As reports of another mass shooting were reaching people on the West Coast, I think that I was not the only one experiencing shock and disbelief. Oregonians are still trying to make sense of the tragedy that happened at the Clackamas shopping mall–only a quarter of a mile from my children’s school. And now another shooting–this time at an elementary school. Somehow, when senseless violence is directed at a random group of people, it seems easier (but not easy!) to handle this emotionally than when it is focused, concentrated, and specifically targeting children. I must admit: I find myself utterly unable to make any sense of this latest act of unspeakable evil.
When people are faced with such overwhelming and difficult emotions, it is natural for them to try to do something. Bloggers will blog, facebookers will update their stati with stuff like “Re-post if you….,” school principals will review their schools’ safety principles, and politicians will politick. I wanted to write something, but things like “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” while certainly reflecting how I feel, do not seem relevant or somehow enough. Instead, I really want to explore a phrase in President Obama’s speech which caught my attention. The President called for “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this.”
I am really glad that he said “meaningful action,” because so much of what is usually proposed after a tragedy is meaningless. To be sure, it is meaningful to politicians who are trying to earn points with various groups of voters, but it is meaningless for the purpose of preventing violence. So, what is usually proposed?
Ban on high-capacity magazines. The day after the shooting in Oregon, one Oregon state politician proposed a ban on high-capacity magazines. She felt that she had to do something, so she introduced a bill. Would such a ban help? I do not think so. I do not know why people would ever “need” a high capacity magazine, but the fact is that there are hundreds of millions of such magazines in circulation in the U.S. Banning the production and import of new ones would not take the old ones off the market, and they would still be available. Even if the very possession of high capacity magazines were banned, this would only mean that a person who wanted to carry 30 rounds of ammunition would have to carry 3 magazines instead of 2. I do not really see how that would make anyone any safer. But I do see how a politician could self-aggrandize in a campaign: “I am an advocate for public safety and stricter gun-control measures.”
Ban on assault weapons. Many politicians, including, I believe, President Obama, have advocated for a ban on assault weapons. Would such a ban help? Yes, it might help some politicians get re-elected, but it is not likely to help public safety. A ban on assault weapons was in effect in the U.S. for an entire decade, from 1994 to 2004, so there is empirical data available on the ban’s effectiveness. The CDC, National Research Council, USDOJ National Institute of Justice and other researchers found no evidence that the ban on assault weapons had any measurable effect on gun crimes. The percentage of gun crimes committed with assault weapons appears to be extremely small to begin with. (All references to the studies can be found in the Wikipedia article titled “Federal Assault Weapons Ban.”) So why do politicians want to ban assault weapons? Because it creates the appearance that they are doing something. In reality, however, an assault weapon is merely a semi-automatic rifle with a collapsible stock, a pistol grip, and a flash suppressor. Fix the stock and take off the flash suppressor–and what you have is a perfectly non-assault AR-15 or an AK-47 which can still be used to kill just as many innocent people. While I personally do not understand why normal people would want to have collapsible stocks or flash suppressors on their rifles, I equally do not understand why politicians would want to waste time, effort, and money on trying to ban them.
Ban all guns. Some, undoubtedly, will advocate for a total ban on guns. In theory, this would, in fact, reduce gun violence. It would not reduce murder of innocent people. Guns are a relatively recent invention, but the first murder was committed by Cain without the use of a firearm. I once heard that in the Soviet Union, where most citizens were not allowed to own guns, 80% of murders were committed with a kitchen knife. Nonetheless, I cannot imagine a shopping mall or school massacre perpetrated with a kitchen knife. So, in theory, banning all guns would reduce massacre-type crimes. However, by some estimates, there are as many as 400,000,000 privately-owned firearms in the United States. I would guess that any serious attempt to disarm this nation would lead to a civil war. Like it or not, it is what it is–this is a nation of gun owners. Political flirting with the idea to ban all guns will do nothing more than pad a politician’s resume; it will not help ensure anyone’s safety.
Ban violent video games. More and more people sound the alarm that movies and video games are becoming increasingly violent. And it is no longer little pixels shooting dots at other pixels. The level of modern computer technology allows for incredibly graphic and realistic depictions of violence. It really makes sense that movies and video games would affect children’s development. After all, parents use other tools to affect children’s development and they work: good literature, positive role models, various learning activities including educational video games–all of these have an effect on children. So, it makes sense that a child who spends hours (and sometimes hundreds or thousands of hours) engaged in actively hunting down and shooting humans, albeit on a computer screen, would be affected by this “learning” activity. Do I think that every child who ever played a violent video game will grow up to be a killer? Absolutely not! But it makes sense to me that every child who puts in hours of killing humans on a computer screen will be affected in his mindset, worldview, character, or personality–in some way. A video game is interactive, it is an activity, it requires action. And if someone seriously asked a question regarding how countless hours devoted to such an activity affect populations, I think the study would not be meaningless or a waste of time. But I am not a psychologist, nor do I know how many of the shooters who perpetrated massacres in the last decade had been fans of violent video games.
So, what kinds of “meaningful actions” should we undertake? Obviously, I am not a politician, or a movie star, or a billionaire, and so it really does not matter what I think. In the grand scheme of things, my opinion probably matters only to me and no one else. However, I do have an opinion. When I traveled through Israel, I saw people with guns everywhere: young IDF soldiers with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, shop clerks, bartenders, hotel receptionists, and mailmen openly carrying UZIs and handguns, and armed security guards everywhere. Israelis are fighting a different kind of terrorist, but in many ways the circumstances are similar–it is a terrorist who can strike anywhere at any time and randomly kill innocent people in public places—schools, malls, buses, etc. I do not know whether a ban on high-capacity magazines or collapsible stocks would have done anything at all to prevent the massacres in the mall or the school, but I feel that if the school had a couple of armed and trained guards, then maybe–just maybe–a crazy person with a gun would not have been able to slaughter 20 children and 6 adults. Maybe he still would have been able to kill some, but perhaps at least a few lives could have been saved…
We already have an experience with this approach in our lifetime. After 9/11, the U.S. hired air marshals–armed and trained guards to be present on flights. The previous approach was not to resist hijackers and to comply with their demands. But after criminals with box-cutters massacred nearly three thousand people, the “meaningful action” was to fight back: locked metal cockpit doors, flight attendants trained to restrain people, and armed air marshals. This just makes sense. No, I do not want to live in a society where elementary-school teachers have to carry guns. But I certainly do not want to live in a society where one crazy individual is able to slaughter an entire classroom-full of children and a half-dozen teachers without any resistance from anyone at all.
Clearly, it is not up to me to decide what constitutes meaningful action. Massacres in public places, as scary as they are, are still very rare, and it is many times more likely that one would die in a traffic accident on the way to a mall than in a shooting at that mall. But since the President and other politicians are calling for meaningful action, I sincerely hope that the actions they take will be truly meaningful and useful to ensure the security of our children–not their own political security.