After Connecticut: Guns, Gun Control, and Gun Culture

Residents grieve following a shooting on Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Photograph by Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

Bucolic Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 26 people, 20 of them children between ages 5 and 10, is also the headquarters of the American firearm industry. A short distance from Sandy Hook Elementary School, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the country’s premier gun trade association, has its offices in a dignified white building on a gentle hill.

Like its better-known sister, the National Rifle Association, which represents gun owners, the NSSF promotes the arming of America—for hunting, shooting sports, self-defense, and the cultural significance that many Americans invest in firearms. The Sandy Hook massacre is the worst in the United States since the April 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech, which took place not too far from the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax, Va.

Painful geographic juxtaposition of pointless slaughter and a marketing association doesn’t suggest anything profound. These are awful coincidences.

Or maybe there is something significant in the proximity.

The NSSF happens to be in Connecticut because that state, along with Massachusetts, has a gun-making tradition going back to the 18th century. In modern times, though, the unremarkable headquarters of the gun industry, or the gun owners’ lobby, could be in any pleasant exurban town: Aurora, Colo., for example, site of July’s movie theater bloodshed, or the community near Milwaukee where a gunman took six innocent lives at a Sikh temple in August.

The horror in Newtown is just the latest reminder that America is a gun culture. Firearms are both ordinary and, in many parts of the country, hallowed. They permeate our society. Private citizens own some 300 million pistols, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns. And the manufacturers and distributors that pay dues to the NSSF and make contributions to the NRA are selling more every day. This will not change.

If recent history serves as a guide, in fact, gun sales will rise in coming days. Fear of new gun control laws will send tens of thousands of consumers to Main Street shops and firearm websites. It happened after the January 2011 shopping mall massacre in Tucson, Ariz., in which former Rep. Gabby Giffords was maimed, and after most of the other recent mass public shootings.

Then Democrats in Congress will probably propose a piece of legislation or two that would tinker with the rules for legally acquiring firearms. These potential adjustments may make sense (e.g., restricting obscenely large ammunition magazines) or they may be utterly pointless (banning “assault weapons” that in terms of lethality are no different from grandpa’s wooden-stock deer hunting rifle). Either way, enacting such laws—which remains unlikely, given Republican control of the House of Representatives—would do little or nothing to stop mass shootings or common street crime.

Why? Because no politician, not President Barack Obama, not House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi—no one in mainstream Washington—is going to propose confiscating any of the millions of firearms or magazines already in private hands. Imagine being the police chief or sheriff given the task of forcibly collecting people’s guns or mags. It ain’t happening. We are too far down the road.

So prohibit 50-round drum magazines, if you like. In my view, that would not endanger the Second Amendment. Neither would it stop the next determined whack job from packing two 30-round magazines, or three 15-round magazines. The hardware is out there. Fiddling with the rules governing how new guns or mags are sold won’t stop the mass murders.

What, then, is to be done? First, we should acknowledge that some humans are sick and evil. In a heavily armed society, the existence of sick, evil people will, from time to time, lead to disaster.

If I were running a school or a movie theater or a house of worship, I would hire the highest-quality licensed, armed security available. No Second Amendment issue there. If there had been an armed guard at the Newtown school, it’s at least possible he would have brought down the killer and saved a lot of lives. Security guards are not a panacea. Yet we have them at sports stadiums and airports. In Israel, a guy with a gun on his hip stands in front of every elementary school.

Another thought on the gun massacre front: We must seriously rethink how we deal with extreme mental illness. Current laws make it almost impossible to get dangerously ill individuals involuntarily committed until they have their fingers on the triggers. More imaginative, flexible rules in this regard would allow us to medicate more dangerous people and separate them from firearms. (As a side benefit, this approach might also keep hundreds of thousands of mentally ill individuals from violating criminal laws and landing behind bars. More aggressive civil commitment offers a humane alternative to our current de facto policy of housing the mentally ill in prison.)

In terms of more ordinary street crime, we ought to study the factors that have made cities like New York much safer over the past 20 years. Gun control laws did not accomplish that improvement. Gun control laws in New York have remained the same, while homicide rates have plummeted. Why have bad guys in New York, and many other big cities, been leaving their guns at home, rather than bringing them with them on their rounds? How can we replicate that achievement?

While we mourn the dead in Newtown, those are questions worth exploring.

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