Considering the horror at Virginia Tech this week, one fact stands out: school shootings are not nearly as rare as they ought to be. The United States has a long history of such events—from Charles Whitman at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 to the Columbine massacre in 1999Between 1994 and 1999, The Journal of the American Medical Association identified 220 separate incidents of deadly shootings at U.S. schools.
Of course, they are not solely an American affliction. The rest of the world has suffered similar tragedies: a kindergarten in Dunblane, Scotland, a high school in Erfurt, Germany, Canada’s École Polytechnique, Taber High School and Dawson College.
But there is one crucial difference between events in the U.S. and elsewhere. In other countries, school shootings have triggered massive public outcry for change to gun laws. And governments have responded. Canada toughened ownership requirements, banned some guns and established a registry for others. Germany raised the minimum age for gun ownership and required a mental health certificate for anyone under 25; the U.K. enacted a sweeping ban on all handguns. Some of these measures have been reasonably effective; some (like Canada’s gun registry) have become money pits. All, however, represent clear attempts by governments to address gun violence by limiting access to guns, usually among youth.
The unique feature of the American experience is that after the lamentations and grief counselling sessions are over, guns remain shockingly easy to come by. U.S. politicians prefer raising penalties for gun crimes to tackling firearm proliferation. This may make sense for rational criminality, but it has no deterrent effect on those who end up committing suicide, as was the case with Cho Seung-Hui in Virginia, the Columbine shooters, and many others. A 1999 FBI report on the school shooter phenomenon found that while easy access to guns was not the single most significant risk factor (personality and family dynamics played major roles), it was an obvious and necessary
U.S. gun-enablers find shelter in the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” clause of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But the Supreme Court has never infringed on the government’s right to regulate gun ownership. Rather, it is Washington that has refused to accept its responsibility to protect its citizens—particularly young students—from gun violence. Even modest efforts, such as a ban on assault rifles, have been allowed to expire. Gun shows remain unregulated sluice gates for weaponry. In most states, it is tougher to buy a car than a handgun.
It’s not that America lacks for ideas. The late U.S. senator Patrick Monyihan advocated taxing ammunition. (“Guns don’t kill people,” he once said, “bullets do.”) The Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence promotes stiffer regulation of gun shows and background checks. A handful of cities and states have tried to crack down on handguns. What America needs now is the political will to pursue broader and more useful limits on gun ownership. Making firearms harder to get will make society, and especially schools, safer. M
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