Earlier in the year, as the gun-control movement tried clumsily to transform an abomination into a cudgel, the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker distilled its problem into a single sentence. “Nothing proposed in the gun-control debates would have prevented the mass killing of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” Parker contended plainly, “and everybody knows it.”
This was abundantly clear at the time, and it is even more so in retrospect. And yet I must nitpick ever so slightly with Parker’s excellent contention, for it is missing the crucial word “almost.” Almost everybody knows it. The public seems to know it. Legislators seem to know it. But, judging by the abundance of vexed anniversary columns, a significant cabal of journalists and activists have never got the message. A year later, their cry is as it was at the outset: Why won’t we act?
Yesterday, Michael Bloomberg delivered a speech in which he utilized what I have come to regard as the Newtown Template. Having established the tragedy in the audience’s mind — December 14 “will mark a very somber anniversary,” Bloomberg noted, correctly — he went on to claim that “unlicensed sellers of firearms” were “illegally flooding the Internet with weapons,” causing “a massive online, unregulated, second-hand firearms market that threatens public safety.” Then, for good measure, he took a swipe at the government for “doing nothing.”
As in the various columns of the same bent, Bloomberg’s purpose here was obvious: To suggest that, by failing to crack down on the private sales of firearms, the federal government has dishonored the memory of the victims at Newtown. Something that abhorrent happened, this argument goes, and we did nothing.
To wish to prevent another Sandy Hook is an admirable and human instinct. But to chase placebos? That is infinitely less commendable. Typically, when government inaction is the complaint, it is beneficial to eschew emotion in favor of a couple of hard questions. The first is “What is it that you want the state to do?”; the second, “How would the state’s doing this affect the problem?” In this case, the “what” was the Toomey-Manchin bill, which would have forced all the states to run background checks on all private transfers and sales of firearms. And the answer to “What would it have done?”: Nothing.
As a few of the more honest advocates of gun control acknowledged at the time, it is just about possible to argue with a straight face that universal background checks could help to prevent or diminish the general rate of gun crime. But it is certainly not possible to claim that they would prevent or even diminish the number of mass shootings. In fact, to argue that such a requirement would have done anything whatsoever to stop recent massacres isn’t just wrong — it’s deeply dishonest. Those who have been chastising Congress for not reacting to massacres by passing legislation that has nothing to do with massacres should be ashamed of themselves.
The left-wing blog ThinkProgress has compiled a list of massacres perpetrated between 1999 and 2012. Let’s have a look at the most recent ten:
- In December of last year, Jacob Tyler Roberts stole a Stag Arms AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and killed two people in Portland, Oregon.
- In September of 2012, Andrew John Engeldinger went on a shooting rampage in Minneapolis after he had been fired. Engeldinger used a Glock 19 handgun that he had bought legally from a licensed dealer. He passed the background check that is mandatory for all commercial sales.
- In August last year, Wade Michael Page killed six members of a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Page was an Army veteran, and because his discharge was “general” not “dishonorable” he was legally allowed to buy firearms. This he did, buying the handgun that he used in the shooting at a gun shop in West Allis, Wisconsin, and passing the background checks without a hitch.
- In July, James Holmes killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Over a period of time, Holmes legally purchased two Glock 22 pistols, a Remington 870, and Smith & Wesson M&P15 semi-automatic rifle. All the weapons were purchased from licensed dealers, and Holmes passed background checks on each occasion.
- In May of 2012, Ian Lee Stawicki murdered five people at the Café Racer Espresso in Seattle, Washington. Stawicki legally purchased two .45-caliber handguns for his spree, before which he had legally purchased four other firearms. Stawicki not only passed background checks on all six occasions, but he had a concealed-carry permit too.
- In April 2012, Jake England and Alvin Watts killed three black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in an apparently racially motivated attack. The guns they used were legally owned.
- In April of 2012, One L. Goh walked into Oikos University [in Oakland, Calfornia] and murdered seven people. Goh used a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun and four 10-round magazines, all of which he had purchased legally from a licensed dealer. He passed a background check and abided by California’s ten-day waiting period.
- In February 2012, Thomas “TK” Lane used a .22 caliber handgun to shoot three people dead at Chardon High School in Ohio. Authorities reported that Lane had stolen the .22-caliber handgun from his uncle, who had purchased it legally
- In October 2011, Scott Evans Dekraai killed eight people in Seal Beach, California. Dekraai used a 9mm Springfield pistol, a .45-caliber Heckler & Koch pistol, and a .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson revolver. All the guns were legally purchased. Just over a year earlier, Dekraai had been under a restraining order that had barred him from possessing firearms. This had expired at the time of the shooting.
- In September of 2011, Eduardo Sencion shot 5 people dead in an International House of Pancakes in Nevada. The rifle Sencion used was not only banned in America, but the company that made it was prohibited from selling or moving its products into the United States. Indeed, nobody knows how Sencion got hold of the weapon. Reports are unclear, but some suggest that the perpetrator illegally converted the weapon from semi-automatic to fully automatic.
Since ThinkProgress compiled its list, two high-profile shootings have occurred:
- In November of this year, Paul Ciancia murdered a TSA agent at LAX. Ciancia used a .223-caliber Smith & Wesson M&P-15 rifle that he had modified and which was therefore illegal in the state; he brought with him five 30-round magazines, which have been illegal in California since 2000; and he walked happily into an airport, which is by definition a gun-free zone. Authorities told the Huffington Post that Ciancia acquired his guns legally: “He didn’t buy them on the street. He didn’t buy them on the Internet. He bought them from a licensed gun dealer.
- In September, Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. Alexis had patronized a licensed dealer in Virginia and bought a Remington 870 shotgun that is so common that it is even legal in England. He had passed a background check. To commit his crime, he went onto a locked-down, “gun-free” military base, in a city in which carrying firearms is flatly prohibited.
And how about the most famous of the pre-2011 shootings — the other ones that provoked demands for somebody to “do something”? Well, Jared Loughner, who shot Representative Gabby Giffords and murdered six other people, bought his 9mm Glock pistol legally. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who was responsible for the most deadly shooting spree in American history, bought a .22 caliber Walther P22 semi-automatic pistol and a 9mm Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol from licensed dealers, and passed background checks on both occasions. And, of course, the guns used at Newtown were legally purchased by the perpetrator’s mother and then stolen by her son.
You will notice that in not a single one of the cases listed above did a perpetrator buy his weapon through an “unregulated private sale,” through “the Internet,” or in “the parking lot at a gun show.” Not one. Instead, in each and every case, one of two things happened: Either (a) the killer followed the law to the letter, or (b) he broke it spectacularly. That Sandy Hook involved little children made it that much harder to bear. But it did not change the salient fact: that massacrs eand private sales have pretty much nothing to do with one another.
Indeed, in order to find a major case that featured a private sale, one has to go all the way back to the 1999 Columbine massacre. Even then, the claim that state intrusion would have helped is shaky. Given that local police acknowledged that the man who sold the TEC-DC9 to Dylan Klebold knew that he was breaking the law by selling a handgun to a minor, and that the pistol had been made illegal by the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban and was therefore ineligible to be legally transferred or sold, one has to ask why reformers believe that a similar seller would have undergone a mandated background check had he been obliged to do so?
Nevertheless, gun-controllers have been more than happy to link background checks and massacres as if one were a failsafe way of limiting the other. During the tantrum that he threw after the Toomey-Manchin bill had been defeated, President Obama mentioned “Sandy Hook” four times, “Newtown” five times, and “children” eight times. He invited the parents of the victims to stand behind him. He brazenly connected his legislative efforts to “Tucson and Aurora and Chicago.” He riffed angrily on his childish “if it saves one life” theme, arguing that “if action by Congress could have saved one person, one child, a few hundred, a few thousand — if it could have prevented those people from losing their lives to gun violence in the future while preserving our Second Amendment rights, we had an obligation to try.”
The “saves one life” standard is so self-evidently and inherently absurd that, for the sake of merciful brevity, I will leave it to one side here. A more important question, though, is this: What precisely has led our smartest-ever president to believe that the bill he considered vital would help to prevent future massacres? At what exactly are champions of background checks looking that has given them this erroneous impression?
In the Huffington Post on Wednesday, Sam Stein and Sam Wilkes complained rather predictably that “progress on gun control seemed inevitable after Sandy Hook, but apparently that was wrong.” Given their preferences, I’d ask them the same thing as I would the president: What sort of “progress” is passing a law that has nothing to do with the problem you’re trying to solve? The answer is none at all. In truth, the Left’s knee-jerk reaction to gun violence represents quite the opposite of forward thinking, based as it is on fear, superstition, and good old-fashioned ignorance. However nicely they package their schemes, an informed, reasonable, and free people should adamantly resist the instincts of men who sound the old cry, “Do something, anything!” — even, and perhaps especially, if the event that led them there was unspeakably, unutterably, unthinkably grim.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.