The senseless and tragic massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech yesterday underscores what the comic Eddie Izzard has said about guns and violence:
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and monkeys do too (if they have a gun).
Or as I put it myself in this entry:
Firearms make it much, much easier to kill people.
This largely preventable massacre underscores what should be obvious, if so many of us were not blinded by our obsession with firearms: guns have their place in the field of combat, and perhaps on the hunting range, but they have no place in the rest of society.
Our acceptance of the gun culture and our willingness to nods our heads like morons to NRA pablum trivializes the fundamental thing that is unique about guns: they allow for large numbers of people to be killed easily. This alleged mass murderer, Cho Seung-Hui, would have doubtless killed many fewer people had he been armed with a butcher knife instead of a Glock 9mm pistol and a .22 caliber handgun, both of which he could easily procure in my gun crazy state of Virginia.
According to The Washington Post, Seung-Hui was apparently a neighbor of mine from nearby Centreville, Virginia. Police say he killed himself as they surrounded him. Regardless of who committed this crime, by making it so easy for him to acquire lethal weapons society is indirectly complicit. As construed by the courts, gun ownership is a right, not a privilege. This incident, the largest single mass murder of its kind in United States history, is the latest outrageous example of why Americans need to stop worshiping their firearms.
Perhaps this incident will spur us to action. A similar 1996 incident in Dunblane, Scotland made the British realize that most such atrocities could be prevented. In that incident, Thomas Hamilton killed 17 people and himself with a gun. He injured 12 others as well. As a direct result the British passed stringent gun control laws. At least in Great Britain, similar incidents have not recurred. The British learned from the incident. Will we?
I would like to think so, but history is against me. Somehow I expect that after all the crying, funerals and compulsory speeches expressing outrage are over that we will choose gun rights over gun violence once again. Congress doesn’t care. In fact, we have Congress trying to overturn the District of Columbia’s gun ban. In addition a federal appeals court recently overturned the District’s 21 year gun ban. (The District is appealing the ruling to a higher court.) Perhaps gun advocates think that when we are all carrying loaded pistols like during those Wild West days we will all be safer. I do not buy this argument. Westerners carried firearms everywhere they went in the West because they were not safe. Is this the sort of society we aspire to live in? Do we want to send our kids to school with a loaded pistol so they can defend themselves if they get in a firefight? Or do we want to feel safer from gun violence in our community by restricting the possession and use of firearms?
This incident could not teach a clearer lesson: easy accessibility to guns contributes to the deaths of tens of thousands of us every year. Sadly, it is only when massacres happen that it draws our attention. We need a culture that considers gun ownership socially unacceptable. Clearly, death by firearms is not an abstraction and kills many of us every day. Just like smoking, this kind of death is largely preventable. Unlike smoking though, which is an activity you choose to do to yourself, you will not choose to have someone kill you with a firearm.
This incident should have one small silver lining: it should facilitate the end of our gun culture. I am not shy to speak up with my friends and neighbors about the need for society to tightly regulate firearms. I realize my quest is a bit quixotic, but perhaps this incident will finally change the dynamics. I encourage you to do your part and speak up loudly. Tell your neighbors and friends that you think it should be illegal to store firearms in our communities. Tell them that while you agree that the vast majority of gun owners are honorable that nonetheless the possession of these weapons in our communities sends the wrong messages. It makes the use of guns in commission of a crime far more likely. (Here is another egregious local example that turns my stomach. The assailant in this case was a former student of the high school my daughter attends and his wacky father was obsessed with firearms.) Guns should be as difficult to acquire as dynamite. We need a zero tolerance policy for guns in our communities. Hunters should be licensed to use guns only in designated areas. Guns should be required to be transported in locked containers. Guns should be stored in community armories when not needed. We should encourage neighborhoods to become gun free communities.
As with addressing global warming, no campaign like this will succeed overnight. It must build up a head of steam before real progress can be made. It succeeds when pressure builds from the grass roots. It is time to start talking with our neighbors. I encourage you to tell them in quite emotional and emphatic terms that we must to much more to prevent gun violence. Possession of guns in the community should be a shameful thing. We need to carry this message emphatically to our representatives and tell them that enough is enough.