Four Blunt Points About Guns and the Charleston Massacre

Why Obama sounded so resigned, the gun shops will be busy this weekend, and we'd better start talking about mental health

Charleston Police Department

The massacre of nine innocent worshipers at an historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C., raises troubling questions about race relations and firearms violence in the U.S. Here are four preliminary predictions about the gun-control debate we're about to have all over again.

Nothing will happen on gun control

Take note of President Obama's reaction on Thursday: equal parts heartfelt grief about racially motivated slaughter and resignation that American politics preclude tougher gun restrictions at the national level. 

“At some point, we, as a country, will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama said at the White House. Then he conceded that “in this town”—Washington—even what took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church would not be enough to overcome the resistance of gun-rights advocates in Congress. “At some point," he added, "it’s going to be important for Americans to come to grips with it and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

But that point didn't come after the December 2012 elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and it hasn't come now. Without strong presidential leadership, gun-control proponents will not overcome the National Rifle Association and its allies.

What may happen is that gun sales will increase

That's the way our gun politics and culture work these days: 1. Mass shooting leads to discussion of gun control. 2. Gun-control laws do not change much, or at all. 3. Citing the mere possibility of stricter gun control (and egged on by the NRA and its allies), gun owners go out and buy another firearm before any restrictions can be imposed. 

"The gun shops will be crowded this weekend," Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association in New Hampshire, predicted. Whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing, he's probably correct. A 2013 surge in gun sales after Newtown has just begun to level off this year. Now we might have a new one.

Obama: Church Shooting Particularly Heartbreaking

The usual gun-control proposals probably wouldn't have much to do with Charleston anyway

As of this writing, we don't know a lot about how the apparent killer, a 21-year-old racist, obtained his weapon(s). There are news reports that he received a .45 pistol in April as a birthday gift from a relative. There are also reports that he reloaded five times during his spree, suggesting, perhaps, that he used the gift pistol and conventional ammunition magazines, as opposed to a military-style semiautomatic rifle with an oversized magazine.

Until we learn more, consider: 1. A ban on "assault weapons" (a loose term for large-capacity military-style rifles) wouldn't affect a killer with a handgun. 2. A ban on supersize magazines wouldn't impede a killer able to reload rapidly with conventional magazines. 3. Closing the "gun show loophole" by requiring comprehensive criminal background checks wouldn't prevent a misguided relative from giving a troubled young man a gun for his birthday.

I happen to favor comprehensive background checks and limits on magazine capacity, because those reforms might deter some criminals and crazy people in some circumstances. But I don't pretend that those steps would have prevented what happened in Charleston—or in Newtown.

Deranged mass killers present a challenge that politically feasible gun-control laws will not solve

No rational person proposes to confiscate the 300 million (give or take) firearms already in private hands in the U.S. It just ain't happening. The gun-control provisions within the realm of political feasibility—if not today, then at some point in the future—simply would not stop an alienated young maniac from obtaining a firearm. Not in a society where guns are so widely disseminated and where the Second Amendment, according to the Supreme Court, protects an individual's right to keep a gun. We are too far down the road to waste time talking about mass confiscation.

So, when it comes to mass murder, we must turn our attention to mental health. When a maladjusted loner begins to talk about killing people—as reportedly was the case in South Carolina and has been the case in similar incidents—relatives, neighbors, "the community" must take action. We must take responsibility for each other, especially for those of us who are sending signals of danger. This may require compromising civil liberties. The alternative, sadly, is the next Newtown, the next Charleston. 

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