A young man walked into a school this morning and murdered “up to ten” people.
The more I read about these incidents, the more I think that there is a pernicious copycat tendency at work here — a tendency that it will be almost impossible to nip in the bud. The shooter in Parkland was obsessed with the massacre at Columbine, as was the shooter in Newtown. More often than not, this is the case — even when shooters or would-be shooters do not manage to carry out their attacks as planned. Typically, the Columbine obsession takes the form of giving a would-be shooter the idea, and/or setting a bodycount target for him to “beat” (if this sounds like hyperbole, read this chilling account). Occasionally, though, it drips down into his tactics. From the early reports, that seems to have been the case here. It seems that the shooter wore a trench coat, and made pipe bombs, which he spread around the school. Now where would he have got an idea like that?
What do we know about the guns? Well, while all the eyewitnesses thus far seem to have mentioned only a shotgun, Governor Abbott has announced that the shooter also had a revolver. Unless he was given permission to acquire these weapons from his parents, at least someone has broken the law here. Federal law prohibits the commercial transfer of a handgun to anyone under 21, and the private transfer of a handgun to anyone under 18. Because the shooter was 17, he was federally ineligible to be gifted, sold, or leased such a weapon, other than on a temporary basis for “legal sporting purpose.” Long guns are a different story federally — there is no federal law prohibiting the private transfer of a long gun to a minor — but more complicated at the state level. While there is no minimum age to possess firearms in Texas, it remains illegal in the state for to sell, lease, rent, or give a firearm to a person under 18 years of age without a parent’s permission. Again, the shooter was 17. Bottom line: Unless his parents agreed to let him have the guns, someone broke the law. That may seem a little obvious given that he concealed-carried a handgun (illegal at his age), took weapons into a school (illegal under federal law), and then committed murder (illegal). But it’s helpful to know what is and what is not allowed when debating what to do in response.
There have been reports that the shooter also used improvised explosive devices, and that the shotgun was “sawed-off.” We’ll have to wait and see if that’s true, but it should go without saying that if it is, he was prohibited from possessing either item. Pipe bombs are illegal in every state, while short-barreled shotguns have been determined to be unprotected by the Second Amendment, and, under both federal and Texas law, are heavily regulated as “NFA items.” To obtain or manufacture a short-barreled shotgun, one must undergo an in-depth background check, pay a $200 application fee, and wait for around 8-10 months while one’s application is processed. Moreover, per the terms of the 1968 Gun Control Act, one must be over 18 to acquire one. The GCA holds that it’s illegal for under-21s to purchase NFA items from a licensed dealer, and illegal for under-18s to transfer NFA items from collectors, to acquire them as an heir or beneficiary, or to manufacture them themselves. Again: The shooter was 17.
It will be interesting to see what gun-control measures are proposed in response to this incident. Shotguns are almost never included in the lists of weapons that the gun-control movement hopes to prohibit — except, obviously, by those who covet a full ban on the private ownership of firearms — and, because they hold only six rounds and do not take magazines, .38 caliber revolvers fall well within the limits that even heavily regulated states such as California have seen fit to impose. Indeed, shotguns and revolvers tend to be held up as the “reasonable” guns that “nobody wants to ban.” Famously, Joe Biden told Americans who want to protect themselves to eschew modern sporting rifles and instead “buy a shotgun.” Likewise, I am asked constantly why I’d need a semi-automatic pistol for home-defense when I could buy a six-shooter instead. Whether this will be reflected in the coverage remains to be seen. If I were a betting man, I’d predict that it will not.
Until we know a little more, there’s not a great deal more anyone can add. As a general matter I remain convinced both that the sheer number of guns in circulation in America has something to do with why this happens here more often than elsewhere, and that there’s almost nothing we can do about this with new laws. (Note what I didn’t say: I didn’t say that we can fix this, that we all secretly know how, but that I’m for some reason against doing so.) Even if we wanted to — which we don’t and we shouldn’t — we can’t rid America of its firearms, and we’re certainly not about to stop covering these shootings in an attempt to limit copycats. And even if we did do those things, we’d be no closer to understanding why an equally well-armed America didn’t see similar incidents in, say, 1960, or why the gun-crime rate has plummeted while the number of guns has increased and the laws have been loosened almost everywhere. As David French points out, this is a trend now, and each event seems to lead ineluctably to the next. It’s enough to make one despair.