I am so very disappointed in The Economist this week. Or, to be more precise, in the lead editorial. In response to the spree killing last week of 32 people by Cho Seung-Hui, the leader asserts that the only thing that can help prevent this sort of massacre is increased gun control. That's not an unreasonable claim to make, but the piece gives the impression that the author has swallowed without question a large number of gun control lobby's talking points. For openers, take the description of Cho's primary weapon, a Glock semi-automatic pistol (in this particular instance, the 9mm model 19); The Economist states this is:
a rapid-fire weapon that is available only to police in virtually every other country, but which can legally be bought over the counter in thousands of gun-shops in America.
Glocks are not significantly more capable of "rapid fire" than any other weapon which can be fired as quickly as one can pull the trigger, including double-action revolvers. Nor is their ownership typically limited more than any other semi-automatic handgun; Robert Steinhäuser, the gunman in the 2002 mass killing in Erfurt (Germany), used a Glock 17 which he owned legally. A perusal of Dutch-language internet discussion boards dedicated to shooting sports indicates (licensed and registered) Glocks are by no means unusual in Belgium and the Netherlands. The larger-framed models like the 17L and the 24 are used for competition shooting, and they are mechanically identical to the smaller models. I'm honestly surprised that old canard about Glocks not showing up on metal detectors wasn't repeated as well. Perhaps the author was unwittingly confusing Glocks in general with the model 18 specifically; sale of this model is restricted to government agencies, since it is capable of automatic fire. But because it is selective-fire, its manufacture or importation for civilian use has been prohibited in the United States since the passage of the Firearm Owners' Protection Act of 1986, and since production of the Glock 18 started at most a year or two earlier, very few, if any, are in civilian hands in the United States (and those that are require a "Class III permit").
Let's move on to this passage, towards the end:
In poll after poll a clear majority [of Americans] has supported tightening controls. Very few Americans support a complete ban, even of handguns—there are too many out there already, and many people reasonably feel that they need to be able to protect themselves. But much could still be done without really infringing that right.
The assault-weapons ban should be renewed, with its egregious loopholes removed. No civilian needs an AK-47 for a legitimate purpose, but you can buy one online for $379.99. Guns could be made much safer, with the mandatory fitting of child-proof locks. A system of registration for guns and gun-owners, as exists in all other rich countries, threatens no one but the criminal. Cooling-off periods, a much more open flow of intelligence, tighter rules on the trading of guns and a wider blacklist of those ineligible to buy them would all help.
Almost none of the recommendations given here would have made one iota of difference to the events at Virginia Tech. Cho did not use an "assault weapon," but two handguns (and The Economist concedes that there are legitimate reasons not to ban those). Child-proof locks don't stop the person who owns the guns, the best evidence for this being that the Walther P22 (Cho's secondary weapon) is fitted with an integrated trigger lock. Registration allows guns found at a crime scene to be readily traced to their owners, but in the case of spree killings like this one, the perpetrator doesn't need to be traced, since he (it's almost always a he) is still on the scene, dead either by his own hand or by police fire; there is a good case to be made for registering guns, but preventing spree killings is not part of it (as demonstrated by the spree shootings in Hungerford, Dunblane, Emsdetten and Erfurt, all of which were conducted with registered guns by licensed owners). Cho purchased the Glock over a month before the killings, so evidently a "cooling-off" period wouldn't have helped either. Moreover, Cho bought the guns from Roanoke Firearms, a "regular" gun shop operating openly out of a storefront (and thus readily subject to scrutiny by the relevant authorities), not from a "kitchen table dealer," a private seller, or a "straw buyer."
The one thing that realistically could have made it difficult (though not impossible) for Cho to acquire his weapons would have been the last option listed, i.e. widening the criteria which would exclude an individual from purchasing firearms. In a very real sense, however, the law which would have prevented Cho from legally acquiring firearms was already in place: federal law already prohibits the sale of firearms to those "adjudicated mentally defective" and Cho was arguably already suspected to fall into that category. As the accompanying article in The Economist states:
A district court found reason [in late 2005] to believe him "mentally ill" and "an imminent danger to self or others" and ordered him to undergo a psychiatric test. But the examination found "his insight and judgment are normal" and he was discharged.
I would not want to be the psychiatrist who signed off on that evaluation. I'm loth to condemn anyone on the basis of 20/20 hindsight, and that includes the psychiatrist in question, but right there we see that there was a safeguard, only it failed. The flaw in the system may be that the psychiatrist was reluctant to declare Cho mentally ill because that would have resulted in Cho being committed, and the psychiatrist judged that Cho's condition was not sufficiently severe to merit that and/or felt that Cho would not have benefited from being committed. Perhaps, then, the answer is to amend the law so that a psychiatrist can recommend an individual can be barred from possessing firearms, even if his condition is not so severe as to merit involuntary commitment to a mental health facility (provided there is a process by which the individual in question can appeal such a decision, since evidently psychiatrists cannot be relied upon to be accurate 100% of the time).
At this point, I need to make a small aside to deal with this sentence:
No civilian needs an AK-47 for a legitimate purpose, but you can buy one online for $379.99.
First, the claim that you can buy any type of gun online is misleading. You can buy a firearm from an online distributor, but it must be delivered to a federally licensed dealer in your state of residence, and that dealer is required to conduct the legally required background checks etc. and get you to fill out the infamous BATFE form 4473 before he can hand over the weapon to you. Unless you hold a Federal Firearms License, it is impossible to legally purchase a firearm on the internet and have it delivered directly to you, no questions asked.
Second, what with this "needs" business? Baseball bats and golf clubs can be (and often are) used to commit acts of violence, and nobody needs them for a legitimate purpose, in that nobody needs to play baseball or golf. Why don't you play Wiffle Ball instead, if you need the exercise? Nobody needs sports cars either, or motorcycles; for transporting people or cargo, there are much more efficient options available, and the speed of which these vehicles are capable only encourages irresponsible driving, which will almost inevitably result in people being killed. Nobody needs to drink alcohol or take drugs, either. Sure, for the most part, these substances harm only the user himself, but some people are incapable of handling them responsibly, and become violent, or socially dysfunctional, and harm others as a result. FBI statistics indicate that "assault weapons" were never involved in more than 1% of gun crimes, even before the imposition of the 1994 ban; their fearsome reputation is almost entirely based on media hype. One of the tenets of liberalism is that the fact that a small number of people cannot use a particular good or engage in a particular activity responsibly is insufficient reason to prohibit it to the entire populace. "Assault weapons" are no different. Frankly, I find it strange that a newspaper like The Economist, which trumpets the supposed merits of the classic liberal free-market economy at every opportunity, is prepared to ditch those principles without a second thought when it comes to a product it doesn't care for. As Penn Jillette put it in the episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! on recycling, "everybody got a gris-gris."
I hope I've made it clear in previous posts that, in my opinion, the key to reducing violent crime (especially lethal violent crime) is to control (would-be) gun owners, not particular types of firearm. All the gun owners I know, I would trust with any kind of small arm, including those capable of automatic fire. By contrast, if I found myself in a dark alley confronted by a mugger, it would make me feel no safer that this miscreant were using a revolver rather than a semi-automatic pistol, or a double-barrel shotgun rather than an "assault weapon." And, lest I had not made it clear, I am not interested in results which are measured solely in "reductions in gun violence"; this is a hollow phrase too often employed by gun control types to mask the failure of policies they support, namely by claiming success when stabbings and stranglings take the place of shootings, and the body count does not drop (like in Australia; see previous entry).
If we can draw any lesson from the Virginia Tech shootings, it's that "Gun-Free Zones" are ineffective at providing any actual protection. That is, without the will and the means to enforce them they won't stop a crime, and enforcing them effectively would probably require violating the Fourth Amendment in a major way. Not that I think the claim made by many gun enthusiasts—that allowing concealed carry on-campus would have prevented much of the bloodshed—is much more realistic; I mean, it's possible, but equally, one can imagine scenarios of concealed carriers shooting each other, or being shot by police while attention was drawn away from Cho, etc. That said, though, I do understand people refusing to accept that they should be rendered incapable of defending themselves from a spree killer like Cho, and instead be forced to rely on the police, whose timely arrival is by no means guaranteed. I'm not saying it's absolutely correct; I'm saying it's understandable, and such concerns do need to be addressed, and not with some "your gun can be easily turned against you anyway" bullshit like the Brady Campaign peddles.
And, ultimately, for better or worse, the right of the people to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution. That doesn't make it unassailable, but only by nothing less than a constitutional amendment; anything less would set the very ugly precedent that the Constitution can simply be bypassed. And in a political climate where organizations like the ACLU already have to fight tooth and nail against infringements on the separation between church and state, and the right of habeas corpus, that is not a precedent I want to see set.