The shootings in Connecticut are a monstrous act of incomprehensible horror. For all the atrocities visited upon the world in the last hundred years, this is still without doubt among the most appallingly evil acts ever performed by a single person. And he is dead, and beyond the reach of human justice.
Normally I’d wait for the story to wane and passions to cool before commenting on the nakedly political aspects of a catastrophe, but this story is so hideous, so devastating, that many people have been viscerally compelled to speak: How can the permissive laws preferred by people like you possibly fail to end in tragedy?
This question is a legitimate one. I am a gun owner – an owner of an AR-pattern rifle like the one this monster used, for that matter – and so I had better be able to give that question a good answer. Decency demands it. How can I possibly oppose the laws that could have stopped this event?
The answer is simple: I don’t. I support laws that could have prevented this and might prevent similar tragedies in the future. What I do oppose are laws that sacrifice freedom but don’t actually hinder people who might be inclined to commit similar atrocities. Here are some of those laws:
Gun registration: The shooting was carried out using firearms which were stolen from a person who legally purchased them, had a background check, and filed and was granted a purchase permit. The mass shooter in Norway acquired his weapons under a regulatory regime of full registration, as did the perpetrators of the two infamous school massacres in Germany in the 2000s. Registration of firearms prevents mass shootings in the same sense that automobile registration prevents DUI – they don’t, they can’t, and they’re not intended to.
Assault weapons ban: Connecticut has one, and the weapon was legal under it. The reason is simple, and common to all versions of the assault weapons ban – “assault weapon” is an inherently meaningless concept whose legal definition is essentially cosmetic. Most people are inclined to think of machine guns when they hear the term, but machine guns have already been generally banned since the 30s. The only meaningful version of an assault weapons ban would be a ban on semi-automatic firearms generally. These are the weapons that fire one shot per trigger pull (as opposed to weapons like muskets, pump-action shotguns, and bolt-action rifles). However this category is just “most guns”. Almost all pistols, most hunting shotguns, and many hunting rifles are semi-automatic. A ban on scary-looking firearms in any nontrivial way is effectively a ban on all firearms. Which leads us to:
Total prohibition of firearms: In a country with well over two hundred million firearms, it is logistically impossible. But if it weren’t, there is not much reason to believe it would do any good. Guns can be acquired illegally and are not required for mass murder in the first place. The worst school massacre in US history was carried out by a bomber in Michigan. The Oklahoma City bombing killed nineteen children and a hundred and fifty adults. The Columbine shooters attempted to go down in infamy as the Columbine bombers and would have killed many more people had their improvised propane bombs not mercifully failed. While bombs require a modicum of effort, more lethal than any single mass shooting was the 1990 Happy Land arson, the perpetrator of which killed 87 people with a gallon of gasoline. The most lethal mass shooting prior to the shooting in Norway was carried out by a South Korean police officer in a country where civilian possession of firearms is prohibited. Norway itself does not completely prohibit firearms ownership but the restrictions are extremely tight. Prohibition has a terrible track record at preventing dedicated psychopaths from mass murder. For that matter, is has a terrible track record at preventing violent crime of the more mundane sort.
Does this mean there’s nothing we can do, and that I’m just proposing defeat? Not at all. There are concrete steps we ought to take. Here are a few.
Improvement of NICS: If you buy a gun, you have to fill out paperwork and undergo a background check. These checks have been very good at preventing purchase by people who are disqualified by criminal records. But while adjudication as mentally incompetent is also disqualifying, such records are only poorly integrated into the system. This flaw was the source of the Virginia Tech shooter’s weapons.
Repair of the catastrophically bad US mental health apparatus: There’s a dire article in Gawker making the rounds, a first person account of a mother trying to raise an extremely troubled kid. They have basically two options – prison or muddling through alone. There is almost no systematic way of helping the helpable deranged, and almost no systematic way of containing the non-helpable deranged until they commit a violent crime and get sent to prison. This must be changed, and changed immediately.
Secure schools: If you’re determined to herd children into buildings with no law enforcement or other responsible armed adults (mass shootings almost exclusively happen in areas that are both 1) “gun free” and 2) don’t have law enforcement presence), at least build the buildings in a safe way. Though the accuracy of the initial days of reporting have been an unmitigated debacle, it now appears as though a few decent door locks would have kept the shooter outside the school and away from the kids. People sometimes miss or (worse) dismiss simple security solutions, but like airliner cockpit doors post 9-11, they have been proven repeatedly in ways that huge invasions and drone campaigns have not.
Maintain previous success: We are already doing many things that do work. Violent crime in the US has fallen continuously and dramatically over the last three decades. Gun crime specifically has also fallen radically, even as gun laws have become more permissive. Every murder is a horror, but this horror should not fool us into missing the fact that what we’re doing is resulting in fewer of them.
In short, this tragedy ought to cause every person to stop and take honest stock of their views, whatever they are. The black and bitter emotions ought to spur us to evaluate our options, not to sit on our hands. But thus spurred, we are obligated to be coolly rational about what will help and what will not. “Something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done” is one of the most dangerous impulses in democratic politics. If we want to prevent future tragedy, we must avoid it.