Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ghoulish Principles

It is truly sad how nearly every tragedy in modern society is immediately twisted to serve the purposes of ideologues.

The horrible shootings at Virginia Tech are a perfect example. Within hours of the story hitting the news, I saw arguments on both sides.

On one side, unsurprisingly, there are calls for additional gun control. If it had not been so easy for the killer to acquire guns, the activists say, then this terrible tragedy never would have happened. I suppose that might even be true, since it turns out that he did indeed purchase his weapons legally. But considering the amount of planning that he apparently put into this, and the ease of buying guns ILlegally, I really doubt that an extra law would have stopped him. Most of the laws I’ve seen proposed would CERTAINLY not have stopped him. Let’s assume that he stayed within the law. A ban on semi-automatic handguns would have forced him to use a revolver. A restriction on magazine sizes would have forced him to reload more often. Even a complete ban on handguns would merely have forced him to bring in a rifle or sawed-off shotgun…which could have been easily carried and concealed disassembled in a large book bag - then reassembled after he chained the doors shut. Would any of those changes have actually saved anyone?

On the other side, activists are calling for increased gun ownership and more freedom to carry them concealed. They point out that one sane person in the building carrying his own pistol could have taken the gunman down before he killed so many innocent people. Maybe it would have worked out that way. Or maybe it wouldn’t – I’ve seen multiple sources that claim that 50-75% of soldiers in a battle do not fire their weapons. Those numbers are for World War II and earlier – the military has since then added desensitization and conditioning to their training methods, and by the end of Vietnam got up to 90% of their forces firing when needed. That means that even in trained soldiers under direct fire, 10% of them are too frightened to pull the trigger. Maybe that one person with a pistol would have shot the murderer and saved lives…or maybe he would have missed and got shot himself…or maybe he would’ve missed and killed another bystander…or maybe he would have hidden somewhere and hoped he wasn’t found.

Or maybe there would have been several people in the building with guns. That increases the odds that some of them would have taken action…which leaves several people roaming the building with handguns out, looking for a shooter. What happens when two of these good citizens come around a corner and spot each other?

And in the meantime, if the pro-gun activists have their way, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of college students running around armed. It’s been awhile, maybe college has changed since I went – but I remember seeing numerous relationship breakups, the stress of Finals Week, depression and homesickness, and lots of drinking. How many additional murders and successful suicides would result from adding handguns to that volatile mix?

Obviously, there are good arguments on either side of the issue. But is this really the right time to argue it and the right example to use for support? Good public policy comes from a careful and rational examination of the issues and consequences. The immediate emotional reaction to single event is hardly the right mental state in which to design that policy – and the activists’ ghoulish attempts to use this tragedy to further their own causes makes me want to reject them all.

Edit - From what I've seen in the news, the Virginia Tech gunman was clearly an attention-seeker. I've seen two separate sources suggest that publicizing his name only encourages such behavior. That makes sense to me - accordingly, I have removed his name in favor of anonymous terms - "gunman," "killer," and "murderer."

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