Yes, let’s do something in response to the massacre at the elementary school in Newtown. At least it will make people feel better and the ideologues on the political left feel more righteous. And there well may be sensible measures that diminish gun violence short of disarming the law-abiding, which is what many ideologues on the left really want even as they support an administration that has claimed not just the right to detain U.S. citizens without trial but also the right to assassinate them.
The question is whether something can be done of relevance to the atrocity in Newtown.
So far the main gun-control proposals, long on the table, are only to require background checks of gun buyers and to outlaw private ownership of rapid-firing rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips.
But the guns used in the massacre appear to have been legally obtained and owned by the perpetrator’s mother, only to be taken by him, who was living with her and who killed her with them at their home before breaking into the school to kill so many there. There is as yet no evidence that the perpetrator’s mother had any criminal record or had impugned in any way her fitness to own guns. Nor is there yet any evidence that the perpetrator himself had a criminal record or any criminal inclinations at all.
Maybe the rifle the medical examiner says the perpetrator used can be classified as a rapid-firing military-style weapon with a high-capacity clip. But how much would outlawing such a weapon while leaving the perpetrator with his two police-model handguns have reduced the carnage at an elementary school, occupied almost entirely by women and little children? The perpetrator probably could have killed almost as many people with his two handguns and a few ordinary clips.
That may leave the potentially relevant gun-control response to the Newtown massacre with little more than outlawing the private ownership of all firearms. But with tens of millions of handguns and rifles in private ownership throughout the country, and with most requiring no more maintenance than ordinary lubrication, so they don’t wear out, what is the prospect of getting enough of them back to make a difference? Would any but the law-abiding surrender their guns? Wouldn’t that leave the criminal element fully armed and maybe even in possession of more guns than law enforcement?
And if, as the most extreme gun banners propose, the private ownership of ammunition should be outlawed, too, would it not be smuggled into the country for the benefit of the criminal element just as easily as marijuana and cocaine are smuggled in now?
Besides, while mass shootings like the one in Newtown are spectacular, in a few days there will be just as many murders in ordinary and largely overlooked gun crime throughout the country — crime arising mostly from drug prohibition. Decriminalizing drugs and medicalizing the drug problem might end most gun violence, but it hardly can be talked about politically.
Finally there’s the mental illness aspect of gun violence, the least precise aspect.
While those who knew the Newtown killer in high school remember him as painfully withdrawn, they never suspected that he could become a threat. Indeed, the first photograph of him made available after the atrocity, taken about seven years ago when he was 13, makes him look as innocent as the children he murdered. He too had been somebody’s precious and adorable baby, and not long ago.
After high school, did he just retreat more tightly into himself and then snap catastrophically into raging madness, perhaps inspired by the “entertainment” media that for years has normalized the most horrific violence and perversion? Maybe someone can figure it out.
But for the time being there is probably no protecting any school without armed guards or employees. And the country is full of “soft” targets like the school in Newtown, undefended and utterly helpless — like hospitals, nursing homes, and day-care centers.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.