Editorial – No Easy Answers

The news reports are still coming in, the survivors are still in hospital, and already the tragedy at Virginia Polytechnic Institute has sparked a forceful reaction from those on both sides of the gun control issue.

Politicians are lying low, but the debate is simmering and it won’t be long before it comes to a boil. As President Bush put it (even while sidestepping the issue), ?I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion? (1).

Public discourse, the freedom to engage in rigorous debate, is good. It is one of the hallmarks of a free society. But in this case, it is not a debate that ever will–or can–be won.

The question being raised in many articles and weblogs is whether or not the Virginia Tech assailant could have been stopped if students had been allowed to carry their firearms on campus.

The pro-Second Amendment camp says yes. As one poster on the Wall Street Journal Online website put it: ?The only thing that deters bad people with guns are good people with guns? (2).

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, took the same stance. Although he couldn’t guarantee that an armed campus would have prevented the tragedy, he suggested that if the students had been carrying weapons, they would have been ?more like a wolf with some fangs, able to fight back? (3).

Still others point to the February 2007 confrontation in a Salt Lake City mall, in which an off-duty police officer used his weapon to prevent a teenaged shooter from claiming even more lives (4).

But those arguing for firearms as self-defence are relying on a very shaky assumption: that the average person, often with only basic instruction in firearm use, will possess the same clear-headed, capable judgement as professionals who regularly practice with weapons and are trained to handle crisis situations. That they would have reacted in the same way as the highly trained officer in Salt Lake City.

According to a 1997 U.S. Department of Justice report, 16% of U.S. adults own at least one handgun (5). Extending that national total to a Virginia Tech on-campus enrolment of over 26,000 would have placed more than 4,100 handguns in classrooms and on campus grounds that day.

In the midst of all the confusion, how would students–or even police–have been able to identify the one armed student among thousands who was the aggressor? With a crowd of frightened, panicked people running through hallways, barring doors, or jumping out windows, seeing someone approaching with a gun might easily have been enough to provoke an accidental shooting–purely in self-defence.

Yet those calling for stricter gun controls don’t have the solution either. In this particular case, tightening Virginia’s lax gun laws wouldn’t have helped. They are, admittedly, some of the loosest in the country: the state only requires two pieces of identification and a computerized background check. It is also known as a ?shall issue state? (6), which means that law officials ?must issue a concealed carry permit to almost anyone who applies? (3). (Incredibly, the state has found it necessary to limit people to one handgun purchase a month to avoid customers reselling in bulk.) Other states, including California and New York, require buyers to undergo a thorough application at their local police department, and there is often a waiting period before they can obtain a gun (6).

But the fact is that tighter gun controls wouldn’t have stopped this murderer. None of the conditions that would have raised a red flag were present: he didn’t have a criminal record, and had never been involuntarily committed to a mental-health facility (although ordered for an assessment, he was only treated as an outpatient) (6). And if someone is determined to lay their hands on a weapon, they certainly don’t need to go through legal channels to do it.

In spite of all the finger-pointing, all the rhetoric about gun control versus the right to bear arms, every situation is different and the variables are infinite.

Which random group of people will be thrown together in a given situation? What group dynamics will influence their reaction? Will they be lucky enough to have in their midst one (or more) professionals trained in crisis management, perhaps a police officer or a member of the military? If they’re armed, will it be enough to deter an attacker who is psychotic, high, or both? It’s impossible to know.

So what’s the answer? The sad truth is that there isn’t one. And in light of the terrible tragedies that have struck Virginia Tech, and others, in recent years, that may be the most frightening thing of all.

(1) ABC News (2007). ?Bush Offers Condolences at Virginia Tech.? Retrieved April 19, 2007, from http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=3049623&page=2

(2) The Wall Street Journal Online (2007). Reader response to ?FBI Warns of Copycat Attacks.? Posted April 17, 2007, 12:51 a.m. Retrieved April 19, 2007, from http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2007/04/16/more-to-come/

(3) New York Times (2007). ?Shooting Rekindles Issues of Gun Rights and Restrictions.? Retrieved April 19, 2007, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/18/us/18pistols.html

(4) CBS News (2007). ?Police: Off-Duty Cop Saved Lives In Mall.? Retrieved April 19, 2007, from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/02/13/national/main2466711.shtml

(5) Cook, P. And J. Ludwig. ?Guns In America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms.? U.S. Department of Justice, 1997. http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/165476.pdf

(6) New York Times (2007). ?Mental Health and Guns: Do Background Checks Do Enough?? Retrieved April 19, 2007, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/19/us/19weapons.html