Daniel Gallington is the Senior Policy and Program Adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Reacting to the nightmare of the Connecticut elementary school shootings, the president has called for "meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this." However, what exactly is—or could be— "meaningful action" to "prevent" yet another massacre of innocents? By the way, watching us very carefully will be the Norwegians, who suffered 69 killed at an island youth camp, plus eight more dead in a diversionary, bombing—just last year!
To begin with, we have had way too many eerily similar tragedies: Virginia Tech, Columbine, the Aurora movie theatre massacre, mall shootings—also included could be the recent attack on the Seik temple, the shooting of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords, and perhaps even the Oklahoma City bombing.
What common elements are clear when these tragic events are compared and contrasted?
- Soft targets—the same kind of targets preferred by terrorists.
- Gun violence—although this does not seem universal in the world: A series of deranged or "mentally disturbed" men have attacked young school children in China with knives, killing 20 children and seriously wounding 50 in 2010, according to a recent AP report. And, the latest such attack occurred, ironically, last Friday when 22 children were injured by a knife wielding man outside a primary school in central China. Bombing plots are also common to this deviant behavior—often combined with shooting.
- Mental illness, "character and behavior disorders" and/or "personality disorders" seem to be the dominant themes in most of these violent episodes, and we are waiting for the full story as to the combination of mental conditions that led the Connecticut shooter to do his fiendish evil. In fact, there are—often in hindsight—ample "signs" or reasons for responsible friends, family, neighbors, associates, colleagues to have "done something" to identify a potentially serious situation before it turns deadly. Professionals who have studied these episodes of mass mayhem have a name for it: "The pathway to violence".
There are also international political aspects to these tragic occurrences, some helpful and some not so helpful. For example: There is an international treaty being "worked" in the United Nations to prevent the "international trafficking in small arms." While the basic idea behind such a treaty might be laudatory, certain state sponsors of terror will continue to covertly supply their terror clients with small arms and other tools of the terror trade, while signing such a treaty gives them "diplomatic cover" to deflect otherwise valid international criticism. They should not have this duplicitous opportunity and the treaty is a bad idea for this reason alone.
In addition, there is an active domestic antigun lobby that seeks to achieve substantive changes in U.S. gun laws by "signing us up" to these kinds of international agreements. This is also a bad idea, and fraught with serious Constitutional issues.
By now, it should be clear that guns may not be the key part of the problem; and, to demonstrate this, countries enacting stricter prohibitions on gun ownership (i.e., the United Kingdo and Australia) have experienced net increases in violent crimes, usually committed by knives.
Stated alternatively, how does legislating prohibitions on the "means" or the "vehicle" of violence address the root causes of the violence? It doesn't, any more than to ban knives in China or cricket bats in England. Or, as a sportscaster suggested recently, by taking guns away from NFL players because one of them shot his girlfriend. Based on this goofy theory, why not take away their fast cars because they might drive drunk and kill their passenger? This actually happened a few days later.
Broad-based gun control and gun related prohibitions, particularly in countries where guns are a part of the historical, legal, cultural, and constitutional heritage—such as ours—serve primarily to arm professional criminals, who will always have them, no matter what. Meanwhile, the mentally ill or sociopathic evil-doers among us, such as the Connecticut shooter—who are intent on killing innocents for one perverted reason or another, will continue to kill any way they can.
So, what "meaningful action" should we take to help "prevent more tragedies like this"? We need to focus, primarily, on the "human reliability" part of this draconian equation—this rather than the simplistic and emotional lure of gun control.
Just for example: Years ago, based on advances in drug therapy, people who had been institutionalized for mental impairments were suddenly free to walk among us, and continue to do so. Do we need to take another look at the effectiveness of modern drug therapy to protect us from violence? And, what assurances do we have that people who should be on some kind of drug therapy are actually on it? Will it be "politically incorrect" to ask these kind of questions even if they should be asked? Or, is it just easier to focus on gun control—even if we know it just doesn't work?
The severely twisted young man who killed these innocent kids and school professionals should clearly not have been "on his own." And, this seems to have been the case for many years—whether he was home schooled or not—and he should have never had any access to any weapon of any kind.
And so, if we are to take "meaningful action" in the wake of this tragedy, let's have the good sense to deal with the human, emotional, and mental health factors that we know are common to all of them.
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