Mass Shootings and Shark Attacks

by Kevin D. Williamson

I used to have a friend who grew up on a farm in South Africa, and the most shocking sentences would come out of her mouth, e.g., “My dog was eaten by lions.” To have a pet eaten by lions is shocking, for an American, because it is unfamiliar, though I suppose it’s just another Tuesday in rural South Africa. The unusual things stand out.

One of the favorite Democratic accusations is that conservatives have no policy prescriptions for preventing dramatic crimes such as the mass murder that was just committed in Las Vegas. That’s mostly true: Better mental-health care might have prevented the massacre in Sandy Hook, and better surveillance of jihadists might have prevented the one in Orlando, but the killer in Las Vegas had no known history of mental illness and no criminal record. He doesn’t seem to have been a jihadist or a conventional terrorist. No manifesto has been made public. There wasn’t any indication, and nothing could have been done.

“Oh, yes there is!” our anti-gun friends will say. They want to ban firearms. Which firearms? Whichever one was just used in some dramatic crime — that one for now, until the next spectacular crime, at which time they’ll seek to ban whatever was used in that one, too. (The more honest among them are increasingly open about their desire to prohibit all private firearm ownership.) And that’s a useful piece of rhetoric — “You oppose our gun-control efforts, but offer no solutions!” — inasmuch as it masks an essentially empty position.

The instruments of crime change, but the crimes themselves do not. The worst school massacre in American history wasn’t a Columbine or Sandy Hook and it did not involve any firearms at all: It happened in 1927 in Bath, Mich., when a bankrupt, failed politician bombed the local school. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history was not, contrary to the news, the one that just happened in Las Vegas. That happened in — depending on who is doing the counting — 1917 in East St. Louis, or in 1873 in Colfax, La., or in 1921 in Tulsa, Okla., or in 1919 in Arkansas. All of those were mob-violence episodes in which white terrorists, often working under the leadership of Democratic politicians, massacred African Americans, hundreds at a time. Some were shot, some were hanged, some were burned alive.

Mass lynchings are a thing of the past, but mass violence isn’t. It isn’t new, and it is not, contrary to the familiar claims, a uniquely American phenomenon.

But episodes like the one in Las Vegas are pretty rare. It’s a sharks-vs.-cows thing: We worry about shark attacks, which are terrifying but which do not actually happen very often. The animals that are most likely to kill you are either tiny (mosquitos, bees) or herbivores: very territorial moose, and cows and deer standing in the roadway. But there is no Cownado movie.

(If you make Cownado, I’m expecting a check.)

It may be that conservatives really don’t have any good ideas for preventing crimes like the one in Las Vegas. It may be that there simply aren’t any good ideas on that front, meaning policies that would be effective and consistent with our constitutional order. But those are the shark attacks, and 99 percent of the homicides in this country are nothing like that: They are ordinary crimes, many of them involving no firearms at all. The ones that do involve firearms overwhelmingly involve ordinary, common handguns, not exotic long guns. If you want to restrict firearms access in a way that has a real impact on American violence, then you need to be honest about what that means: a general prohibition on common firearms and the seizure of millions of such arms already in private hands.

But there are ways to approach the 99 percent of homicides that do not involve trampling on the Bill of Rights. The federal government, and state and local governments, need to start prosecuting straw-buyer cases. Jeff Sessions could order — tomorrow — the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago to reverse its policy of refusing to prosecute straw-buyer cases unless they are part of a bigger arms-trafficking case. Prosecutors don’t like to go after straw buyers because the cases are a lot of work and they result in relatively minor convictions of sometimes-sympathetic defendants who orbit the criminal universe rather than being at the center of it. But straw buyers are an important source of illegal firearms for criminals who cannot legally purchase them themselves. We also need to more aggressively prosecute some gun-related violent crimes short of homicide, including handing down real jail time for illegal-possession convictions.

The overwhelming majority of the murders in our big cities are committed by men with prior criminal histories. Better probation and parole systems — ours are a joke — might be of some use there. So would better mental-health care.

A cracked malcontent and conspiracy nut killed three times as many people in Oklahoma City as were killed in Las Vegas, without using any firearms at all. Nineteen fanatics with box cutters killed thousands on September 11, 2001. In the United Kingdom and Europe, the jihadists have taken to driving trucks into crowds of people. Restricting the magazine capacity on a .223 rifle isn’t going to change any of that, and it won’t do anything to change the overwhelming majority of ordinary homicides, either. The Democrats’ gun-control agenda is an almost purely symbolic program proposed for no purpose other than to exercise political power, and hence cultural power, over people urban progressives regard as their enemies.

There is a great deal that we can do about violent crime. If Democrats are interested in what’s happening on the street in Chicago or Cleveland, they run those cities. Maybe they’ll get serious one of these days.

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