There are few criminal events as stunning and frightening as a mass shooting. The suddenness, randomness and unpredictability of episodes like Friday’s early morning massacre at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater cause us all to wonder whether any place is safe.
In our search for some pattern or commonality to these tragedies that might help us make sense of what appears so senseless, we invariably seek answers to such questions as: “What would inspire someone to commit such a dreadful act, one that was clearly planned in terms of time and place?” and “Are there measures that would reduce the likelihood of such events or at least reduce the carnage associated with them when they do occur?”
Because the shooting suspect was alive at the scene — many mass killers commit suicide — we might learn a lot more than usual about a motive for mass murder. Of course, that will do little to help us prevent future events. (The number of mass murders in the U.S. has remained fairly steady, averaging about two dozen cases a year since the mid-1970s.)
Even though there is a general profile that typifies these perpetrators, their exact identities become crystal clear only in the aftermath.
If one thing is predictable about mass shootings, however, is that they will spark arguments from gun control advocates and gun rights groups alike. Both sides of the gun issue will probably view this tragedy as one more example of why more or less gun control is the answer … and both sides will be wrong.
Tighter restrictions on gun purchasing — for example, eliminating multiple gun sales and closing the gun-show loophole — may help reduce America‘s gun violence problem generally, but mass murder is unlike most other forms of violent conflict.
Mass killers are determined, deliberate and dead-set on murder. They plan methodically to execute their victims, finding the means no matter what laws or other impediments the state attempts to place in their way. To them, the will to kill cannot be denied.
Mass shootings have been exploited just as effectively by pro-gun groups to promote legislation allowing ordinary citizens to carry concealed weapons in public places. Concealed-carry proponents suggest that an armed citizenry would deter criminals or at least reduce the death toll.
While logical in theory, in the chaos of the moment, few gun owners would be prepared to mount an effective counterattack. And in a crowded setting, such as the movie theater clouded with tear gas and smoke, it would be virtually impossible to distinguish the bad guy with a gun from the good guys with their guns.
In the short term, there will probably be security specialists who will recommend ways in which our public spaces could be better protected. Sadly, mass shootings have occurred in shopping malls, schools, restaurants, health clubs, churches, courthouses, post offices, almost any place that people congregate. None of us would wish to turn our public spaces into tightly secured fortresses.
It is also unreasonable to expect that we would begin a campaign to round up all the guns or all the potentially dangerous people who might have access to guns. Mass murder is regrettably one of the painful consequences of the freedoms we enjoy.
The Australian federal government persuaded all states and territories to implement tough new gun control laws. Under the National Firearms Agreement (NFA), firearms legislation was tightened throughout the country. National registration of guns was imposed and it became illegal to hold certain long guns that might be used in mass shootings.
The gun ban was backed up by a mandatory buy-back program that substantially reduced gun possession in Australia.
The effect was that both gun suicides and homicides (as well as total suicides and homicides) fell. Importantly, while there were 13 mass shootings in Australia during the period of 1979–96, there have been none in the sixteen years since.
In 1996, then-Prime Minister John Howard stated that the “whole scheme is designed to reduce the number of guns in the community and make Australia a safer place to live.” The Australian attorney general praised the cooperation and responsibility of Australian firearms owners with the gun controls and buy-back, saying, “they have been paid cash for their firearms – giving our nation a welcome Christmas gift by removing unnecessary high-powered firearms from the community. It offers all of us the real chance of a safer festive season and New Year.”
Of course, the Australian gun control law in 1997 enjoyed an extremely high level of public support and was not hampered by any domestic gun industry (since Australia did not have any).
I do support wholeheartedly certain reasonable gun restrictions — steps designed to reduce our nation’s overall rate of firearms violence. But lets be real for a minute – restricting guns from felons isn’t who the majority of this mass killings come from. Still, murder in its most extreme form, as in the Colorado shooting, is particularly difficult to prevent through gun regulations, or other strategies, for that matter. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try nonetheless.
At the end of the day, it’s not the gun I’m worried about – it’s the person.
My prayers go out to those that lost loved ones.