The shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has brought gun violence into the forefront again. As we noted last week, gun fatalities of this sort are rare compared to other forms of death, particularly drunk driving fatalities, but they have an emotional element that causes people to respond irrationally to them. We want to find a way to prevent crazy people from obtaining guns, so they won't use them in this way.
Whenever these things happen, some people say that the shooter seemed like such a quiet and gentle person, and others that they always knew there was something wrong with him. But then, everyone has someone who thinks they are a bit crazy, and so before the fact you could always find someone who thinks you are unstable and should not be permitted to own a gun. I'm sure that some of my readers think this of me, whether because I am a dungeon master, a Christian, a rock musician, a science fiction fan, or some other reason, and you will find that you, too, fall into at least one and probably several categories that some people think make you dangerous. Worse, after an event like this many people will reflect that they should have recognized this person as unstable even though they never did, and some will tell themselves that they did know it beforehand and should have mentioned it to someone, simply because they don't want to believe that they didn't know, that someone who seemed perfectly normal or at least perfectly peaceable could prove to be a violent killer quite without notice. We do not want to believe that, in part because it means that our own friends, members of our own families, could be next, and in part because we realize that we could be next. Yet anyone who has watched Michael Douglas' performance in the movie Falling Down, should realize that pretty much any one of us might be one terrible day away from becoming one of these shooters.
Therein lies the biggest problem with screening. It is not sufficient to screen only those who attempt to buy guns through legitimate dealers, because guns are available in a thousand different ways. It is not sufficient that we screen those few who someone suggests might be dangerous; we must screen everyone, because anyone might be dangerous. Further, it is not sufficient that we screen everyone once, because any of us could be fine in January and unstable in June. We are talking about a system in which everyone must report several times a year to a government psychiatric facility to be tested for mental and emotional stability, and have the details of potential stress situations in our lives constantly monitored.
Even with this, what do we gain? There are millions who are mentally or emotionally unstable at any given moment, most of whom recover and move forward with life. Maybe half a dozen become shooters. We do not even know why, or how to spot them in advance. We might have some faint hope that by screening everyone every three months and then looking at the past records of those who become shooters we might find patterns--but then, how many people will miss their testing appointments, and what are the odds that unstable shooters will be among them? We have no data, no test, no certainty--and no system able to bear the burden of such an approach.
More than one person has suggested that the solution to combating school shootings is not a futile attempt to limit access to guns, but a concerted effort to train teachers and school personnel in firearm use and provide them with weapons for the defense of the students. Some think that a joke, some react with horror to the suggestion of having guns in schools, but ultimately it is at least as good and more workable a solution than the other. In most situations where a shooter was stopped early in his rampage, it was because someone present was armed and trained and able to end the shooting quickly. We might prefer a solution in which no one had a gun and no one started shooting, but the more realistic solution seems to be that more people have guns and are prepared to use them in emergencies.