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.
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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