The biggest obstacle to the Obama administration’s push for tighter gun control may be its own best argument: Newtown.
This is because nothing proposed in the gun-control debates would have prevented the mass killing of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and everybody knows it. At best, tighter gun laws will make us feel better.
Let’s review: The Newtown killer was a mentally disturbed young man living with his mother. She had legally purchased her arsenal and had even taught her son how to responsibly handle firearms.
What she did not do was: (1) deal appropriately with her son’s mental illness; (2) safely contain her guns so that her son could not access them.
As much as anyone, I am eager to do whatever will make a difference. But I’m unconvinced that what is being proposed will provide the solution we seek.
Universal background checks are a perfectly good idea, except that they won’t stop the burglar who recently cleaned out our house of all our legally purchased rifles and shotguns, including an antique that had belonged to my great-grandfather, who, as sheriff of Barnwell County, S.C., confiscated the gun from the triple murderer he tracked for three days and finally killed. (I want that gun back, please.)
Those guns are now in circulation among an element of society that has no intention of submitting to a background check or any other well-intentioned effort to ensure that only good guys have guns.
Should we insist that buyers at gun shows submit to a quick background check as they would at any gun store? Sure. Why not? Federally licensed vendors at gun shows already have to conduct background checks, but everyday people who sell among themselves at the shows do not. Few beyond the gun lobby object to this step, but even this wouldn’t have prevented Newtown.
Meanwhile, what about my neighbor, Mike, who, theoretically, wants to buy a shotgun I no longer use? Is it really practical to insist that he submit to a background check? Gun-control proponents would have Mike and me run down to Dick’s Sporting Goods (or some other “portal”) and run through a quick background check. We could do that. Or I could just give Mike the gun and he could hand me a couple hundred dollars one of these days.
If a law isn’t enforceable, is it a good law? Does it prevent Newtown for neighbors to run through a little ritual that creates yet another level of government oversight for no real practical purpose other than to create a gun registry, which gun-control advocates insist they don’t want?
But we have to do something, don’t we?
Banning assault weapons and large magazines is appealing. But what, exactly, is an assault weapon, anyway? Most think of assault weapons as machine guns, but many popular firearms, from ranch rifles to handguns, are, like the AR-15 used at Newtown, semi-automatic. This means that they fire only one round each time the trigger is pulled and the gun automatically reloads. Do we ban all semi-automatic weapons?
Limiting the size of magazines also seems like a common-sense solution. Then again, maybe a killer simply would carry several small magazines and swap them out, as Eric Harris did at Columbine High School in 1999 and Seung-Hui Cho did at Virginia Tech in 2007. Harris was armed with a Hi-Point 995 carbine with 13 magazines of 10 rounds each. His partner, Dylan Klebold, carried a semi-automatic handgun and a short-barrel shotgun, which, gun experts will tell you, is the most effective close-range weapon of all. And Cho used two handguns that are not considered “assault weapons.”
In a country with an estimated 250 million to 300 million guns, imposing new laws on honest people is problematic and bureaucratically complicated. Add to the conundrum our politics of individual freedom combined with the exploitation of emotion to craft what is likely an impotent solution, and it is little wonder our congressional leadership is bamboozled.
The fact is that crazy people who would commit a Newtown-type massacre constitute an infinitesimal percentage of the population. Criminals will always have guns, as the murderer on death row told me when I first wrote about this issue 30 years ago. And forcing law-abiding gun owners to submit to new regulations will not prevent another Newtown or Aurora or Columbine.
This is not to say we should do nothing. But, lest we delude ourselves, whatever we do we will do because it makes us feel better. Perhaps that is enough.
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