The July 20th theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado and last Sunday’s shooting at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin has put the issue of gun control back in the news. The fact that the shooters in both cases used legally purchased guns strongly suggests it would be a good idea to change gun laws. But pro-gun activists argue that the problem is not guns but murderous people.
On the surface, it makes sense. Guns are only tools. If someone wants to kill someone, there are lots of other ways. If we could only mitigate the motivation to kill, we wouldn’t need to be concerned about guns. Some have even gone so far as cite the fact that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, managed to murder 168 people and injure 800 more without using a single gun, suggesting that people bent on murder will conjure other means if guns are unavailable.
Others argue that there is no consistent correlation between the rate of gun ownership and rates of violent crime across societies. One of the more powerful arguments of this sort was made in Bowling for Columbine. Remember that movie? In it, Michael Moore suggests that violence is a cultural problem. He offered the example of Canada where gun ownership is far higher per capita than in the U.S. but that has much lower rates of violent crime to make his case.
If you buy that argument as I do then gun control isn’t a cure for violent crime.
Yet, in spite of these arguments, I remain a gun control advocate. I think hand guns should be banned. I’m not just talking about waiting periods and screening. I mean totally banned. Same for assault weapons.
First of all, if, as many have argued, the problem is not guns but a culture in which too many people want to use them to do harm to others, the case for gun control is that much stronger. If we are violence prone, we should limit access to tools specifically designed to accomplish violence, especially those that allow violent people to act quickly, even repeatedly, and from a distance, making it more possible for a murderer to act with impunity.
Secondly, most murder is not of the sort recently committed by Timothy McVeigh, nor the shooters in Aurora and Oak Creek. While sensationalist media focuses mainly on murder cases involving famous people who fall prey to murderous plots, or bizarre murders committed by aberrant individuals or groups who plot and plan their crimes, most murder is, in fact, an impulsive act of passion. And while our retributive criminal justice system likes to paint those murderers as heartless, soulless monsters, most who commit murder are pretty ordinary people. So ordinary, in fact, that they’re usually remorseful. They wish they could take it back.
So where violence is concerned, the better-safe-than-sorry code of conduct should be founded on the principle that every confrontation will rise to the level of violence possible no matter who is involved. If there’s a gun present, it will be used. Take the gun out of the equation and the possibility of a shooting is eliminated. That piss you off? Punch me. Go ahead. Just don’t shoot me.
Finally, I’ll offer this. I used to train people to work on a suicide hotline. Part of my training rap involved talking about relative rates of suicide among men and women. Men, I informed volunteers, commit suicide more often than women. Why? Not because they try more often than women. It’s because they use guns more often.
Suicide, like murder, is usually an impulsive act. Guns make that impulse a whole lot deadlier. When it comes to killing, it’s exactly the right tool for the job. So just as I would offer trainees the advice that in homes where someone is often depressed or suicidal they should probably not have a gun around, my advice for managing violence in a violence prone society is to make rules so that fewer people have guns.