The Odd Silence After The School Shootings
Rain in Seattle is not news; the news is when
rain fails to fall, as it has been doing lately. Likewise, what
is conspicuous about the aftermath of the school shootings in
Red Lake, Minn., this week was what didn't occur -- a torrent
of calls for new gun-control legislation.
The attack was the worst at a school since Columbine
six years ago. It came on the heels of some other publicized eruptions
of gun violence -- including a rampage by a defendant at an Atlanta
courthouse and a mass shooting at a worship service in a Milwaukee
suburb. In the past, any of these might have spurred gun-control
advocates into a major push for action. But this time, not much
has happened, and not much is likely to.
Why not? One simple reason is that Congress and
the White House are both in the hands of Republicans, who generally
aren't eager to impose restrictions on firearms. But maybe the
Republicans are in power partly because of the new mood that has
settled over the issue of gun violence.
It's become clear over the years that most of
these spectacular episodes are so freakish that they are not amenable
to regulatory solutions. It's also become clear that any imaginable
gun-control laws are not likely to have much effect on crime in
Even the staunchest anti-gun organizations made
only perfunctory efforts to capitalize on the Minnesota shootings.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence used the opportunity
to criticize Congress for letting the federal "assault weapons"
ban expire, mandating immediate destruction of the records of
gun sales, and considering a bill to limit lawsuits against gun
But these had nothing to do with what happened
in Red Lake. Records of gun sales? The killer, 16-year-old Jeff
Weise, wasn't old enough to buy a gun legally in Minnesota. At
least two of his guns were stolen from his grandfather, a police
officer whom he killed.
Assault weapons ban? His arsenal included no such
weapons -- only a .22-caliber pistol, plus a police-issued .40-caliber
handgun and 12-gauge shotgun. Limiting lawsuits against dealers?
A bill that hasn't been enacted couldn't have caused a mass shooting
The Violence Policy Center charged that the problem
lies in "America's love affair with guns," and held
up the example of countries that, it says, have prevented mass
shootings through "severe restrictions on the availability
of specific classes of firearms, such as handguns and assault
weapons." This statement only confirmed the National Rifle
Association's suspicion that gun-control advocates are bent on
banning entire categories of common firearms -- even though most
owners use them in a responsible and law-abiding manner.
But decrying America's love affair with guns is
like decrying America's love affair with football or movies. There
are some 260 million firearms in private hands in this country.
Any solution requiring vast numbers of people to reject something
they have long valued is not a solution but a fantasy. It's also
an admission that no politically feasible options are likely to
have any perceptible effect on crime.
Support for gun control has been sliding in recent
years. In 1990, 78 percent of Americans said they thought laws
on firearm sales should be stricter. By 2004, only 54 percent
agreed. By a 2-to-1 margin, they oppose a general ban on private
ownership of handguns -- as dreamed of by the Violence Policy
Center. When Congress let the "assault weapons" ban
expire last year, there was no public uproar.
Past experience with school shootings, horrific
as they are, may have also made people skeptical of overreaction.
As it happens, this sort of mayhem is rare and getting rarer.
Last year's annual federal report on school crime and safety notes
that the number of kids killed at school dropped from 33 in the
1998-99 school year to 14 in 2001-02. Other violent crimes against
students at school have also declined.
Common-sense security measures, like limiting
access to schools by outsiders, may help. But eliminating such
shootings entirely is asking too much. Says Ronald Stephens, executive
director of the California-based National School Safety Center,
"It's very difficult to stop an incident like this unless
you have an army standing at the door."
Most Americans have probably figured that out,
and while they may be shocked and saddened by mass murder, they
don't expect it to ever be eradicated entirely. That sort of realism
is no ally of gun control.
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