It is a natural, all too-human notion that if we just think hard enough we can prevent bad things from happening. In the inevitable debate over gun control laws that follows horrific shootings, advocates of gun control proceed from the faulty premise that if we could just get the right lawmakers and the right legislation we could prevent, or greatly reduce, very twisted people from killing lots of people.
The facts unfortunately don’t lend themselves to this conclusion.
Take the specifics of the Aurora, Colorado, case. The Post reports:
Police said the alleged gunman had three weapons: a Remington shotgun, a Smith & Wesson M&P assault rifle, and a Glock 40-caliber handgun.
The semiautomatic assault rifle, which is akin to an AR-15 and is a civilian version of the military’s M-16, could fire 50 to 60 rounds per minute, and is designed to hold large ammunition clips. Holmes allegedly had obtained a 100-round drum magazine that attached to the weapon, the source said, but that such large magazines are notorious for jamming.
The law enforcement official said authorities believe Holmes first used the shotgun — some victims in the hospital have buckshot wounds — and then began using the assault rifle, which jammed. Then he resorted to the handgun.
Holmes allegedly did immense, horrific violence without (at least for a time) his semi-automatic rifle. (It is also noteworthy that in 1/2 of the ten worst shootings in the U.S.no semi-automatic rifle was used.) Well, maybe the problem is not the type of guns that can be acquired.
You can talk about “reasonable gun control laws,” all you like, but we should get past the idea that such laws would have prevented the slaughter..In the specific case of Aurora, do we really think that the suspect who allegedly booby-trapped his apartment to the hilt couldn’t have come up with destructive devices — even if no gun was available — sufficient to kill many people? Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) answered CNN’s Candy Crowley about gun control this way: “[I]f there were no assault weapons available, and no this or no that, this guy is going to find something, right. He’s going to know how to create a bomb. He’s going to — I mean, who knows where his mind would have gone? Clearly very intelligent individual, however twisted . . . [T]his is a human issue, in some profound way that this level of disturbed individual that we can’t recognize it, that the people around him obviously had no idea that this was something that he was capable of.”
But the notion that there is no easy fix, perhaps no gun control fix at all, to prevent these incidents is frightening. Nevertheless, legislation is not psychotherapy; it should be effective and designed to address its stated purpose.
The good news is that in general we’ve been remarkably successful in reducing crime, murder and gun fatalities over the last few decades. We know why:
In the past 20 years, for instance, the murder rate in the United States has dropped by almost half, from 9.8 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.0 in 2009. Meanwhile, robberies were down 10 percent in 2010 from the year before and 8 percent in 2009.
The declines are not just a blip, say criminologists. Rather, they are the result of a host of changes that have fundamentally reversed the high-crime trends of the 1980s. And these changes have taken hold to such a degree that the drop in crime continued despite the recent recession.
Consider just the last few years. Murders nationwide went down from 15,087 in 2006 to 12,966 in 2010. Murders by firearms went down from 10,225 to 8,775. All that occurred without the assault weapons ban or other legislation favored by gun control advocates.
It ia not even correct to say we have more mass killings than ever before. (The Huffington Post reports: “Between 1980 and 2008, 4,685 people died in 965 mass-murders, a Scripps-Howard study of FBI data revealed. Despite recent headline-grabbing incidents — such as Binghamton in 2009 and the Tucson shooting in 2011 that nearly killed for[mer] Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — group murders have remained close to the average of 20 a year for decades, according to USA Today.”) And while the numbers in any one incident are horrifying, of the eight incidents with larger fatalities than Aurora, over half occurred before 2000.
Now while we’ve made great strides in crime fighting, it is fair to say our mental health system remains tragically and dangerously broken. Perhaps if we looked upon the mass killings as originating with or at least related to serious mental illness (virtually all of these cases involve men in their teens or twenties when, for example, schizophrenia is most likely to manifest itself) we might look again at the entire mental health system. That may not be the root of the matter, but it’s certainly worth considering (and not only because a very small portion of the mentally ill commit crimes, since far more often they are crime victims.)
In connection with the Giffords massacre last year I wrote:
First, we need greater public awareness of the symptoms of schizophrenia and to inform them that violent behavior only occurs in a small percentage of patients. More important, they need to understand the mechanisms for getting a mentally ill patient evaluated. In states with laws that inhibit potentially life-saving commitment, we need to re-examine the impact of those laws on public safety. A results-based system for evaluating the efficacy of various mental health approaches should be implemented so we are spending money wisely. We need to make sure states’ mental health systems are properly reporting mental health patients to the federal data base to prevent them from purchasing firearms.
But we shouldn’t repeat the fallacious reasoning that characterized much of the media chatter. As President Obama eloquently put it at the memorial service:
“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.”
On that point I’m in full agreement with the president.