Gun Control Clamor Needs a Thoughtful Response
Second Amendment supporters must rise to another challenge in coming months. The horrific Newtown, Connecticut school massacre has heightened anti-gun rumblings to a crescendo. It was also predictable that weapons sales would surge in Virginia and nationwide, at least partly in fear that new federal laws might be enacted.
Although anti-gun clamors have arisen after other atrocities, the circumstances of this one are especially conducive to overreaction in the policy realm. Very young children were gunned down, and it happened right before Christmas. It also occurred in a liberal state and region, where more anti-gun commentary from families and the general citizenry, in addition to demands for especially tough laws, might well emerge. Believers in the right to bear arms must take pains to answer the clamor thoughtfully and with respect for differing perspectives, despite the rhetorical excesses on the other side.
At the same time, while understanding many Americans’ instinctive fear of any guns in civilian hands, we must insist that anti-gun people respect many others’ instinctive unwillingness to passively wait for cops who probably won’t get there in time. But let the gun-control advocates be the shouters.
The governor of gun-friendly but purple-trending Virginia is an easy target for trash talk from proponents of stricter regulation, so inevitably Bob McDonnell took heat for suggesting, in response to a caller during a radio appearance right after the shooting, that having some armed teachers in schools might be a way to make kids safer.
Reactions from state Senate minority leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax)—“what’s next? Arm the students?”—and from Congressman Gerry Connolly, who damned McDonnell’s low-key remarks as “outrageous, extreme and reprehensible,” were in stark contrast to the governor, who demonized no one and avoided sarcasm.
Another response from Northern Virginia was that of state Senator David Marsden (D-Fairfax), who intends to propose a bill making gun owners liable for civil damages if their weapons are used in a crime and they didn’t do enough to prevent the theft.
Such a measure may have appeal beyond the usual gun-control advocates, since responsible defenders of gun rights tend to stress the importance of taking a high level of responsibility for safety. But it’s also in keeping with an approach increasingly popular among liberals: to make disfavored behavior, or in this case a disfavored type of property, more difficult while avoiding the political and legal risks of banning it. Beware of gradual attempts to make ownership troublesome.
Meanwhile, Delegate Joseph Morrissey (D-Henrico) plans to introduce a bill banning the sale of assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines. Those are, of course, the fastest and most attention-getting way for killers to mow people down in public places, so opponents will have to argue on the basis of constitutional rights and the alleged ineffectiveness of the former national ban on “assault weapons.”
A close look at the state constitution’s gun-rights provision is instructive. Like the Second Amendment, it suggests that its purpose isn’t the right to hunt (which most gun controllers readily concede), or even to self-defense, a natural right that in theory shouldn’t need constitutional warrant. It is to guarantee, troubling as the concept has become to many Americans, a collective paramilitary capability to civil society as a defense against tyranny, invasion, or catastrophe.
In the more clearly stated Virginia language, the purpose of gun rights is: “a well-regulated militia … composed of the body of the people, trained to arms.” That means a lot more than pistols and deer rifles. But the “trained to arms” part, in addition to the term “well-regulated,” seems to encourage laws that require owners of the most lethal weapons, at least, to be competent. If so, that bar can reasonably be placed higher than it now is.
Under a 1968 federal law, some mentally ill people are forbidden to buy firearms. A 1993 law established a national system for background checks. After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre another federal law, aiming to prevent as many sales to mentally ill people as possible, required states to share the names they had with the national database. An Associated Press investigation, reported in early 2011, found that 26 states still had forwarded very few or no names. Virginia, in contrast, had provided more than 100,000.
In a society that no longer institutionalizes the mentally ill as often as it once did, it’s no surprise that current law and bureaucratic practice have protected us inadequately in regard to gun purchases.
The perpetrator of the Tucson shooting that wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been expelled from a community college for mental instability, but was legally able to buy a gun because he hadn’t been classified as mentally ill by a judge or committed to an institution. The Virginia Tech shooter, on the other hand, could not legally buy a gun, since he had been ruled a danger to himself by a court and ordered to undergo outpatient mental health treatment. But because these records weren’t sent to the national database, he slipped through the cracks. Since then, a state law has closed the loophole that was to blame for this.
Still, more ought to be done in the area. Virginia does not require background checks for “private,” meaning non-dealer, sales. Although the term “gun-show loophole” is a bit misleading because most purchases at shows are through dealers, there is a loophole for non-dealer transactions in these venues. It could probably be closed. Another perhaps constructive idea for discussion from the gun-control side of the spectrum is that another national database should be created: one to track truly unusual firearms and ammunition purchases, or unusually large amounts thereof.
The battles in which gun rights are actually threatened seem more likely to occur in Washington than in Richmond, because the statist biases and political appetites of President Obama will lead him to push gun control, at least for a while, and because the Republican margin in the House of Delegates is much larger than that in the House of Representatives. But in any case, pro-gun Virginians should advance their own proposals, and try to agree on them, instead of just saying no to the other side.
The objections to a policy of armed teachers—to civilians, though presumably a rather small number of them, packing guns daily in schools—are not trivial and shouldn’t be waved away, any more than we should let opponents bash its advocates. A crazy teacher can kill children as surely as a psychotic punk can. A confused teacher can make a dangerous situation even worse, although excellent training will certainly reduce the chances of that.Also, kids might get hold of a teacher’s or principal’s weapon. But we must weigh these possible scenarios against the value of an immediate ability to defend children if a killer shows up.
We cannot ignore the truth of National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne La Pierre’s warning as he gave—after the respectful interval of one week—its response to the Newtown slaughter: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
In at least two states, Utah and Ohio, teachers have shown significant interest in opportunities for firearms training. As one teacher puts it, in a place like a school “We’re sitting ducks.” Former Secretary of Education William Bennett has agreed that the possibility of allowing or encouraging armed teachers should be discussed. Legislators in several states say they will be considering it.
In Virginia, Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Manassas) expects to introduce a bill telling school districts to designate some staff, safety-certified, as concealed-weapons wearers. The attorney general of Arizona has suggested arming only principals, which might be a good compromise.
Advocates of good guys with guns in schools, though, should remember that we have little experience with it—apart from police officers and guards.
After the Connecticut massacre, it was reported that tiny Harrold, Texas, a vulnerably isolated place half an hour from the nearest sheriff’s office, has an undisclosed number of armed teachers at its single school. The district couldn’t afford a hired guard—a problem that larger jurisdictions, too, will have to consider when weighing the possibility of more school cops or officers, who would mostly serve as deterrents.
But as the feature story about that Texas town pointed out, it’s a place where “people tend to know—and trust—one another.” In too many American communities, that just isn’t true. One way to address the trust deficit might be to create panels of relatively prominent citizens, not unlike the World War II draft boards, to decide which teachers should be allowed to carry concealed weapons at school. (Who they designate shouldn’t be a matter of public knowledge, though, and that precaution might create an accountability problem.)
Other solutions—doubling down on the “gun-free school zones” strategy, or placing a police officer in every school—may be even more flawed.
As the NRA argues, the signs proclaiming gun-free zones “tell every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.” It’s hard to dispute that, assuming there are literally no guns on the premises and that this is known.
In urging the placement of a cop in each school as the best immediate way to protect kids, the NRA notes that we already have armed guards at banks, airports, courthouses, and many office buildings—that we’re now in the proximity of gun-wearing professionals all the time as we do our business. But this is nothing to celebrate or get overly used to. Many Americans would understandably agree that first- and second-graders, as McDonnell said in his comments on WTOP radio, shouldn’t have to see an armed cop all the time when they walk into school. The Texas superintendent was presumably making the same kind of point when he noted that the teachers’ guns are hidden, unlike those of police or guards, and that this is another advantage to the town’s policy.
Advocates of a police officer or guard in every school do, however, have more experience to draw on, and the rest of us have more experience to learn from, than in the case of armed teachers. According to a recent New York Times story, about one-third of public schools nationwide had armed security people in 2009-10, the latest year with available data.
Districts have been somewhat less willing, or at least slower, to place armed protectors in elementary schools. But it’s possible to give them partial coverage without going all the way, and the same holds for technology.
The city of Newport News, for example, has 63 security officers at the high schools, middle schools and designated elementaries. Another five rotate among the remaining grade schools and are, the district says, able to reach any of them. Fairfax County middle and high schools have police officers, while security guards patrol its elementaries and other district facilities after-hours. In terms of technology, most Fairfax schools have an electronic sentry system and self-locking doors, although not stationary metal detectors. Many have hand-held detectors that can search bags.
Whatever else they urge or oppose, defenders of gun rights must keep reminding their fellow citizens about the culture—an issue that some liberals avoid and that others denounce as a diversion, or worse, when it’s raised.
The NRA’s full post-Newtown statement, though more harshly worded in places than it may be good for others to emulate, is well worth reading. In addition to citing inadequate data collection on the mentally ill, the organization placed some of the blame for mass shootings on “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.” It meant the hideous video games in which people are massacred. One that’s been around for ten years, according to the NRA, is actually called Kindergarten Killers. It also meant extremely violent music videos and “slasher” movies. The media, the NRA statement added with some justice, have become “silent enablers” of this problem by stressing guns and legal gun ownership instead.
We shouldn’t let the media narrow the discussion like that, especially on the general question of firearms and public safety. Given the high political stakes, no strong agreement on the science of the issue is likely to develop. But it’s crucial to point out the evidence that people, not weapons and laws about them, are the fundamental factor.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ranks states by the extent to which their laws control guns. Virginia is nineteenth out of the 50, but that’s misleading. According to the group, it barely rates “one star” for gun control, since it has on its books only 12 percent of what the Brady Campaign would like to see. It’s just that most states are even worse, from their standpoint, and good gun-control states are rare. (California, ranking first, has 81 percent. Fifth-ranked Connecticut has an unusually high 58 percent.)
One of Virginia’s failings, as seen by gun controllers, is that it’s among the many states which allow civilians to wear visible guns in public. Opencarry.org applauds it as a Gold Star state, with open-carry “increasingly common” and law enforcement agencies “well-educated as to its legality.”
And none of that makes the Old Dominion the Wild West. Virginia Commonwealth University criminal justice expert Thomas Baker has found that even as gun sales climbed by 73 percent since 2006, violent crimes involving guns fell by 27 percent. In addition, the incidence of crime is relatively low. According to a state government website, Virginia had the fifth-lowest violent crime rate among the states in 2011 and the eighth-lowest rate of property crime.
On the gun issue, as elsewhere, big-government advocates are feeling their oats right now. Their positions and rhetoric, therefore, might well go too far for most Americans, giving the rest of us an opportunity not only to be more reasonable but to be seen as such.
Both for this reason and because good government requires deliberation, friends of the Second Amendment should remember what Governor McDonnell advised everyone last month: “The key is: don’t over-react. Don’t react when you’re emotional, because your policies might not be right.”
David Frisk is the author of "If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement," published in March by ISI Books. A former newspaper reporter, he holds a PhD in political science from Claremont Graduate University and is a Senior Fellow at the Thomas Jefferson Institute.