Virginia witnessed a thoroughly modern murder. A middle-aged man, described ubiquitously as “disgruntled,” shot dead two of his former colleagues while they were broadcasting a live segment for a local television news station. Subsequently, he posted a first-person video of the killings to both Twitter and Facebook, along with a brief explanation of his motives. After a tense car chase, he was surrounded, and he attempted to kill himself. He died a few hours later.
The Left’s reaction to the story was Pavlovian. Having sought out the nearest camera, Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe was quick to push for new laws. Because “there is too much gun violence in America,” McAuliffe suggested, the federal government must move to require background checks on all private sales. On Twitter, meanwhile, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton proposed vaguely that “we must act to stop gun violence, and we cannot wait any longer.” These responses, which echoed across media, were typically thoughtless and knee-jerk. Usually, architects of public policy wait to hear which problem they are being asked to solve before proposing a solution. When it comes to the Second Amendment, they fire up the cookie-cutter.
Since the massacre at Sandy Hook rekindled their interest in more regulation, President Obama and the Democratic party have been hawking a three-pronged gun-control package. Under this regime, Americans in all states would be prohibited from obtaining any of the arbitrarily chosen rifles that have been deemed to be “assault weapons”; they would be restricted from purchasing magazines that hold more than ten rounds; and they would be obliged to undergo a background check when buying a gun from a private seller. When these measures have been installed, Americans are assured, they will be able to say “never again” in earnest.
Prima facie, there are a number of problems with these proposals. Although they are the focus of so much of our debate, so-called assault weapons are in fact used so rarely in crimes that the federal government does not keep records. Limiting the size of magazines, while superficially comprehensible, would in practice have the primary effect of reducing the chance that law-abiding people — who often shoot poorly under duress — will be able to defend themselves against criminals who have no respect for the rules. As for universal background checks, they are easily circumvented and often serve as little more than a means by which the state can harass the innocent. Most damning of all, none of these measures tend to intersect with the hyper-publicized incidents that are used to sell them. Whatever happens, the same solutions are proffered.
Above all, we should acknowledge that there are no easy answers here — however many people come together to wave their hands and shout, ‘Do something!’
From what we now know, it seems unlikely that the Virginia shooter would have been stopped by any of the proposals that are currently under consideration. He did not use an “assault weapon,” but a standard handgun. He fired no more than eight rounds in the course of his spree. And he seems to have obtained his gun from a store, and therefore is likely to have undergone a background check.
The United States is a country in which there are more than 300 million privately owned firearms, and in which the people are protected in their possession of them by a cherished constitutional right. In a manifesto that was faxed to ABC News earlier in the week, the shooter explained that he was tired of racism and homophobia, and that he had been inspired to buy a gun after the shooting in Charleston, S.C. Elsewhere, he expressed admiration for the killers at Columbine High School and at Virginia Tech, and explained that he had been told to murder by “Jehovah.” It is unreasonable to presume that if a man is willing to go to the trouble of televising and uploading his double murder, he will be unable to find a weapon with which to carry it out.
If we are to engage in a concerted, serious effort to prevent those who hear voices from threatening the public safety, to begin by reforming our broken mental-health system is a more sensible course. We might move to prosecute anybody who has reasonable cause to believe that he is availing a dangerous person of a firearm. We might insist that to have knowledge that a person represents a grave and imminent threat to others is to have a legal responsibility to inform the authorities. We might look to reform our lax treatment and commitment laws, which leave too many at-risk individuals on the street, suffering from hallucinations and delusions over which, without medication, they may have little control. Above all, we should acknowledge that there are no easy answers here — however many people come together to wave their hands and shout, “Do something!”