A Watershed Moment in Gun History?

My brother was at Virginia Tech. He had a 9 AM class in his engineering building, shortly after which shooting broke out. Running out of the building, he opened the door to see a man donning multiple firearms – it was a police officer. Yes, my brother survived. Running down the street, hearing shots coming from everywhere, not knowing what was happening, how many shooters there were, and how many people were killed or injured, he made it to a lockdown room where he waited out the incident. As he put it to me, “it was complete chaos.”

Now my brother is very upset. He wants to know why, if there was a multiple homicide that morning, and the gunman was at large, why he had no word of this before going to his 9AM class. He wants to know why there was class at all. He wants to know why this kid was so mentally disturbed in the first place and why of all things he was able to purchase multiple firearms if his mental problems were well known. He came home this weekend, though his usual cheery and laid back persona was replaced with a straight face, wandering eyes and a somber “hello.”

My brother had a life changing experience, and I think I did too to a lesser extent. For one, I’ve completely flipped on my fairly “Republican” stance on guns. I grew up in a gun-toting household. My father has at least 5 guns of various types. He isn’t a Second Amendment repeating gun nut, but he considers guns necessary for the family farm – rats, groundhogs and rabid foxes and the like. My uncle is even a gun collector, keeping hundreds in safes that we practice with when I visit. As a result of being around guns and shooting them myself as a child, I more or less bought the Second Amendment line. When it came to other weapons so inherently dangerous – hardcore fireworks, explosives, chemical weapons, grenades, etc. – it seemed obvious to me that these should be restricted. These are things with which it is incredibly easy to end another human life, and don’t serve much practical use to the average citizen, so it is just common sense that you wouldn’t want just any joe schmoe to be able to get them. Guns were somehow exempted from this line of reasoning in my mind. Even though it is incredibly easy to kill another human being with a gun – just a twitch of the finger – for some reason they didn’t seem an appropriate thing to make difficult to acquire. I suppose guns are a part of our culture, so it seemed unnatural to ban them.

I think I was completely wrong. A gun should be treated like any other highly lethal weapon capable of quickly and easily killing other human beings: not just anybody should be able to get them.

What have I been thinking? Despite overwhelming evidence that guns kept for self-defense cause many many more innocent deaths than “bad guy” deaths; despite our thousands of gun murders every year, making us the only developed nation with such an embarrassing firearm homicide rate; despite the disturbing ease with which school shooter after school shooter is able to get a gun, I for some reason was very wary of regulation. I’m not afraid of regulation anymore, I’m afraid of guns.

Many have said after the Tech tragedy that it shows that we need more guns. I’m trying to imagine what would happen given the “chaos” that my brother described. Imagine you are in class and multiple shots begin ringing out. No one has any idea where they are coming from. Then all the untrained kids in the room start pulling out their handguns and trying to get out of the building. A few brave guys even go into the hallway not really for the purpose of escaping so much as trying to shoot the shooter. So now there is shooting, return shooting, lots of untrained kids with guns pouring into the hallways, not knowing who the shooter is or how many there are, mistaking friends for enemies and enemies for friends, some kids thinking they know who the shooter is and firing, others mistaking the kid who just fired for the shooter, and then the police arriving to the chaos of kids shooting not knowing what is happening – this is Newt Gingrich’s and other gun nut’s solution to the school shooting problem? Arm the all children with devices that can kill another human with just a twitch of the finger? It’s just beyond asinine.

So what should happen? First, I agree more people should have ways to defend themselves. But it seems obvious that those means should be non-lethal. Mace, taser, stun gun, I don’t care. I don’t want 18-year-old frat boys walking around campus with Glocks. If there is a shooting and the gunman gets hit with mace, he will be easy to subdue. If there is “friendly fire” in all the inevitable confusion, no one will die. Also, if we switch generally from a gun-defense society to a non-lethal defense society, and greatly restrict firearm access, these campus gunmen will have great difficulty obtaining the gun to do the shooting in the first place (just like in other developed countries where they don’t have these problems).

What about the Second Amendment? I wrote in a previous entry that I agree with the majority of courts that the only necessary and proper interpretation of the Amendment is that it applies to militias, and its guarantees extend no further.

Then there is the argument that goes something like this: “there is a big black market for guns in the US, and making guns illegal wont change that – it will just take the guns away from the good guys.” I used to basically accept this argument, but I’ve come to realize it is critically flawed. During Prohibition, when the government banned alcohol, it just empowered a huge black market in rum running. Anybody could distill alcohol in their bathtub, so the demand could easily be fed by anyone willing to take a little risk for a big reward. It is the same with marijuana. Anybody can grow marijuana in their basement, so the demand can easily be fed in a manner that is diffuse and extremely difficult to control. Guns, however, require very expensive industrial manufacturing equipment to make. Farmers cant make one in their basement (at least not any gun worth having). The demand is much more difficult to feed. Guns would have to be overwhelmingly smuggled into the country, but they can be detected with metal detectors easily so even that isn’t sure-fire. You look at other developed countries like in Western Europe and they have successfully restrained the black market. And so the flaw in the black market argument is that assault weapons are a different sort of thing than alcohol or marijuana – they cant be made in basements. With weed and alcohol, the black market works inversely to the legal market. If you ban weed, it empowers the black market for it. If you ban alcohol, it empowers the black market for it. With guns, there is a thriving black market already because there are so many guns in the legal market. A gun can pass so easily from being legally purchased to being sold under the table. The black market for guns tends to go with the legal market. Hence, if you make the legal guns scarce, if you do it right you can make the black market guns scarce too. This is why other developed countries have been successful keeping guns away from everyone, including the bad guys.

What about the founders’ concern that we have a “citizens army” in case of invasion? First, this wasn’t shared by all the founders, and second, there aren’t any armies amassing at our borders. The government can just start handing out the guns if we get invaded. This situation is just too improbable to warrant molding national policy around.

Finally, I don’t intend to take my father’s guns away from him. I think there should be exceptions for hunting weapons and farmer’s weapons. Just nothing with too big a clip, too easy to load, and nothing automatic. I also think its reasonable to ban shotgun slugs, hollowpoints, and anything over a certain caliber (.30 caliber comes to mind – I’m sorry but a Desert Eagle .50 is just way over the top). I also think that if someone goes through the proper training, gets a safe and a permit, that regular people should be able to have certain guns for collecting or target practice purposes. I would, on the other hand, ban all concealed firearm laws. The only people who should be able to carry a gun without impunity in public are military, police and certain government agents.

I truly and sincerely hope the deaths of the kids at Tech will be a watershed moment in gun control history. The old attitudes towards guns are smeared with the blood of our children.

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