M.J. Andersen: Americans' fatalism abets gun violence

Providence Journal

Author: M.J. Andersen

I was wrong about something. It was in 1998, the year two boys, ages 11 and 13, opened fire on their schoolmates in Jonesboro, Ark. They killed four girls and a teacher.

It was unimaginable — so sickening that it had to change things, or so I essentially wrote.

And I was so wrong.

Columbine was yet to come, and Virginia Tech, Newtown and Roseburg, Ore.

In between came more mass shootings.

Remember Kip Kinkel? He was the 15-year-old who, just after Jonesboro, killed his parents, then two students at his Oregon high school. He wounded 25 others.

That case, horrific enough to have seared itself into the national memory, is now barely a footnote.

The killings in gun-friendly Roseburg have rubbed feelings raw, and produced the same old debates about gun control. The Second Amendment sits in our midst, making it hard to come to terms.

Normally, when Americans see a problem, they roll up their sleeves. We have been a can-do society from the beginning. But on guns we are weirdly fatalistic, like some ancient civilization that believes capricious gods dictate events.

The gods appear to have offices over at the National Rifle Association, which cherishes a vision of an armed society, and is taking us there fast.

Its leaders are classic slippery-slopers. They argue that the least restriction means that more will follow. Finally, the government will confiscate your gun.

But no such thing happened after the federal assault weapons ban was passed, in 1994. In 2004, it expired. In the meantime, in the face of more shootings, several states have loosened gun laws.

Georgia now lets people carry firearms into restaurants, bars, airports and churches. Texas is forcing campus-carry onto a state university that for the most part vehemently objects.

Many have reasonably argued for treating guns as a public health issue. That means using the evidence to guide our policies, instead of immobilizing ourselves with rhetoric that keeps circling fruitlessly back to the Second Amendment.

Are you free to drive a car? Yes. But you have to meet licensing requirements.

Cars used to create a terrific amount of highway carnage. But in recent decades, safety requirements (air bags, seat belts, highway safety barriers) have cut the fatality rate dramatically.

We can do the same with guns, starting with universal background checks, which an overwhelming majority of Americans, including NRA members, favor.

We can stop thwarting gun-related research.

The NRA’s leaders may love bullets, but they quake at facts. In the 1990s, they secured legislative language that effectively stopped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence. The National Institutes of Health is similarly constrained.

Other know-nothing legislation prevents the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from keeping an ongoing record of gun transactions, though it could help enormously in tracing illegal sales.

Page 2 of 2 - NRA-backed strictures in the Affordable Care Act forbid doctors to collect patient information on gun ownership.

Getting gun policy right means finding out what is actually going on, everything from where criminals are getting their firearms to what kinds cause the most damage. But none of it has to mean that a law-abiding American must give up a hunting rifle, or a gun kept for self-defense.

Restrictions may not end all gun violence, but the right kinds could save thousands of lives.

As for Jonesboro:

Under juvenile sentencing laws, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, were each imprisoned until age 21. Neither emerged with a criminal record.

Johnson was shortly in trouble, and has been serving time on gun, drug and credit-card fraud. Golden has apparently melted from public view.

In a 15-year anniversary report, published March 25, 2013, BuzzFeed contributor David Peisner made clear that no one who had been at Westside Middle School that day was over it. The sixth-grade class, now grown, is plagued by drug problems, divorce and suicide. One person described it as “the walking dead.”

The principal of the school had refused to blame guns. She had also received an approving letter from the Unabomber saying the shootings were “ordained.”

No new gun legislation was passed in Arkansas.

M.J. Andersen (manderse@providencejournal.com) is a member of The Providence Journal’s editorial board. Her columns appear on alternate Fridays.

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