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April 17, 2007

Gun Control

There's a certain amount of discussion emerging now as to whether the VA Tech shootings show the need for more gun control, less gun control, or for folks to not instantly appropriate tragedies in order to kickstart dormant policy debates. For what it's worth, I line up in the third camp, and with the LA Times, which editorializes, "No newspaper [or blogger -- Ezra] is in a position to criticize anybody for capitalizing on tragedy or taking convenient positions. There will be time for both in the days to come. But now is a time to respect, quietly, the tears and the pain of this terrible event."

The desire to segue instantly into an argument over gun control reflects, I think, the human ache to establish control -- however illusory -- over a tragic and senseless event. In the same way we're vaguely comforted by knowing that a horrific car accident was the result of an unbuckled seat belt and a lung cancer came from a lifetime of chain smoking, we want to be able to say that if we only change this law, tweak that policy, we can prevent this awful killing from ever being repeated. Sadly, I'm largely with Atrios on this: " if people want to kill people and don't care if they get killed or caught they're going to kill people." Thankfully, most humans are decent and very few are murderous, and so despite the countless firearms and cars and gasoline cans laying around this nation, mass killings remain blissfully rare.

April 17, 2007 | Permalink


Just to illustrate how times and our expectations have changed, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre was five (5) people.

That was a pretty big deal at the time. It wasn't until about 1930 that a police force like we have now emerged. Until then, you pretty much did your own investigation if you believe a crime was committed.

At that time the FBI was investigatory only and were not the federal police that we have today. Everyone carried guns and accepted their responsibility to provide for their own safety.

There is a correlation between the educational institutions where many of these mass shootings take place and the special status we have given them as "gun-free zones". I'm not sure that was the wisest thing to do.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 17, 2007 5:24:55 PM

It wasn't until about 1930 that a police force like we have now emerged.

What have you been smoking?

In any case Fred, thanks for putting yourself forward as a prime example of the L.A. Times was talking about.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Apr 17, 2007 5:33:09 PM

Ezra, you're right. Our desire to control enters into the discussion at all the wrong times. One need not be especially well read or a radio fanatic to have already heard someone popping off about how the students should have stopped this guy, how the students should have been armed, how the college should have cancelled classes and a number of other mostly numb-skulled hindsight. This is the legacy, as much as anything else, of years of neo-con wannabe warriors stirring up fear of all sorts of things.

Gun control measures, such as the lame brained one in my own commonwealth currently under consideration, would do little or nothing to prevent a terrible tragedy such as the VAT shootings. And while I have no problem with sensible gun control, it's no more a solution than non-functioning terrorist watch lists for airlines and such.

There is risk in life. We have to accept that. We cannot legislate or police all of the risk out of life.

Posted by: ice weasel | Apr 17, 2007 5:38:28 PM

Here's what this tragedy teaches us: nothing. There's nothing we can do to our laws or as a nation that we don't already know how to do.

Anyone who tries to use this tragedy to advance their agenda - whether it's gun control or some delusional vision of the Old West - is not worthy of consideration.

And yes, Fred, I'm talking to you, Mr. "VA Tech was picked as a target because the gunman knew it was a gun-free zone." How stupid are you, anyway? Are you even aware enough to feel embarrassed for typing that now that you know Cho was a student there? Or are you going to try and defend your idea that if only everyone at VA Tech was packing heat, no one would have died. Gee, if every single American was required by law to carry a gun, there would be no crime anymore! Ha! Just read Fred's comment after I hit preview.

God this whole thing pisses me off. The victims, their families and friends are in shock, and the vultures from the press are using their inability to think straight to get them on TV to open their lives to us all, and Americans are just lapping it up so they can feel like it happened to each of them personally.

I wonder how many people who couldn't even place Virginia on a map before yesterday called in sick to work today because they were so traumatized by what happened.

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 17, 2007 5:41:56 PM

"Thankfully, most humans are decent and very few are murderous, and so despite the countless firearms and cars and gasoline cans laying around this nation, mass killings remain blissfully rare."

There is a sense in which most people are decent. It is, unfortunately, not decency in the sense of being incapable of cold-blooded torture-murder for no reason.

This is not an easy reality to accept. But any concept of human nature or morality that ignores it is a failure. Whatever it is that makes us valuable and worthy of love, it cannot be a better than 35% chance that we would not kill someone because someone asked us to. We are a race of monsters, and our efforts to isolate and spotlight the individual monstrosity of our number functions only to turn us away from that fact.

Posted by: RW | Apr 17, 2007 5:59:15 PM

There's quite a bit of a discussion going on at the Chronnicle of Higher Ed. about whether or not it's right to start debating the politics of it all. But the truth is, President Bush injected the gun control debate into the whole thing almost immediately in his speech last night. There was no reason to bring up the 2nd amendment then; it was completely inappropriate. But he did it, and licensed by it, the loonies have been out in full force today making that ridiculous argument about having more guns in classrooms.

I agree that it's really out of line to be pushing an agenda in response to what happened, but honestly, what that's amounted to on television today is that the pro-gun people get to shout about it and have media pundits vapidly repeat their claims as if they're actually practical responses--and all of this has gone down with little refutation from people who actually work in education. The Brady organization did have a say briefly on MSNBC, but the MSNBC woman pretty much sided with the gun advocate.

I've yet to see a major educational organization come out and condemn the idiots who think professors would actually want to be teaching in an environment where either they or students are armed. That's probably because educational organizations are trying to be respectful, and the speed of rational, well researched academic thought is much slower than the knee-jerk of the gun lobby. I have to say, though, after watching way too much coverage of this than I should have watched, that I wish more anti-gun people had been out there to provide counterarguments. I agree with you in theory that we need to let the mourners mourn, but in practice, the shouting I've heard today really does need to be countered...

Posted by: CattyinQueens | Apr 17, 2007 6:04:55 PM

And yes, Fred, I'm talking to you, Mr. "VA Tech was picked as a target because the gunman knew it was a gun-free zone."

Stephen would have you believe that it wasn't Cho's fault, the gun just pulled it's own trigger.

Here's what I *do* know:

A bomb threat note was found and there is more than just speculation that he was the one that caused the two recent bomb scares to test response from authorities. This shows premeditation and planning.

Cho purchased the Glock 19 about 5 weeks ago. Mr. Cho left many writings and notes explaining his act. More evidence of premeditatation.

All of this meticulous planning and testing and yet Stepehen doesn't believe that Mr. Cho ever thought about his campus being gun-free zone.


Here's what this tragedy teaches us: nothing.

More of Mr. Stephen's 'wisdom'. What an idiot!

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 17, 2007 6:48:44 PM

I'm all for gun control myself, but any serious gun control hope is pretty much dead because the politicians are too gutless to do anything about it. And the odd thing is, events like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and even President Reagan being shot tend to give the gun nuts even more sway, not less.

I'm 58 and I feel like I'm living in a feeback loop. Yesterday, after I heard what happened, I told my wife the gun nuts would be saying, "If only those kids had been armed, they could have defended themselves and prevented this from happening." Then today I learned that's exactly what the gun nuts have been saying. Yeah, I've been there, done that.

If we can witness two presidents being shot in less than 20 years and not wake up, no Columbine or Virginia Tech tragedy is going to change things either. At least not in my lifetime.

Posted by: phil from new york | Apr 17, 2007 6:58:25 PM

Stephen would have you believe that it wasn't Cho's fault, the gun just pulled it's own trigger.

Don't be so dumb. I know this is your standard line and all, but nothing I wrote comes even close to that. I blame Cho for what he did.

But you blame the University for being a "gun-free" zone. You blame this country, apparently from what you wrote above, for having a police force.

You know what, I do doubt that Cho gave even one thought to the University being a so-called gun-free zone. The reason is because he was disturbed enough to take some guns, shoot 32 people apparently at random, and then commit suicide. While he was certainly capable of planning, premediation and rationality are not always the same thing. Just as no one - except dummies like Fred trying to build a straw man - suggests that Cho would have been dissuaded by a "no guns allowed" sign, no one - except, again, dummies like Fred - thinks that Cho picked VA Tech because guns aren't allowed.

Oh, I know! Cho went to VA Tech in the first place because Virginia doesn't have a concealed-carry law! That's it! Yeah, he was all set to go to Texas Tech, but realized that all those tough he-man cowboys in Lubbock would be packing too much heat. And, they're all so manly and patriotic and heroic and they all take personal responsibility (which is why Lubbock doesn't have a police force, you know) and would have immediately gunned him down as soon as he brought his gun out of his backpack!

I said that this teaches us nothing because there's no new policies that need to be enacted, no steps anyone could have taken to prevent this. It also teaches us nothing because people like you, who cram every event into your predetermined box, couldn't possibly learn something from this or anything else. Don't bother Fred with facts, he's already made up his mind.

Why don't you claim next that this was a terrorist dry run like some of the other conservatives on the internet have done. It makes about as much sense as anything else you've written.

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 17, 2007 7:04:18 PM

If you had your way, Fred, are there any lines in the sand you would draw? How many guns per person at one time? Size of bullet (is 50 caliber OK?)? If a 50 caliber sniper rifle is shooting at you from a mile away can you use a missile to respond? Are radioactive bullets within bounds? How many rounds per clip (or no max)? Can you use your bike to haul around enough ammo to outlast any opponent? Is ammo that will pierce a anti-bullet jacket acceptable? Can a mortar be used to defend yourself? Is a RPG launcher within bounds? How about car bombs made from ammunition? Are duels OK? How about shootouts between competing groups? Can you carry on the sports court? If someone calls you a racist, sexist, or anti-gay slur and acts in a threatening manner, is that sufficient provocation to defend yourself by blowing their head off? When does a threat become real enough to preemptively shoot? Can you enlist your group (gang is the usual word) to help protect you by unified action against a threat?

It is usually though that part of the definition of a government or nation is that it has a monopoly on the use of force. Is that obsolete? Are private armies within our land now the way to protect us?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 17, 2007 7:18:25 PM

Fred Jones:

"Cho purchased the Glock 19

Yep. What would he have done if he couldn't? Well, we don't know. Maybe he would have managed to get ahold of guns anyway, illegally (how did he get the other one?). Maybe he wouldn't have.

Posted by: Dan S. | Apr 17, 2007 7:23:16 PM

Ezra, I disagree. I can understand the desire to step back and not talk about politics for a while but I think it's mistaken.

If you believe that a certain policy should be enacted, then you believe that it would be a good thing for society. It seems to me that you should press for that policy whenever you can. Especially in this country, where it's hard to get anything passed at all, the emotions surrounding a tragic event can be used to great effect. Didn't LBJ use JFK's death to build support for civil rights legislation? Wasn't that a good thing? Of course Bush used 9/11 to pass all manner of disastrous things, but that is an argument against his set of policies and not the principle.

Posted by: randomdude | Apr 17, 2007 7:35:39 PM

In the long run I doubt the general availability of guns (or absence of same) would make much difference, either in overall violent crime rates or in mass attacks like this one.

Any weapon or other countermeasure we can take against crime, once it becomes sufficiently commonplace, is only likely to work for a limited time before criminals pick up on it and adapt. This adaptation need not mean just getting a bigger or more powerful weapon than you; adjusting their tactics will often more than suffice. Firing at a crazed gunman who is threatening you is one thing. Firing at a crazed gunman who, before proceeding to threaten you, took some sweet old lady hostage for use as a human shield against your gun is another thing entirely.

If "Ismail-AX" (as the shooter apparently called himself, a revelation that has raised some eyebrows on certain other blogs) knew he would be facing an armed student body, that doesn't necessarily mean he would have been deterred. He might simply have planned his attack much differently, to minimize the risk to himself. Homemade bombs are one alternative method that comes to mind.

Posted by: Joshua | Apr 17, 2007 9:50:06 PM

I don't know what the answer is here. I know people will disparage this, but Michael Moore's documentary on the subject, "Bowling for Colunbine," really got me to think. This isn't as simple as the fact we have guns available in this culture. While the gun lobby pitched about the documentary, it wasn't actually an anti gun documentary. It was anti the elements of American society that produce these cowboy like take out my enemy type of mentality. It was about the culture of fear in our society.

Let's face it- this kid was here long enough that this wasn't a failure of Korean culture. It was a failure of ours. Why do we keep producing people like this? I think that's the real debate. Not gun culture. There are other cultures out there that also use guns (in the documentary Moore talks about them) and yet they don't have our murder rate with guns.

Why? That's what all these left/right debates refuse to get to. But that makes sense to me. Because if we got to the deeper shit- the truly fucked up shit about what it means to be American- then we are all culpable. The gun debate or the bullshit about video game makes it easier to ignore the harder introspection about how we are taught here to value human life, the fear the other (this kids ramblings were all about that), to be envious of what we think others have over us (again all in his ramblings), and multiple other things. I mean going into Iraq was in many ways a reflection of this pysche. It allows our politicians to manipulate us.

Yes we should mourn. Yes we should ignore the news media which is determined to beat all our legitimate grief into plastic versions of grief that has no authenicity at all. I swear if i hear one more cheesy piano sombre song as they put the artificiality of TV into this, I'm going to scream. These things are all true.

I can't talk about guns or these thing, but one think I'm certain of- this will happen again and again. Does anyone here not agree?

Posted by: akaison | Apr 17, 2007 9:52:47 PM

Mr. Stephen has completely ignored the fact that Cho premeditated these murders. That makes a difference. Ask yourself why all of these types of mass murder never happen at a police station or an NRA meeting or at a biker bar. Stephen would have you believe that Cho snapped...all of a sudden and without notice.

If you wish to ban guns, Stephen, I think you can ban them for non-citizens. There is no reason to extend this constitutional right to anyone other than citizens of the United States since it is the US constitution.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 17, 2007 9:53:18 PM

But, guns make it so easy to kill and stay uninvolved in the actual killing. You shoot from a distance. You can make believe you are taking out your aggressions on someone in a sort of fantasy way and not even be personally involved by standing back. Like watching it.
If you don't have a gun, you would have to be up close and personal in the murder and feel the person you kill and feel you have or are doing it. Not a movie. But, for real. This would give many pause before acting.

Posted by: vwcat | Apr 17, 2007 10:10:06 PM

I don't think the guns are enough to change the fact that we are talking about at base something that is troubling about American society. Guns make it easier. but they aren't the reason why these things are happening. No more the fact that we got tanks is the reason why Iraq has happened. Or the fact that "they hate us" is why 9/11 happened. Sure. These things are factors- but there is something more troubling about our psyches as Americans that you are all ignoring because its easier to say guns, not guns, than to deal with the less tangible questions of what kind of society are we living in that are producing these monsters and wars with no end.

Posted by: akaison | Apr 17, 2007 10:14:02 PM

Once again, there is no reason to respond to fred. He's not going to engage you on the issues. He's going to post the same gibberish whether someone feels the need to argue with him or not.

And the more I think about it the more I think the person above who said anyone who wants to "discuss" this situation, right now, with regard to a "solution" is an asshole. It's wrong. Reacting won't "cure" anything.

We've really become a quite dispicable culture. bush's injecting the 2nd ammendment into his speech is just another of a million examples why this rot has started at the top.

Posted by: ice weasel | Apr 17, 2007 11:10:41 PM

Great point. Couldn't agree more!

I just hope those at Va. Tech will be alright...


Posted by: J. Mark English | Apr 17, 2007 11:15:32 PM

Ezra Klein writes:

Thankfully, most humans are decent and very few are murderous, and so despite the countless firearms and cars and gasoline cans laying around this nation, mass killings remain blissfully rare.

While mass killings remain blissfully rare the reality is that every three months more Americans are murdered than died on 9/11. I doubt we would be justifying an individual's right to bear arms if Al Qaeda members were the ones doing the shooting. We should start treating gun violence for what it actually is: gun terrorism.

Posted by: ndm | Apr 17, 2007 11:27:03 PM

Let's face it- this kid was here long enough that this wasn't a failure of Korean culture. It was a failure of ours. Why do we keep producing people like this?

Because we're a country of 300 million people. We're going to get some nuts. I don't know, but would hazard that if you take Europe as a whole, there are roughly as many similar incidents. I know of two major ones off the top of my head (here and here ). There may be more. England has very strict gun control laws. In Switzerland most men over 17 have a military class automatic weapon.

This wasn't about culture. This wasn't about the laws. This was about 32 people who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, very many more who were nearly so and one person in whom something was utterly broken.

Posted by: TW Andrews | Apr 17, 2007 11:45:06 PM

Ask yourself why all of these types of mass murder never happen at a police station or an NRA meeting or at a biker bar.

Or why they don't happen at 99.44% of universities across the nation. Or why they don't happen at hipster bars. Or why they don't happen at meetings of the rotary club.

They don't happen in general. If guns were allowed to be carried by students at VATech, I suspect Cho would have been similarly successful. You know why? Because people don't typically carry guns around, if even they can. It seems that Cho developed some sort of paranoid psychosis. The problem was that this went undiagnosed and that he was able to buy a gun, which the dangerously mentally ill should not be able to posses.

Posted by: Constantine | Apr 18, 2007 12:48:03 AM

gee, nobody has control. we can't do anything.

and making available 20 round clips for handguns doesn't make it any easier to instantly slaughter a group of people...uh...

what about those amish girls shot point blank?
or the girls raped in a colorado classroom at gunpoint?

ezra atrios and kos: the future libertarian sell-outs.

get yer head out of your asses. george bush would agree with y'all. sadly.

Posted by: christian | Apr 18, 2007 1:20:15 AM

TW. Andrews, Not to be a pain but the first article you linked to, though in a British paper, reports on an incident in Germany. As for Britain, I'm aware of only one incident of mass shooting approximately 10 years and if I'm not mistaken it was the first in that country. The story from Switzerland was interesting, particularly the following:

Switzerland has among the most liberal gun laws in the world. Men who serve in the nation's militia army all keep their weapons at home.

You say that they're "roughly as many" such incidents in Europe but I'm not at all convinced that you're right about that. You've only presented two examples, one from 6 and 5 years ago respectively.

The real question is whether such tragedies occur with the same degree of frequency and whether their history is as lengthy as those in this country. If there is a discrepancy, we might learn from it.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Apr 18, 2007 3:16:13 AM

The debate about our lax control of guns is not about comforting ourselves. It's about trying to stop people from shotting other people.

We may, in fact, feel comforted when we read that a smoker has succumbed to lung cancer or that a governor has crashed in a speeding car. But, that does not prevent our society from spending billions to find cancer cures, and it does not keep us from legislating speed limits.

So, are we to take comfort in the fact the mass shootings are allegedly rare (here in the U.S., school shootings happen with regularity) and do nothing?

Dozens of people will be killed in the U.S. today by people using guns, and almost all of those killers did not wake up this morning planning to commit murder. Most of those murders would not happen if a gun was not within easy reach of the killer.

At all times, there is among us a certain fractional percentage of the population that will, at some future date, want to kill someone. Whether they want to kill one person in a rage of passion or want to kill rooms full of people in a rage of hatred is irrelevant.

The only way we can dramatically reduce the opportunity for those killers to use a gun as their weapon of choice is to make it as difficult as possible for them to buy guns. Since we can't identify those potential killers always lurking among us, the only way to do that is to make it as difficult as possible for all of us to buy guns.

Was protecting Cho Seung-Hui's ability to buy guns more important than protecting the lives of the people he murdered and maimed?

Posted by: billg | Apr 18, 2007 8:47:43 AM

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