The unexplainable

Friday’s news of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., first made me think it had been inaccurately reported.

While a lot of it was initially inaccurately reported (such as, oh, the gunman’s name), the gist — 27 people, including 20 children, dead — wasn’t.

This is not the worst example of terrorism at schools in American history. On May 18, 1927, 42 children and three adults died when a member of the Bath Township, Mich., school board blew up the town’s school.

And neither is the worst tragedy at an American school. On Dec. 1, 1958, a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago killed 92 children, along with three nuns.

I do not bring up those tragedies to minimize Friday’s tragedy. It is impossible to minimize something like this, anymore than you can minimize the murder of a law enforcement officer with five children, or the three Argyle children killed in a house fire that authorities believe their father and uncle deliberately set, or the death of a child from illness or an accident. A tragedy is not defined by the number of victims.

Children who are six or seven generally like school. They look forward to seeing their classmates and their teachers every school day.

Imagine being the parents of those kids. Some days it’s a miracle our three kids get out the door showered and fed and pointed in the direction of the right school, and I don’t imagine we have a unique level of disorganization. Some kids vacillate over that day’s clothing choices, or dawdle over breakfast, or argue with their siblings while gathered around the bathroom sink, and their parents tell them to hurry up, not always patiently.

Imagine the level of guilt those parents might feel today. Maybe some were too hurried to say “I love you” to their kids, or can’t remember the last time they did. Imagine a house with Christmas presents that will never be opened by their intended recipients.

Reports Friday afternoon indicated the murderer took the guns from his mother. The National Rifle Association helpfully lists Connecticut’s gun laws; you can run down the list and see how many laws the shooter violated (and the Brady Campaign lists Connecticut’s gun laws as fifth strongest in the U.S.) in addition to Connecticut’s statutes covering murder. None of those laws, nor the sign on the door of the school banning concealed weapons in the school, deterred the murderer. I’m not sure whether or not author William Burroughs actually said that “after a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it,” but whoever did say that has been proven right numerous times.

You probably didn’t hear this weekend that gun crimes are at a 40-year-low in this country. You also probably didn’t know that Great Britain has a substantially higher crime rate than the U.S., despite its stringent gun laws, including a complete ban on handgun ownership. Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City victims included innocent children; he didn’t use a gun.

Then there’s this inconvenient fact, from National Review’s John Fund:

Gun-free zones have been the most popular response to previous mass killings. But many law-enforcement officials say they are actually counterproductive. “Guns are already banned in schools. That is why the shootings happen in schools. A school is a ‘helpless-victim zone,’” says Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff. “Preventing any adult at a school from having access to a firearm eliminates any chance the killer can be stopped in time to prevent a rampage,” Jim Kouri, the public-information officer of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, told me earlier this year at the time of the Aurora, Colo., Batman-movie shooting. Indeed, there have been many instances — from the high-school shooting by Luke Woodham in Mississippi, to the New Life Church shooting in Colorado Springs, Colo. — where a killer has been stopped after someone got a gun from a parked car or elsewhere and confronted the shooter.

Economists John Lott and William Landes conducted a groundbreaking study in 1999, and found that a common theme of mass shootings is that they occur in places where guns are banned and killers know everyone will be unarmed, such as shopping malls and schools.

I spoke with Lott after the Newtown shooting, and he confirmed that nothing has changed to alter his findings. He noted that the Aurora shooter, who killed twelve people earlier this year, had a choice of seven movie theaters that were showing the Batman movie he was obsessed with. All were within a 20-minute drive of his home. The Cinemark Theater the killer ultimately chose wasn’t the closest, but it was the only one that posted signs saying it banned concealed handguns carried by law-abiding individuals. All of the other theaters allowed the approximately 4 percent of Colorado adults who have a concealed-handgun permit to enter with their weapons. …

Lott offers a final damning statistic: “With just one single exception, the attack on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011, every public shooting since at least 1950 in the U.S. in which more than three people have been killed has taken place where citizens are not allowed to carry guns.” …

In all of the fevered commentary over the Newtown killings, you will hear little discussion of the fact that we may be making our families and neighbors less safe by expanding the places where guns aren’t allowed. But that is precisely what we may be doing. Both criminals and the criminally insane have shown time and time again that those laws are the least of the problems they face as they carry out their evil deeds.

You’ve probably heard or read the law-school phrase that great cases make bad law. Big news events also make bad law, because of the understandable human reaction to want to do something so something like this doesn’t happen again.

Reason.com lists and then debunks what  you’ve probably already read or heard, and may have thought:

1. Mike Huckabee: “We have systematically removed God from our schools.”

The former governor of Arkansas, Republican hopeful for president, and Fox News host says we’ve got no reason to be surprised when adult gunmen shoot up educational establishments. …

I don’t doubt the governor’s sincerity, but among other things, he might want to think about the declining rate of school violence. According to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, schools have been getting safer and less violent at least over the past couple of decades – despite what Huckabee would doubtless consider a period of rising godlessness. During the school year of 1992-93, for instance, the number of on-location murders of students and staff at K-12 public schools was 47 (out of population of millions). In 2009-2010 (the latest year for which data is listed), the number was 25. Over the same period,the rate on victimizations per 1,000 students for theft dropped from 101 to 18. For violentcrimes, the rate dropped from 53 to 14. And for “serious violent” crimes, the rate dropped from 8 to 4. …

2. Michael Moore: “killer… used an assault weapon called The Bushmaster.”

Michael Moore is no stranger to bombastic, offensive statements. Who can forget (despite trying really, really hard) when he denounced the butterfly ballot fiasco in Palm Beach, Florida during the 2000 presidential election as the final act of Kristallnacht? …

Moore, of course, made the film Bowling for Columbine, which was named for one of the most notorious mass shootings in memory and tried to explore why America had always been more violent than other countries – even ones such as Canada and Switzerland that have similar or higher rates of gun ownership. As Reason’s Brian Doherty noted, Moore was enough of a truth teller in his documentary to acknowledge he didn’t really know: …

3. Rupert Murdoch: “When will politicians find the courage to ban automatic weapons?” …

Perhaps Murdoch’s focus was distracted by the ongoing ethics charges against various personnel in his global media empire or maybe he just doesn’t care about details. As Mediaite’s Josh Feldman points out, none of the weapons reported to have been used in the Sandy Hook shooting was automatic.* In fact, according to gun-control-promoting Mother Jones, none of the weapons used in mass killings at least since 1982 have been automatic guns.

Feldman could have also pointed out that it’s already illegal for Americans to own fully automatic weapons (more commonly called machine guns) that were made after 1986. …

4. Geraldo Rivera: “I want an armed cop at every school.” …

The raw emotionalism of Rivera’s response – like President Obama, he choked up in describing the massacre – is understandable, but provides absolutely zero insight into how society or individuals should react.

Like 88 percent of public schools in the country, Sandy Hook Elementary already controlled access to its building and its students; the alleged shooter Adam Lanza reportedly shot through the security system that was in place. Could an armed presence at the school have prevented Lanza from killing all or some of his victims? It’s possible, though given the low and falling number of violent crime on K-12 campuses nationwide (see Mike Huckabee section above), this seems like a misplaced emphasis at best, and the next step toward a greater lockdown environment at schools at worst. …

The general decline in gun-related violence and the inability even of mental health professionals to identify future mass killers should be the essential starting points of any serious policy discussion generated by the absolutely horrific slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We should also add a third starting point: Few good policies come from rapid responses to deeply felt injuries. Many of the same people who are now calling for immediate action with regard to gun control recognize that The Patriot Act, rushed through Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, was a terrible piece of legislation that ultimately did nothing to protect Americans even as it vastly expanded the state’s ability to surveil law-abiding citizens. There’s no reason to think that federal, state, or local gun control laws promulgated now would result in anything different.

* Monday evening correction: Feldman’s post says, “While none of the guns used in the Connecticut shooting were automatic weapons, as opposed to semi-automatic ones …” the latter including, a correspondent tells me, the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle used in the shootings.

The problem with asking why he did it is that asking “why” seems to morph into excuses or even justifications, as if the explanation for heinous acts committed against innocents even matters. Recall that the Columbine shooters were reportedly bullied in school. So were millions of other people, and bullying is a bad thing; that doesn’t justify what happened after that. The aforementioned Michigan school bomber was upset over school taxes for a new school building.

This is an issue of morality. Not an issue of the morality of guns (which certainly did not shoot themselves), or the morality of violent video games, or the morality of songs with lyrics that advocate violence, or whatever false cause you’d like to blame for this obscenity. It is the morality of the attitude that whatever is wrong with your life — in the murderer’s case, it seems to be his relationship with his mother, Friday’s first victim — you are fully justified in taking it out on everyone and anyone around you, whether or not they have anything to do with your life and what you think is wrong with it.

The other moral dimension is a subject we sophisticated, worldly adults don’t like to discuss: Evil. God, remember, gave us free will, to do good or ill. Murder has existed since at least Cain and Abel. Since perhaps the Progressive Era, but probably before that, we’ve suffered under the delusion that humans can be made better, can be perfected. You didn’t need to read or watch the saturation coverage this past weekend to realize that is not the case, and has never been the case.

I saw this tweet Friday night, for which I have no answer:

gregorykorte: How do you write an obituary for a 5-year-old? Then how do you write 19 more?

5 thoughts on “The unexplainable

  1. Steve: I don’t know if you mis-quoted other folks, or just don’t know the difference. But the Bushmaster is an automatic rifle, albeit a semi-automatic, as opposed to its close cousin the military M-16, which can be set to full automatic. The term “automatic” is applied, right or wrong, to both types. You should make the correction and let folks know what you really meant. If not, you will be just as much a hypocrite as the folks you are accusing.

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