Sunday, April 22, 2007

Virginia Tech: Guns Aren't The Issue

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, everybody wants to talk about guns.

By Tuesday night, ABC's Primetime had clearly decided gun control was the key issue. They described several times how Cho Seung-Hui purchased his weapon, and every time they emphasized that he made the purchase "with no waiting period" -- right after saying that he bought the gun more than a month before he killed 32 people. Am I the only one who caught the irrelevance of that reporting? As far as I know, no state has a waiting period long enough to thwart a crime planned five weeks in advance. The fact that Virginia has no waiting period has absolutely no bearing on this incident. Perhaps people don't understand waiting periods. The goal of waiting periods is to prevent crimes of passion, i.e. "this guy pissed me off so I'm going to go buy a gun and shoot him." While anti-gun people might like to think those days of the waiting period are being spent thoroughly and feverishly conducting background checks on the purchaser, that simply isn't the case.

Some anti-gun fanatics are trying to blame the gun dealer. But the dealer did everything according to the law. They can argue that Virginia's laws could be more restrictive or that the police database could be more robust, but they can't blame a businessman who followed the rules. Of course, the real goal of the anti-gun folks is to ban guns altogether, a woefully misguided strategy. People who want guns will always be able to get them somehow, whether through legitimate or black market channels -- especially someone like Seung-Hui who plans ahead.

The pro-gun forces take the opposite approach, arguing that if everyone had guns, Seung-Hui would have been shot before he killed so many people. This may sound logical on the surface, but do we really want to effectively deputize every citizen? And don't these people realize that this strategy would put guns into the hands of thousands of troubled (but not disturbed enough to be denied gun ownership) people like Seung-Hui? What about crossfire in a shootout? What about the guy who fires first because he was "sure" the other person was about to draw a weapon? Insert your own bad-idea scenario here, and wait for the pro-gun people to start talking about the 2002 Appalachian School of Law shooting.

Banning guns or giving them to everyone wouldn't necessarily have any effect on a killer like Seung-Hui. Someone who buys a gun weeks in advance could just as easily find another way to carry out a killing spree regardless (homemade bombs and arson are two means that come to mind).

Unlike many other liberals, I don't have my shorts in a bunch about guns. I suppose I should, considering that my police officer wife is a likely target of gun-toting bad guys. But I don't think guns are the problem here. John Nichols writes that people should watch Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. The movie is not the anti-gun diatribe that my pro-gun, Moore-hating dad thinks it is (he's never seen it). Moore makes the point that gun ownership in other countries does not necessarily lead to gun violence and wonders why it happens here.

Charles Madigan, one of the Chicago Tribune's most thoughtful writers, looks beyond guns to another issue, mental health. My thoughts immediately went back to an article -- actually an excerpt from a new book -- that I read last month titled "Why Having More No Longer Makes Us Happy." Here's the part that I found most astonishing:

Indeed, one report in 2000 found that the average American child reported higher levels of anxiety than the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s -- our new normal is the old disturbed.
Anxiety equates to stress, and stress eventually breaks down one's mental health. In the last 50 years, our society has exacerbated mental problems, and it's bound to get worse with each passing generation. Guns or no guns, incidents like Columbine and Virginia Tech will become more common in the future unless we make some major changes.

For a really provocative look at the issue, check out "Virginia Tech: Is the Scene of the Crime the Cause of the Crime?" by Mark Ames. He says schools and offices are toxic environments responsible for breeding killers, a thesis he explored in his book Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond." As one who was miserably stressed in both of those environments (despite "succeeding" in them) and who has found great freedom and peace upon escaping them, I think Ames presents a viewpoint that shouldn't be ignored.

Turning the "national conversation" about Virginia Tech into a gun control debate is like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than the root cause. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk rants that pass for dialogue in this country seem more concerned with the sniffle than the virus.

No comments: