Gun Massacres, Chalked Up to Bad Luck
Writing of the "ethical confusion which overtook American society in the Industrial Age," Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager wrote of deadly social consequences for which no individuals felt in any way responsible.
These men were caught in the meshes of a business system which had not yet developed a moral code of its own and to which the old codes were irrelevant. The manufacture and sale of impure foods, dangerous drugs, infected milk, poisonous toys, might produce disease or death, but none of those involved in the process -- retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, advertisers, corporations, directors or stockholders -- realized that they were guilty of murder.
A similar confusion -- mystery, really -- hovered over a Connecticut courtroom this week, where parents of children massacred in their classrooms wondered how 20 young children and 6 adults could be murdered in their school without anyone being in any way responsible for the deaths.
Families of victims are suing Freedom Group, the parent company of the manufacturer of the Bushmaster XM15-E2S semi-automatic rifle that was used in the assault. The New York Times described the gun as "similar to weapons used by troops in Afghanistan."
The families' rough legal theory is that if you design, market and sell a military-style weapon intended to kill many people as swiftly as possible, you bear some responsibility if someone uses the weapon precisely as intended. Adam Lanza, the murderer, fired 154 shots in a handful of minutes before taking his own life.
"This is an instrument of war designed for the battlefield that is marketed and sold to the general public," said Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was murdered. "We're just asking for accountability."
In the U.S., that's an extravagant request, bordering on ridiculous.
Gun manufacturers are uniquely free of liability for their products due to a 2005 act of Congress, so the families seem unlikely to prevail in court. The Bushmaster was only one of the tools Lanza used that day. Before murdering Barden's son and others, an official state report said, "the shooter used a .22 caliber Savage Mark II rifle to shoot and kill his mother in her bed." The manufacturer of the evocatively named "Savage Mark" likewise bears no responsibility for savage consequences.
Neither do retailers. According to federal law, anyone who can pass a background check has a right to buy a gun. It doesn't matter if you're psychotic yourself or merely enabling a psychotic offspring. The retailers who sold the guns did nothing wrong; they can't be blamed.
Nancy Lanza, the murderer's mother, isn't around to take the rap. But by the standards of American law and gun culture she might be judged similarly blameless. She legally purchased her arsenal of rifles, handguns and ammunition. Likewise, she broke no law when she left all that firepower readily accessible to her deranged son, whom she had encouraged to familiarize himself with firearms by joining her at shooting ranges.
Indeed, by some lights, Nancy Lanza was the very picture of responsibility. "Both the mother and the shooter took National Rifle Association (NRA) safety courses," the state report says. "The mother thought it was good to learn responsibility for guns."
That leaves only the killer. Surely we can all agree that this troubled 20-year-old man deserves blame for his crime. But, of course, the killer was also obviously, egregiously insane. With no moral compass to guide him and no capacity to restrain the raging demons in his mind, how can Adam Lanza be held accountable for grabbing hold of the arsenal placed so tantalizingly within his reach? In any case, he, too, is dead. He can offer no apology, and society can exact no penalty, for the lives he stole.
So the manufacturers are not to blame. The retailers are not to blame. The murdered parent is not responsible. And, ultimately, even the deceased killer himself cannot be held to account. As the mournful parents are likely to learn in that Connecticut courtroom, according to American law and custom there's simply nothing to be done about a vicious massacre of children. It happens in a flash, like lightning. And like lightning, it issues from a dark, mysterious place beyond the reach of human agency.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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