We really haven't have a mass shooting like the one in Newton. The thought of someone opening fire at small children is beyond horrifying. We don't have a word for it. Having said that, mass shootings have become a depressingly frequent topic
Now that a few days has passed, what does this incident - and other
episodes of random gun violence - tell us about the need for stricter
There are a few guiding principles for such a
conversation. The first is that, however awful, mass shootings probably
have little to tell us about what our gun policy should be. They get a
great deal of attention but are a small fraction of gun homicides.
Placing too much attention on them is likely to create misguided policy.
Second, such a conversation should be tempered by constitutional,
political and practical realities. We are not about to ban the private
ownership of guns in the United States. It would be unconstitutional and
politically impossible. More fundamentally, it would be close to physically
impossible. There are, by most accounts, well over 200 million guns in
private hands in the United States. Even if we prevented another one
from being made or sold, they'd be around for a very long time.
We might prevent sane, law abiding citizens from owning them but they are not the ones that we are worried about. Anyone who would shoot up a school or a shopping center is unlikely to be deterred because it is illegal to oen the gun with which he does it.
Third, the irony seems to be that gun controls laws offer relatively
little prevention with respect to situations like this. In most cases,
no set of reasonable regulations would have prevented the shooter from
purchasing a firearm. The profile for a mass shooter has become almost a
cliche. In most cases, he will turn out to be a "quiet guy" who was
"strange" but who "no one would have expected" to do what he did.
Perhaps people who were close to him knew that something was seriously
awry but it's hard to imagine a legal screen that would take into
account such amorphous "danger signs." Calls to stop selling guns to
people with "mental illness," gloss over the difficulty in determining
who those people are.
Fourth, we talk about regulation on the type of weapons that can be sold and the process by which they are purchased. While it is true that
"guns don't kill people,people kill people," it is certainly easier to
kill a lot of people with a rifle than a baseball bat. But the list of restrictions that might make a material difference in the mass shooting context is short.
It might be reasonable to limit magazine
size, but people who know guns better than I do say that this is not
likely to make much difference. One could, I suppose, ban semi-automatic
weapons - often misleadingly called "assault" weapons. That might slow a shooter down but how much difference it
would make is unclear. Whatever "benefit" there is in such a restriction must be balanced against the cost in reducing the effectiveness of weapons for personal defense. There probably ought to be background checks for private gun sales, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that would be a momentous reform.
In the end, the desire to make this go away by passing a law is
understandable, but misplaced. This type of tragedy cannot be prevented
by fiat. It is, in fact, unclear that it can even be made less likely.
The problem is not in our laws, but in ourselves.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.