We Need Gun Control to Stop More Than Criminals

Gun laws may not stop criminals, but they will save lives.

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Assault weapons and hand guns are seen for sale at Capitol City Arms Supply Jan. 16, 2013, in Springfield, Ill.

Opponents of any kind of gun restrictions argue that they are meaningless, since criminals by definition don't follow the law, and therefore won't allow gun laws to hamstring their criminal behavior. That's true. But gun violence isn't only committed by classic criminals, as recent gun-related tragedies show.

There's the 12-year-old who apparently took a shotgun out of a musical instrument case and shot and injured two classmates at a middle school in New Mexico. His behavior would make him a criminal (and what is a 12-year-old doing with a gun?). But most likely, his classmates and teachers did not see him as your basic law-breaker. He was, the Los Angeles Times reports, a bright but distant boy. He was able to get a gun because his family is a gun family, enjoying hunting. Are they criminals? It doesn't sound like it. The boy simply had easy access to a gun, without which he would not have been able to do the damage he has done. We don't yet know the circumstances of the origin of the gun used, but could the tragedy have been averted had there been mandatory safety stopgaps – either on the weapon itself, or with a requirement that the guns be kept in a locked structure?

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

A man in Florida, meanwhile, shot and killed a fellow movie-goer after said viewer refused to stop texting. The annoyance of the shooter is more than understandable – and many of us might have no problem with grabbing a phone from a theater-goer, throwing it on the floor and stomping on it – but the fact that this man felt he could shoot and kill someone for behaving so boorishly is alarming. Is he a criminal? It didn't sound like it, based on evidence from before the shooting. In fact, he was a retired police office with a spotless record. And early reports indicate he thought he was being threatened (turns out the “threat” may have just been thrown popcorn). The point is he had a gun, had it with him in a movie theater, and could not have killed someone if he had not had the weapon with him. If people were not allowed to carry concealed weapons into the theater, this particular tragedy may not have happened.

On Wednesday night, a gunman opened fire at an Indiana grocery store, killing two people with a semi-automatic weapon before police shot and killed the gunman. That offender may well have been a classic criminal before the episode. We may never know, as he can't tell us his back-story. If he was a troubled person (and his behavior suggests that he was), would a simple background check have kept him from getting such a gun?

Ban guns and only criminals will have guns, we are told. Put restrictions on gun ownership, or require people to undergo background checks first, and we will only make it harder for law-abiding citizens to get guns for protection, gun rights advocates say. They are right on both counts. But it would still prevent a great many murders.

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