The latest school shooting—this one on June 10 in Troutdale, Ore.—elicited a pained outcry from President Barack Obama. Some proponents of stricter gun control scolded the president for limiting his reaction to rhetoric. Obama, these liberal critics said, must engage the National Rifle Association, not bow to the ascendance of gun rights. These responses, unfortunately, do not point toward real solutions to the problem of suicide-murders in public places like Troutdale’s Reynolds High School.
Facts are still sketchy, but here’s what the police have said: A 15-year-old freshman, motives unknown, killed a 14-year-old fellow student and wounded a teacher before being confronted by law officers. After exchanging gunshots with the cops, who seem to have arrived quite swiftly, the killer retreated to a bathroom where he shot himself to death. The Troutdale shooter had arrived at school with a guitar case and duffel bag containing an AR-15 military-style rifle, a handgun, a large knife, and nine loaded ammunition magazines. He obtained his arsenal from home, where the weapons had been locked up, although not so securely as to thwart a determined 15-year-old.
Obama asserted: “This country has to do some soul-searching on this. This is becoming the norm.” At a White House session with young people, he added: “Our levels of gun violence are off the charts. There is no advanced, developed country on earth that would put up with this.” The president’s remarks, as reported by the New York Times, were especially poignant since they came in response to a question from a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where six students were killed late last month by another suicidal maniac who decided to destroy innocent lives to underscore his rage at the world. The Cal student asked Obama what he intended to do. The president replied that because so many members of Congress “are terrified of the NRA,” there would have to be a big change in voter attitudes before additional federal legislation could be put in place. “Until there is a fundamental shift in public opinion in which people say: ‘Enough, this is not acceptable, this is not normal, this isn’t, sort of, the price we should be paying for our freedom,’” he said, “sadly, not that much is going to change.”
This displeased some gun-control advocates. ”Instead of signaling resolve to reengage and, over time, win the debate over universal background checks for purchasers of guns and other modest but meaningful gun restrictions, the president seemed unhappily resigned to the unacceptably violent status quo,” argued Dorothy Samuels of the Times editorial page. But there’s a disconnect in Samuels’s complaint.
Obama favors universal background checks (as do I). But such background checks do absolutely nothing to deter teenagers and young men from breaking into their parents’ gun locker, stealing legally owned weapons, and taking them to a school or other public place for murderous and suicidal purposes. Based on what we know so far, background checks are irrelevant to what happened in Troutdale. They were also irrelevant to the massacre in December 2012 in Newtown, Conn. And they were irrelevant to the Santa Barbara shooting, where the college student perpetrator passed background checks to obtain his weapons (he had no record of crime or mental health commitment).
So where does this leave us? Several points, all disheartening:
1. The president is right: We have a problem. Severely disturbed young men are following a media- and Internet-disseminated template for committing flamboyant murder-suicides in and near schools (and movie theaters and shopping malls).
2. Universal background checks seem perfectly reasonable to many people, because they might keep guns out of the hands of some weapons traffickers and other criminals.
3. But the problem we have with copycat murder-suicides would not be solved or even significantly limited by enacting nationally the sort of thorough background-check rules that already exist in some states. Implying otherwise may feel good, but it doesn’t advance the debate.
4. Fostering a gun culture, as the president suggested, comes at a price. In this country, we have 300 million firearms in private hands. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment protects individual ownership of those guns. Combine those realities with instances of severe mental illness—and, crucially, the public murder-suicide template—and you’ve got a recipe for evil and heartbreak.