On February 14, 2018 (ironically both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday) we heard an all too familiar narrative: a young man walked into a school and opened fire.
We only had to fill in the blanks. This time the school was Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This time the murderer (who I refuse to name) was 19. This time the assault rife was an AR 15. This time 14 students and 3 faculty members died. The rest is a macro.
We first learned about these mass school shootings on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado. There two students brandished guns; before killing themselves they killed 13 and injured 20. Sue Kleebolt, the mother of one of the gunmen, wrote a heartbreakingly honest and powerful book that I will never forget reading.
Chapter 18 of the book is titled: The Wrong Question and I think she’s exactly right. She suggests that when we hear about any of these mass shootings we shouldn’t ask “why” but “how.”
If our first macro is “what happened,” our second macro is “why did this happen” and our politicians have a script. They rush to social media and promise their thoughts and prayers. Then they claim that we can’t have a discussion about guns because “it’s too soon.”
Sue Kleebolt argues forcefully that asking “why” makes it too easy to ignore what we know to be true. Other than the obvious “how can anyone know why this happened” it allows us to find scapegoats instead of solutions.
But is also allows us to divert attention (hey, look over there) by proposing false solutions.
The shooter in Florida legally purchased the assault rifle and committed no crimes until the first time he pulled the trigger. Solutions from our politicians may sound appealing, but they will not prevent the next massacre. Let me list them:
- Background Checks. Clearly there are some people who shouldn’t have access to guns. We have a patchwork of laws we can read about, but in 1968 the federal government passed the 1968 Gun Control Act. In the last few days we’ve heard about the need to strengthen background checks. This is, at best, a hollow promise. Background checks depend on having a list of those who cannot purchase guns. For the most part convicted felons and those who have a history of domestic abuse are prohibited from purchase. How do we identify brooding, angry young men who collect small arsenals? But more to the point, background checks don’t prevent someone from opening fire as his first crime. While the Florida shooter may have scared some people with his writings, he didn’t do anything that would have flagged a background check. Better background checks would not have prevented this shooting.
- Arming Teachers. President Trump, in the last few days, has advocating allowing teachers to pack heat and even suggesting them that schools should reward them with more pay. OK, think about your worst high school teacher. Do you really want that person to be armed? And think about how a teacher can conceal a gun. President Trump puts great weight on the idea that nobody will know which teachers are armed. Granted it’s been 40 years since my high school graduation, but back then the male teachers wore slacks, dress shirts, and ties. For the most part they didn’t wear suit jackets. Female teacher wore dresses or pantsuit with only a few wearing blazers. How do any of them conceal a weapon? Keeping a weapon in their desk won’t work as teachers almost never teach from behind their desk. An unlocked desk provides a target for a student and a locked desk makes the weapon virtually unavailable when needed. While some believe that this could have prevented this shooting, it’s likely it wouldn’t have helped and perhaps made it worse.
- Banning bump stocks. Before the Las Vegas shooting in Las Vegas most of us had never heard of these accessories that convert a semi automatic weapon into a machine gun. If bump stocks were illegal fewer people would have died in Las Vegas. But the shooters in Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland didn’t use bump stocks. Banning them, though a good idea, is just window dressing. It gives the illusion of progress.
- Raise from 18 to 21 the minimum age to purchase guns. At first blush this sounds like a good idea. Since the Parkland shooter was 19, if you had to be 21 to buy a gun he wouldn’t have been able to purchase the AR-15 he used to kill 17 people. Fair enough. But the assault gun at the center of the Columbine murders was purchased by a 22 year old friend of one of the shooters and the Sandy Hook shooter stole his mother’s gun (and killed her with it). The Parkland shooter could have found another way to obtain a gun, or just waited 2 years. Again, this gives the illusion of progress.
- Keeping guns out the hands of the mentally ill. This connects to the argument on background checks. So here’s my question: how do we define mental illness? In a move that even my cynicism admires, the NRA came out and suggested that we ban gun sales to those who have been “judged mentally incompetent.” This sounds good, but it’s not. A person is “judged mentally incompetent” only when someone (normally a family member) sees someone who is so demented that he (or she) cannot competently make decisions on his (or her) own best interest. This normally happens when someone suffers from some sort of dementia and a conservator is appointed. It’s a high bar because the court is taking away the person’s constitutional rights. The NRA’s standard does not include someone who suffers from depression or isolation or anger. None of the shooters in Columbine, or Sandy Hook, or Las Vegas, or Parkland would have qualified as “mentally ill.” So if we expand the concept of mental illness, how do we do it? Do we include those who have been incarcerated in a mental institution against their will? Do we include everyone who takes anti-depressive medication? And how do we include those who suffer from mental illness but don’t seek help for fear that they will later be prohibited from purchasing a gun?
We clearly stand at a time when the NRA, the Republican Party, and our President want to appear to be concerned without actually making the changes that will protect our children. Despite their claims, those of us who wish to ban assault rifles don’t want to ban all guns. I support hunters who own rifles and people who keep handguns for personal protection. But assault rifles have one and only one purpose: killing large numbers of people and doing it quickly.
We can only protect our children from these assault rifles by banning them from civilian use. If you want to shoot an assault rifle, you should enlist in the army.