Iowans, my thoughts have been rather chaotic since the horrible news from Perry High School last week.

The events were so sad and senseless. A 17-year-old student was dead, having shot himself. An 11-year-old sixth-grader, known for his big smile and cheerful outlook, was dead from three gunshot wounds. Seven other students and school employees, including the high school principal, were wounded by the teenager.

Americans are numb to the number and frequency of school shootings and other mass killings. Our leaders appear to be paralyzed. Yes, they express their sadness and concern, but thoughts and prayers are not enough.

Also inadequate was the message Donald Trump had for Iowans when he expressed his concern about the Perry tragedy during a campaign speech the next day. “It’s just horrible,” he said. “But we have to get over it. We have to move forward.”

Beyond the mourning seen across Iowa, there is too little appetite for discussion about what our government intends to do to reduce the frequency of these mass shootings.

It is too easy to think of victims only in terms of those who are killed or wounded in these tragedies. But I found myself thinking back to the 12-year-old son of a friend of mine, whose school was one of 30 in Iowa hit on one morning last March by a series of reports of an active shooter in local schools. Administrators and quickly put their emergency plans in operation, and police and paramedics rushed to the schools.

All of those reports turned out to be fake, and no one was killed or injured. The unknown caller’s intent was to create chaos for first-responders and school officials. But the fear and anxiety among students and staff was real.

My friend’s son was one of the bigger/stronger kids in his classroom. His “job” that morning was to help barricade the classroom doors. But he confessed to his mother afterward he was too “shook” by the frightening events to carry out his task.

“Next time I’ll do it even if I’m crying,” he told her.

Let that sink in. A 12-year-old boy feels like he let down his classmates and his teacher, and he promises to be more helpful the next time there is an active-shooter report.

The Iowa legislature begins its 2024 session this week. Iowans should watch to see whether Governor Kim Reynolds and Republicans who holds solid majorities in the House and Senate move beyond thoughts and prayers and debate increasing mental health services in our state—something nearly everyone agrees is an important step to reduce the frequency of gun violence.

Iowans also should watch to see whether the Reynolds administration and lawmakers begin any meaningful study of gun deaths in Iowa. Such a study could provide important insight to guide government’s response to this problem—if our leaders want to move beyond thoughts and prayers.

There is eye-opening information about gun deaths in a report last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Government officials in Iowa should mine this report and similar research for answers to questions about “why.”

Questions like:

Why did Alabama, a state with a population of 5 million people, lose 1,315 people to gun deaths in 2021? The rate comes out to 26.4 firearms deaths per 100,000 people.

In contrast, why did New York, a state four times larger with 20 million people, have 1,078 gun deaths in 2021? The rate comes out to 5.4 gun deaths per 100,000 people.

Why was Alabama’s rate of gun deaths the fourth highest among the 50 states, while New York’s rate was the fourth lowest?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data shows Iowa with 364 gun deaths in 2021, tying for the 11th lowest rate among the states. Iowa’s gun death rate was 11.2 per 100,000 people.

The Alabama Reflector, a nonprofit news website, reported on the CDC’s statistics last year and posed an all-important question: Why did a small state rank so high for gun violence?

The Reflector said New York, in contrast with Alabama, has an age limit for firearms purchases and has stronger background check and gun permit laws. Research specialists believe poverty and a lack of social programs are two other factors.

“Guns are just really good at killing people,” said Kerri Raissian, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut. “That is why people choose them, because they are good at killing people. When we reduce violence, we tend to reduce gun violence.”

The Reflector said a report in 2020 from the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence found high poverty areas with fewer resources, economic opportunities and social mobility are at high risk from gun violence.

“What is creating both the higher rates and the higher risk of shootings, both in the shooter and being the victim, is the conditions in which the person is living in,” Rutgers University public health professor Daniel Semenza told the Reflector.

None of this provides definitive answers to the “why” question nagging everyone after tragedies like the one in Perry. But we will never find ways to chip away at the heartbreaking toll of gun deaths if our government leaders’ response does not go beyond thoughts and prayers.

What do we have to lose by bringing together the best minds to look for middle-ground steps forward?

About the Author(s)

Randy Evans

  • It might also make some sense...

    …to pay more attention to research that has already been done.


  • My first comment on this post, when I pushed the "comment" button...

    …included the online address of The Violence Project. I don’t know why the address didn’t show up, but rather than try and fail again, I’ll just say that there is a lot of interesting information in the work of that organization.

  • Red state blues

    as PF notes there is an abundance of research into these matters and every elected official who has some role to play is out there offering their takes on the subject so we aren’t lacking discussion either what we don’t have is enough progressive Democrats in office to make a difference.