It was recently announced that Florida prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Nicolas Cruz, the young man accused of killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last year. In the wake of that tragedy, as we begin to heal, we are also desperate for answers regarding how such incidents can be avoided in the future. Unfortunately, it’s likely that our desperation makes us vulnerable to placing our faith in comforting but unrealistic solutions.
I don’t see a viable reason why a private citizen in the United States needs to have the ability to own a semi-automatic or automatic weapon. I also don’t think eliminating them eliminates violence. That makes me a pretty unpopular guy.
Social media has given everyone a degree of public presence. We each have immediate access to an audience of hundreds or thousands of other people, and we all have more voices than that coming back at us every moment of every day. It is not surprising then, that in such an environment, moderation and reason get pushed aside for extremism and sensationalism. It’s not surprising that the notion that a sensitive subject is not easily resolvable with one extreme response or another is not well-received.
Mass shootings are tragic. Both sides of the gun control controversy agree on that, so it’s as good a place to start as any. The primary focal point of any discussion on mass shootings is and should be the victims and their families. The grief must be processed, and the victims must be properly mourned. At times, this appears to get brushed under the rug as we hurry past it to the controversy of gun control, but I choose to believe this is only because we’re not sure what, if anything, to say about the loss of the victims themselves.
This, I believe, drops us at the doorstep of the controversy, which I think begins with two questions that aren’t necessarily the same, but are often treated as being the same: “Why did this happen?” and “How can such a thing be avoided in the future?” Because the first one is uncertain and complex and possibly results in some answers with which we are all very uncomfortable, I think we tend to focus primarily, and sometimes exclusively, on the second one. We even often act as if suggesting an answer for it is an adequate manner for addressing the first question.
The answer from one side is a well-known refrain: “Gun control.” The theory is that if some people (or any people) did not have such convenient access (or any access) to some guns (or any guns), then the amount of damage in some situations (or any such situation) could either be lessened or eliminated all together. I think that’s probably true to some degree. I believe that stricter gun control laws may have diminished the number of people killed or injured by Stephen Paddock in the 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting. Paddock had specialized weapons that he purchased legally that allowed him to fire an extreme number of rounds in a small amount of time. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to conclude that stricter legal gun controls could have had a limiting impact on the amount of damage done by Paddock. We can argue that he didn’t have to obtain the equipment legally and that he hypothetically may not have, but the fact is that, for whatever reason, Paddock did choose to obtain his weapons through legal means.
Could stricter gun control, then, save some lives? Absolutely.
We need to be careful, though, not to pretend that stricter gun control will eliminate mass killings. In the Las Vegas instance, we’ve agreed that it could have made Paddock a less effective killer. Would it have kept him from killing at all, though? Would Nicolas Cruz have dismissed his urge to kill had it not been so convenient or even possible for him to obtain a gun?
I completely agree that gun enthusiasts are overzealous and unreasonable in their defense of the details of gun ownership. I also happen to believe that they are right that eliminating guns does not eliminate murderers. We scoff at their patented gun defense phrase, but there is some truth to it. Mass shootings may be less common in countries with stricter gun control, but other forms of mass killings are more common, especially if we take population and population density into consideration.
It would be nice if stricter gun control stopped mass killings, but it won’t. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it more difficult for people to obtain the weapons that make mass shootings possible. What it means is that we have to look deeper than quick and easy pseudo-solutions to a complicated and urgent problem.
It feels comfortable to us to pretend that gun control will either completely eliminate mass killings or that it will not affect them at all. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, though. We can’t afford to waste time arguing in favor of unrealistic solutions. Children’s lives are at stake. We need instead to set aside our thirst for a political win and to focus in a realistic way on formulating a genuinely effective solution to a complex problem that must be handled at a level much deeper than eliminating or preserving the instrument of execution.