(The following is Part 1 of a two-part essay by Scott Mitchell, a regular contributor to this website.)
This short piece (obscure pun intended) will disappoint friends, relatives and acquaintances on all sides of the currently raging gun control debate. I first wrote “both sides” in that last sentence, but then recognized the absurdity of oversimplifying the problem as an issue with only two sides. And just the fact that I’m forced to refer to this debate so generically, and in such nonspecific terms as “the gun control debate” is a large part of the reason why the debate is raging.
In the wake of the latest mass murder of students at a Florida high school by a mentally ill, rifle-toting, expelled ex-student there, we don’t even accurately perceive what we’re disagreeing about in the debate over how to respond. If someone advocates tighter controls on the possession or ownership of assault rifles, for example, they’re instantly accused of being anti-Second Amendment, of wanting to take away our guns, and of engaging in demagoguery to even employ the term “assault rifles.” If someone else advocates encouraging school teachers, even just some of them who might be willing, to possess guns at school, so they can use a gun instead of their own body to protect students from mass murderers, their suggestion triggers (pun again intended) faux shock and outrage, accompanied by all sorts of apocalyptic predictions about the daily carnage that will inevitably ensue.
Another troubling problem in the debate is the tendency among even the most thoughtful among us to gloss over the fact that doing something about mass shootings on school campuses, or in other crowded areas, is extremely difficult and time-consuming because of the enormous complexity of the problem. Mass killings by mentally ill teenagers who unexpectedly walk onto unfenced school campuses while heavily armed with their parents’ fully automatic rifles, or sometimes their own legally possessed semi-automatic rifles, and a backpack full of ammunition, don’t lend themselves to easy solutions. Nor do shootings like the October 1, 2017 one in Las Vegas, where the gunman checked himself into a high-rise hotel, broke out the window to his room, and started mowing down outdoor concert-goers below him next to his hotel. Do we attack the mental illness end of it? How? By spending billions and billions on mental hospitals and locking everybody up who seems a little weird or dangerous to someone else? Do we build walls around all schools, with all egress or ingress controlled with metal-detectors at the heavily monitored gates? Is there any reason we shouldn’t do the same for shopping centers or stadiums or arenas or churches? Do we regulate the number of bullets a person can carry with them, or the speed with which a trigger can be pulled, or the degree of automation allowable for civilian guns? How do you come up with a solution in a few legislative days, or even months, which will successfully prevent things like this from happening? Will you ever reach a point where you can safely assure that even a Lincoln, or Garfield, or Kennedy or Reagan can’t be shot by a mentally ill Booth, Guiteau, Oswald or Hinckley?
Let’s be honest: You can’t. Your quickly-arrived-at solutions will be simply be too quickly-arrived-at, and they’ll be easily circumvented by the next deranged misfit who’s mad at the world, or his boss, or the girlfriend who dumped him, or the coach who didn’t play him enough, or the teacher who flunked him. (The reader should understand that I’m aware of the blatant gender stereotyping inherent in exclusively using the masculine possessive pronoun in these examples, but I do so because I’m personally unaware of any incidents in America where females committed mass murder of strangers using firearms. As a retired prosecutor, however, I am aware of mass murders by women using other means.) But this obvious conclusion doesn’t stop a lot of smart people from loudly decrying the failure of Congress to immediately do something about the problem. “All they do is talk,” many are saying, but of course, that’s all they’re doing, too. For a while, unfortunately, that’s all anyone can do, until the talk produces what a majority can agree are good ideas. The reason we’ve been debating this problem for decades, and other similarly complex problems such as how to manage immigration policy, or provide health care to the degree that we feel we should, is because there’s just as much disagreement on the nature of the problem as there is on the right solution.
Others applaud Congress’s inaction, saying that new restrictions on guns aren’t the answer. But they, too, rarely provide practical suggestions for what is a workable answer, even a partially effective one.
Which brings me to another problem which many people, myself included, are always in danger of ignoring: Overemphasizing the complexity of the problem of mass gun violence committed suddenly by one mentally ill person (or in the Columbine, Washington, D.C. beltway and San Bernardino massacres, by two of them) can, if one isn’t careful, also be counterproductive. We do need to understand the complexity of all problems we attempt to solve, but we also have to resist the common tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good. We have to accept that partial solutions, even if they only work 40 or 50 percent of the time, and occasionally completely fail, are infinitely better than doing nothing and thereby guaranteeing that other conscience-lacking shooters gain confidence in their own chances of glorious score-settling. We are talking about saving additional human lives, after all.
Particularly if you’re adamantly opposed to tighter gun control laws of any kind, and supposedly in favor of deterring gun violence through increased possession of firearms, you should not just work to protect your personal stash of weaponry. Instead, you owe it to yourself and all of us to affirmatively suggest the best preventative solution to mass gun killings that you can devise, and sincerely recommend it be implemented at your own son’s or daughter’s public school. As you do so, don’t ignore the true financial cost of your proposal, or the fact that you like to complain about high taxes. And if applicable, don’t forget that you’ve always worried about that one P.E. teacher at your son’s or daughter’s school who seems a little unstable.
Tomorrow: Part 2. Common invalid or illogical arguments by liberals, conservatives, and others who defy categorization, will be refuted (or at least I’ll attempt to do so). Relevant religious principles will be touched on. I’ll also make some suggestions of my own for helpful legislation.