It is too early to say what precisely the suburban Milwaukee Sikh temple massacre may tell us about guns and gun control. The facts are still in flux, and the facts matter.
Here’s what Bloomberg News is reporting: The six innocent worshipers were killed by Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old Army veteran with a sketchy military record and a reputation as a neo-Nazi. After wounding a number of additional people, Page died.
CNN is saying that Page used a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, which he purchased legally, and more than one ammunition magazine. It’s unclear at this hour from whom the killer acquired his handgun—a federally licensed dealer who would have been obliged to run a computerized background check, a private “collector” who would not necessarily have had to run a check, or a relative or neighbor who could have handed over the weapon for $1.
It’s worth noting that, as Bloomberg reports: “Page pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in Houston in 1994, was sentenced to 180 days of probation and had a 90-day jail sentence suspended, according to court records. The records didn’t provide details of the conviction.” If a background check was conducted, did this infraction turn up? What about Page’s troubles in the military, where he reportedly was demoted from sergeant to private, a move suggesting some kind of misbehavior? And what about his documented history as a racist skinhead? Would that have turned up in the FBI’s database? If not, why not?
Organizations favoring greater regulation of the lawful ownership of firearms were quick to demand action. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence sent this unsubtle message to President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, both of whom offered their sympathies without proposals for legislative changes: “For those who are in a position to take action that would save lives, it is immoral to share condolences and then immediately abdicate any responsibility to fight for the reforms that would prevent the next massacre. It’s time for all people of conscience to send a clear and loud message to their elected officials: Restore sanity to the screening system for gun buyers in this country, or we will vote you out of office.”
It’s perfectly legitimate to demand action, backed up by votes. The National Rifle Association, although it tends to stay pretty quiet in the wake of mass shootings, will not be shy on Election Day, as its members and admirers punish politicians who use Milwaukee—or, before it, Aurora or Tucson—as bases for pushing more restrictive gun laws. In fact, from the little we know so far about Milwaukee, the horror at the Sikh temple presents the kind of scenario where an armed passerby or worshiper might have limited the carnage. (The killer was stopped by quick-arriving police officers, who, fortunately, were armed.)
But before we condemn elected officials as “immoral” because they fail to offer instant “reforms,” let’s find out what exactly happened in Milwaukee and then examine closely what changes in the law could have prevented it. The grim reality is that, in a society with 250 million to 300 million firearms already in private hands, tinkering with the rules on legally obtaining new guns—meaning tinkering with gun control—can have only a marginal effect on deterring determined mass killers.