It is always a Very Bad Idea, as Pooh Bear might have said, for a foreigner to comment on another nation’s internal policy after a tragedy. As I am inveterately attracted to Very Bad Ideas, being a Philosopher of Little Brain, this does not deter me. If one cannot comment on gun policy after a tragedy like this, when can you?
First thing is the necessity for weapons in a civil society. I do not mean a society run by gangsters (or gangstas), or one in a Somalian warlord condition, or the Wild West, but a well-ordered civil society. One in which order is maintained with a balance of civil rights and freedoms. Is there any kind of need for weapons in that society?
I would say no. Not even the police would have a right to a weapon in that society; they may have a privilege to carry one under some circumstances, but experience teaches us that when police take their carriage of weapons for granted, they overuse them, and needless deaths result. But ordinary citizens not in the police or military and even those when not engaged in police or military activities, have no right to bear arms.
Now the American Constitution was formed when there was no standing army in the United States, and when there was no Police Force anywhere (Robert Peel formed the first modern police in 1829, although there had been officers of civil law and order for centuries), so the provision for citizenry to bear arms against tyrants was not only understandable, it was necessary – if Britain, or France or Russia or Spain, invaded the United States, it would be the citizenry that would need to not only fight, but provide the weapons and know how to use them, in defense of their homeland. Even so, a standing army was formed pretty soon afterwards. Arguably, the Constitutional Right was out of date before it was an adolescent.
But once people have arms, it is hard to give them up, as every nation that has undergone a civil war has found throughout history, and rebellions, civil wars, guerilla campaigns, terrorism and so on have all left the nation in worse shape for generations, and in some cases centuries. So I say, if you have a civil society, control of weapons is essential.
But would gun control have stopped this tragedy? I rather doubt it. Reports suggest the shooter had only two semiautomatic handguns, which are the simplest to get even in nations like my own that do have gun control. On the other hand, the pressure not to provide guns easily might have meant this man, when he went over the edge of civilised behaviour, was unable to procure them, and so killed only a few people. The one real mass murder event in Australia, which itself caused a major buyback by the government of guns, was due to a lunatic (a clear lunatic even to his relatives) being able to gain unfettered access to a range of weapons not even the most ardent farmer needing to control vermin would ever use, let alone a sports shooter. So maybe gun control, if in place over a number of years and with a buyback of weapons to take as many out of circulation as possible, might have prevented this tragedy. The problem is, we’d not know if that were true for some time.
American society has this hard edge of violence that is not apparent in some other western democracies, although it is spreading in part due to the glorification of violence in American-inspired popular culture. But this is, I think, a distinct issue from questions of mass killings, in schools or anywhere else. That is rather more like the Viking berserkers of legend or the Malay mengamok. Most often, I think this sort of thing is based on hypertrophied notions of honour or face, or is the result of real insanity like the Port Arthur Massacre. What we are discussing with gun control is the availability of weapons for that small fraction of people who run amok. Criminals will always get guns, yes, and police and military will always have access to them. But the ordinary citizen need not have them at all.
That said, sports shooters should be allowed controlled access – one of the most fun days I ever had was when a friend took me shooting with his 9mm handguns (including a WWI Luger, which kept jamming because of its age and wear, but otherwise worked fine), and in that situation there is no problem in my mind. But they need to be registered, and controlled where and when they can be carried and how. And even then, sports shooters do not have a right to their weapons; they have the privilege of owning and using them. Same for farmers, vets, and anyone else who legitimately uses weapons in their line of work. If they abuse that privilege, it should be possible to take them away from the abuser.
But why anyone not involved in military action should have access to fully automatic weapons, I simply cannot understand. There is not the slightest rationale for that, in any society that has the slightest social order at all…