Yesterday, at UCLA, a Ph.D. student shot his professor dead. Not too long afterwards, he turned the gun on himself.
As soon as the story hit the news, the usual suspects began cranking themselves up. Americans, they said, need to “do something.” It was time, they argued, for “more laws.” And the NRA? It was, of course, to blame.
Forgive me for being a broken record, but I have some questions in response to these reactions: Namely, “what something?”; “which laws?”; and “what, specifically, did the NRA do wrong here?” Rolled into one, these congeal into a single, simple inquiry: “What law — specifically — would have prevented yesterday’s shooting?”
I ask because, absent the total ban on firearms that gun-control advocates insist that they don’t covet, it is not at all obvious which rules would have stopped the perpetrator from carrying out his plan. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, the shooter bought a 9mm handgun legally in Minnesota, passing a background check in the process; then, gun in hand, he killed a woman in that state; and, finally, he drove with his guns to California, where he killed both his professor and himself.
In the process, he both obeyed and broke a number of existing laws. In Minnesota, he followed the purchasing rules to the letter, and, because he had no criminal record, he was rewarded for his fealty. But after that moment he resolved to ignore whatever rules got in his way. In both Minnesota and California he violated the statutes that prohibit gun owners from carrying their weapons without a permit; at UCLA he violated a rule issued in September of 2015 that prohibits gun owners from carrying firearms onto campus; and, rather obviously, he violated the flat-out prohibition on murder that obtains in all 50 states. He was, in other words, entirely happy to follow the rules when it suited him, and entirely happy to break them when it suited him. He was, like most shooters, not much interested in the sanctity of the law.
Typically, those who favor more gun control argue that America’s “patchwork quilt” of rules and regulations help those who would do harm to slip through the net. Furthermore, they contend that adding further barriers would prevent young men with evil intent from getting hold of lethal weaponry in the first instance. But it is hard to see how such criticisms can apply here, in response to a crime that could have been carried out with a double-barreled shotgun from 1872.
During his presidency, President Obama has proposed three substantial changes to the legal status quo: 1) the imposition of mandatory instant background checks on each sale or transfer of a firearm, including those sales and transfers that are conducted entirely privately; b) a hard limit on the capacity of commercially available magazines; and c) a ban on so-called assault weapons. But none of these proposals even intersects with this case. The shooter passed an instant background check in Minnesota; his murders did not involve or require him to “spray” bullets or even to reload; and he did not use an “assault weapon,” but a common handgun.
Elsewhere, the president and many in his party have expressed opposition to concealed carry in general and to “campus carry” in particular, usually on the (faulty) assumption that permitting private citizens to carry weapons on their persons will lead to more violence. California, however, does not permit campus carry; it is almost impossible to get hold of a carry permit in the city of Los Angeles; and, the rules being what they are in the Golden State, the shooter was ineligible to carry outside of his home state anyway.
Which brings me back to my initial question: When President Obama tweets, as he did earlier today, that Americans must “take action to prevent this from happening again,” what exactly does he mean? I understand that he’s upset; everybody is upset. I understand that he’s expressing frustration; that’s fine. But I want specifics. In free countries, laws are clear and they are limited; they have a specific purpose; and they can be understood and followed by laymen. Which precise provisions does President Obama want to add to the legal code?
And has he changed his mind? Thus far, his agenda has been limited to a set of proposals that don’t relate at all to this incident. Should we presume that he now wants to go further? Does he perhaps believe that handguns should be banned entirely, and, by extension that D.C. v. Heller should be overturned? Does he believe that we should have roadside-checks at the state line, lest a gun owner from Minnesota makes it out West? Does he want to impose far more stringent background checks as a prerequisite to all sales? If he does, he should say so — and so should those who agree with him. Until then, the standard question will obtain: “What, exactly, do you intend to do about this?”