A Farewell to Arms


ON MARCH 13, 2001, almost 12 years ago, I posted a column on my now-defunct LARGEREGO blog about gun control. The intervening decade-plus has witnessed events of enormous historical import: the election of a black man as President—not once but twice; huge strides in gay rights; the legalization of marijuana in several states; the tragedy of 9/11 and the capture or death of the men who planned it; the near-collapse of the economy with the fall of Lehman Brothers, and the ensuing recovery; the sudden rise of social media, with all its attendant banes and boons; the melting of Arctic ice and the uptick in extreme weather; and countless other, less heralded but equally significant changes.

The last 12 years have also born witness to a spike in rampage shootings. We only recall the big ones: Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Columbine, the original modern-day school shooting, which took place in 1999. The script is always the same. These horrific incidents happen, we are told not to “politicize” them in the heat of the moment, and when the heat of the moment cools, we forget about them. Check this list, or this one—both far longer than I would have thought—and see how many shooting incidents you remember. A few months from now, who will recall the shooting in the Portland, Oregon shopping mall that happened a few days ago? We forget, and we move on, and the NRA holds a convention shamefully close to the site of a shooting. Even when one of these crazed rampages involves a member of Congress, we do nothing about gun control. Not a damned thing.

So many changes in the last dozen years, but on this issue, the needle has not moved. To show just how little anything has changed, I am running this old column in full, without edits. The impetus was a shooting at Santana High School in California by a kid named Andy Williams—a shooting that even I don’t remember.

You probably don't remember this killer, who shot up Santana High School in suburban San Diego.


March 13, 2001

When I began this venture, I knew I would one day write a column about gun control. The next time some high school kid goes on a shooting spree, I told myself, I’ll expound upon the subject.

Six months later, here we are.

This past week not one but two teenagers took up arms against their classmates. Andy Williams, 15, a freshman from a tony suburb of San Diego, killed two students and wounded 13 others when he indiscriminately fired his .22 down the hall. The next day a Catholic schoolgirl in Williamsport, Pa., went postal, shooting another girl as she ate lunch.

Since February 1997, there have been 16 separate incidents involving shootings in schools. The body count: 34 dead and almost 100 wounded. Most of the assailants were teenagers. The youngest was just six years old.

The gun-slingers are a diverse bunch: honor students and mentally ill, children of broken homes and of seemingly successful marriages, seniors and first graders. Motives ranged from jealousy to revenge to anger to outright insanity. What common thread tied them all together? They all used guns.

If the U.S. had a sensible gun control policy, 34 people would still be alive, 91 would not have been shot, and 16 sociopaths might have found more fruitful ways to vent their anger. Family, friends, and acquaintances of the fatalities and casualties would have been spared much suffering.

Guns don’t kill people, the NRA tells us; people kill people. That may be, but people kill far fewer people if they don’t have guns. In Great Britain guns are illegal. Cops don’t even carry guns. And—I know this is a radical concept, so I’ll put it in italics—no one in Great Britain gets shot.

The United States is the only country in the world with an armed citizenry, and every time one of our students goes ballistic, more egg is smeared on our collective face. Or, to use a more apt metaphor, we shoot ourselves in the foot. This trend of school shootings has made us an international laughingstock. I for one am embarrassed.

The Second Amendment, the outmoded aegis under which Charlton Heston and his ilk cower, guarantees Americans the right to bear arms. Take away the Second Amendment, the theory goes, and the government can seize control and we will be powerless to stop them.

Let me shoot holes in this tired argument. First of all, the American government consists mostly of elected officials who serve finite terms, which makes a sudden conversion to Fascism quite difficult. Even if the government were to do so, they would use propaganda and pharmaceuticals, not violence, to seize power—easier, subtler, and much more effective. And even if Dubya did pull an Oliver Cromwell, his CIA-trained death squads would make quick work of you and your family, handgun and all.

So much for the Ruby Ridge rationale.

I’ve also heard people say, “Well, the criminals will have the guns regardless. We should, too.” Oh, really? For what purpose? Say you own a gun legally, and you get mugged walking home from work one day. How does owning a gun help you? Bernie Goetz comes along once in 20 years—and his gun was not registered. And even if you happen to have the gun on you, what then? It’s maybe worth a wallet not to reprise the end of Reservoir Dogs.

In Texas, my attorney friend in Dallas tells me, not only is it legal to shoot someone robbing your house, the state civil code has been rewritten to prevent the would-be thief to sue for damages. Dubya’s home state, in other words, encourages its citizens to be vigilantes. I don’t have the stats to back it up, but I’ll bet there’s less of a larceny problem in Texas than, say, Florida. But did you know: in the Lone Star State last year, more people died of gunshot wounds than of car accidents.

Speaking of which: Cars are instruments of transportation. They exist to get you from Point A to Point B. In order to legally drive a car, you have to be of age, take so many hours of behind-the-wheel training, pass a written test, pass a driving test, get licensed by the state, register your car, and purchase a minimum amount of accident insurance. That’s quite an investment of time and money, just to trade up from a Schwinn.

Guns are instruments of death. Period. They exist to harm, and for no other reason. Yet it is much, much easier to legally own a gun than to legally drive a car. Does it not make sense to impose the same regulations on lethal weapons that we do on motor vehicles?

Apologists will argue that shooting at clay pigeons and paper body targets is purely for sport. Not true. You shoot at clay pigeons to practice shooting real pigeons. And you shoot at paper body targets to practice shooting people. That’s why the targets are shaped like people, see?

There are, of course, good reasons to shoot things. Soldiers shoot other soldiers to defend the country. Hunters shoot deer and duck and quail to put food on the table. Law enforcers sometimes shoot bad guys (they sometimes shoot good guys, too, but that’s a column for another day).

But there are far more bad reasons to shoot things; too often, these negative impulses are what motivate the shooter. And people get hurt. And people die. And people are widowed, orphaned, maimed, blinded, paralyzed. And people go to jail. You think Andy Williams’s father is still a supporter of the right to bear arms? It was his gun, after all, that hurt all those innocent people.

My gun control three-step program: One, all guns other than hunting rifles are contraband and must be sold to the government. Two, penalties for possessing firearms are very stiff. Three, the process for getting a hunting rifle license is as extensive as getting a driver’s license.

That will solve the problem—point blank. And we should go that route, even if it means prying the guns from cold, dead fingers, or whatever slogan they’re spewing this week.

If you ask me, the NRA holding a convention in Colorado a few weeks after the Columbine shootings is akin to the Ku Klux Klan wanting to parade through New York. Do these people feel no shame?

This is not the Old West. There are no sheriffs and outlaws anymore. The only ghosts in this ghost town haunt the hallways of Santana, and Jonesboro, and Columbine.


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About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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4 Responses to A Farewell to Arms

  1. Irwin says:

    I think I’m right in saying guns are legal in Britain, and we do have gun-related deaths. However, we only have something like 8 a year and they are nearly always the result of illegally owned guns.

    Because to get a gun license you have first explain why you need a gun/what you would use it for. Usually this means hunters, farmers, or people who shoot for sport. Then you undergo two face-to-face interviews to check you’re who you say you are and are not unstable. And then you get to have one gun, and you it’s registered and licensed and only allowed to be used for whatever you said you needed it for.

    It’s hard to get hold of a gun in this country, and I think that’s a good thing.

    The 2nd Amendment is an archaic law that was put in place as a security measure in case the British came back. And we’re not coming back. And now you have this really cool high-tech military to take care of stuff like that. Meanwhile, when that was added to the consitution 221 years ago ‘arms’ meant muskets and flintlock pistols which can only fire once before needing to be reloaded, and take a full minute and full concentration to reload. They also lacked accuracy, and were hard to conceal.

    You can see a guy with a musket coming, and you don’t neccessarily need to be armed to defend yourself against one. Nobody foresaw the invention of high-velocity semi-automatics, which only required a few seconds to change a clip and allow you to keep pumping out bullets. Nothing is stopping a guy with something like that, and they are easily concealed.

    People should be able to own guns. But people should also have to be rigorously tested to make sure they can be trusted. Lee Harvey Oswald bought the gun that killed Kennedy via a mail order catalogue under a fake name. James Holmes built himself an arsenal over the counter and over the internet in a matter of weeks, no questions asked. In less time than it takes to learn how to drive a car.

    So basically, I agree with your 3-step program wholeheartedly. It’s essentially how we do it (and listening to classical radio, God Save the Queen has literally started playing as I type this…) and it isn’t perfect and yes, we’re a small country… and 8 victims of gun crime is still too many, but it’s better than losing thousands.

    In an ideal world nobody would own a gun, but this isn’t an ideal world. It’s pretty shitty a lot of the time. But this would be at least be a step in the right direction, and I think that step is finally going to be taken. I’ve seen politicians talk in the aftermath of tragedies before, but rarely to they display such obvious personal and emotional distress as Obama did last night. I can’t see how anyone could oppose laws to stop something like that ever happening again.

    • Jeffro says:

      “I can’t see how anyone could oppose laws to stop something like that ever happening again.”

      You’d be surprised in this country. For over a decade, we’ve turned a blind eye on high school kids being massacred, then college kids. Even now, with Kindergarteners being massacred, some have the gumption to offer nothing on the table in the form of a solution. Our lack of action, as this continues to happen again and again, says a whole hell of a lot about our priorities in this country. Guns are more important than our children??

      The second amendment DOES NOT MEAN what some people have twisted it into meaning. Semi-automatic weapons should be illegal for personal ownership. If you want to shoot one at a firing range, go ahead. But it should stay there when you go. If you want to own a gun for personal use, it/they all should be bolt action.

      Get off Facebook. Get off Twitter. And get ON the phone with your congressman and senators, people — state and federal! If you think this won’t ever happen to you, your community, or someone you know, think again. I used to think the same thing until my brother-in-law’s family was massacred by a lunatic in Appomattox a few years ago. Eight people were murdered, including three teenagers and a four-year-old.

      It happens!


      And again.

      And again.

      And we do nothing.

      Yesterday was the time. Ten years ago was the time.

      Now is the time!

      • The Editors says:

        Well said, Jeffro. Well said. And you too, Jedi.

        I really do think this is the tipping point for big change. People are not going to forget about this one. The mood here is akin to 9/11. And Feinstein and Schumer are introducing legislation as soon as Congress re-opens to ban assault guns on a federal level.

        The NRA is really a bunch of bullies, and eventually, bullies get taken down.

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