About 30 years ago as a young reporter in Florida, I was assigned a series on gun control in response to gun violence, which had peaked in the U.S. in 1980.
I began the series with profiles of three gun users, including a woman who had killed her would-be rapist, the owner of a sport shooting club and a convicted murderer on death row at the Florida State Prison in Starke.
Most dramatic was the woman, who was attacked as she entered her apartment after work one evening. Reaching into her bag, she grabbed her gun, pressed it to his side and – boom. He died instantly.
Most chilling was the murderer. No doubt aware that I was nervous, he seemed amused by my questions.
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“Sure,” he chuckled. “I’m all for gun control. Because that means you won’t have a gun. And I will always have a gun.”
All of which is to say, the conversation we’re having today about how to avert the next act of gun violence is nothing new. Yet we seem always to fall into the same pro-con template when a fresh shooting occurs.
Before we knew the name of the shooter who killed 12 civilians at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, social media were atwitter with the usual exclamations:
More gun control!
Guns don’t kill, people do!
It is easy to become cynical when there’s nothing new to say and when we know that nothing new will come of it. Gun-control activists will push harder for tighter restrictions; Second Amendment champions will push back. The National Rifle Association will prevail.
Despite the redundancy of our renditions, there are some differences in gun violence between today and more than three decades ago. Even though firearm deaths have decreased, the recent rash of spree killings – five incidents this year alone – justifies a heightened level of concern.
Still, these shootings represent less than 1 percent of all gun deaths between 1980 and 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides.
In other words, the reflex to make tougher laws may be missing more important points. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t consider imposing restrictions on who owns guns, but as my guy in Starke suggested, there’s little comfort in forcing law-abiding citizens to submit to tighter controls knowing that criminals will not.
What we’re really fighting about in our national debate about guns is how to stop mentally ill people from wreaking havoc. And what are the causes that lead to the breakdowns that lead to the slaughter?
No wonder we’d rather limit magazine sizes.
Much more difficult to “fix” are the multitude of factors that lead a sick person to seek company in death. What we know about such people is that they tend to be loners and narcissists who act impulsively and seek attention (and revenge) in dramatic and public ways.
That we have more such characters than we used to – or that they seem more inclined to act on their impulses – may have less to do with guns than with cultural causes. No, I’m not singling out video games or family dissolution or any other single factor, though none should be excluded.
If we don’t take a serious look at the environment that spawns these individuals, we’ll likely be having this same conversation another 30 years from now.