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Gun Control

The suggestion was made that we ought to find a way to keep guns out of the hands of those who are possibly unstable, and so reduce the chance of someone going on a shooting spree.  The series explores the ramifications and possibilities involved.  It began in October and December of 2012, continuing sporadically through the first half of 2013.

There were additional articles on the subject in 2014, which have been separated for separate publication.

Gun control has been a hot topic as long as I have been aware of the political process, and is not likely to go away, so there will surely be more of these to come.


While searching for a viable subject for this series, I received an e-mail on the subject of gun control.  The author's suggestion was that we should not control guns, but instead should control people--that is, identify people who are "marginally unstable", what we might call "the crazies", and forbid them to own guns.  He estimated that this would include perhaps five to ten percent of the population, which translates to somewhere between one out of twenty and one out of ten.  As attractive as this partial solution is (not all those who have become mass killers were ever recognized as dangerous), it is fraught with legal problems.

The biggest of these is the identification and defining of who is "marginally unstable".  Some think that it includes all registered Democrats, and others all registered Republicans.  Many would suggest that all Muslims in America should be on the list; other people would include all conservative Christians, and others all atheists.

When one of my sons was in perhaps third grade, a gang of older kids on the school playground pinned him to the pavement and beat him.  While he was being helplessly pounded, he yelled at them, "I'm going to kill you."  That was within earshot of the approaching playground aid, and the result was that the State Police had to come to the school and have a conference with him and one of his parents, because he threatened someone's life on the playground.  Does that put him on the list?  A different son managed to shift his position in the social structure between seventh and eighth grade from being a victim, because he managed to convey that he was crazy enough he would kill anyone who picked on him.  No one was willing to test that, and he was never victimized again.  Should he be on the list?

Skipping the problem of just who would be on the list, or what would be sufficient evidence to put someone on the list, we have a more fundamental legal problem:  in this country, you cannot deprive anyone of constitutionally-protected rights without due process of law.  That means that if you want to put me on a list of people who do not have the right under the Second Amendment to own a gun (or a rocket launcher or a tank or whatever weapon I want to own) you have to have a hearing in which you can prove, in a court of law, that there is good cause to deprive me of that right.  That happens automatically for people convicted of violent felonies in most states (although it generally does not prevent them from illegally obtaining weapons for illegal purposes), but they "had their day in court".  If you create a system where people can be blacklisted without that opportunity to respond to charges in a hearing, you have deprived them of due process.

My correspondent observes that people brought into emergency rooms who are believed to be suicide risks, and thus posing a danger to themselves, can be deprived of their liberty and held for observation; he asks why that could not apply to people who are believed to be a risk to others.  Indeed it could, and it is done where there is strong evidence of a clear and specific risk, that is, that the individual is likely to target a specific person or group within a short time; and such detentions, even of suicidal patients, are always temporary pending a hearing to obtain a court order.  So perhaps a system could be established by which individuals thought to be unstable and dangerous were arrested and tried to determine whether a court would be justified in stripping them of specific Constitutionally-protected rights; but then, that means that "thought to be unstable and dangerous" becomes a crime, not because the accused did anything but because someone thought he might.  It would be a very dangerous precedent to allow people to be arrested and tried for crimes they might commit in the future (see Minority Report); it puts all of us at risk.

My correspondent has a good fundamental point, however:  it is not guns but people we need to control.  As we explore the gun issue, we will return to this point again.

The Constitution

If we are talking about restricting the right to own guns, we ought to comprehend what that right entails and why it exists.  Politicians seeking tighter controls often regurgitate nonsense about the great tradition of hunting in this country, as if the Second Amendment was created to protect a hobby (and if so, where is the right to own polyhedral dice?).  I do not suppose that these politicians do not know this--most of them were smart enough to be admitted to law school and obtain a degree which required them to complete a course in Constitutional law.  On the other hand, I don't like to think that they say this for obfuscation; they probably have genuinely forgotten why American citizens are afforded the right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights--not in the sense that they no longer know it, but that it has slipped their minds and they need to be reminded.  For other Americans, it may be that they really do not know why they are permitted to own guns.

Our founding fathers who wrote the rules for how this country should work had fought a war against an oppressive dictatorship.  Englishmen in England had rights; Englishmen in America were treated as if the King could strip them of any rights at any time for any reason or no reason at all.  When they attempted to rebel against this, the King made it a crime to own guns--not because he opposed hunting but because he wanted to strip the colonials of their ability to oppose his armies, and so be able to arrest any person in America who was not one of his soldiers (who were also his police force) simply for having a gun, without waiting for him to use it.  In the new nation it was considered important that the government never be able to bring force against its own citizens unless those citizens could respond in kind.  Of course governments (at that time, the individual states) could raise armies and issue guns to them; but they were to protect, not attack, their own citizens, and so citizens were entitled to be equally as well armed lest their government forgot this.  The armed resistance to and overthrow of the government was anticipated as a normal political process, "when in the course of human events" government overstepped its bounds.

The implications of this doctrine are frightening.  If the United States Army can own automatic weapons, private citizens can own comparable automatic weapons; if the Navy can have battleships, private citizen groups can own battleships; if the Air Force can have nuclear Intercontinental Balistic Missiles (ICBMs) with Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs), so can the local Rotarians.  If government laboratories can experiment with genetically engineered killer virii, so can private biolabs.  Whatever level of weaponry is permitted to the government, the same is permitted to the people.  It is unconstitutional for the government to forbid its citizens to own any weapons it itself owns.  If the government turns its military force against us, we need to have the ability to defend ourselves against it.  That is the point of the Second Amendment, that "we the people" must be empowered to overthrow our own government by force if we deem it necessary.

It is a doctrine of civil war and revolution, from which this nation was born.  We can argue whether it is a good doctrine, and can work to amend the Constitution to eliminate that right to use military force against our own government.  We are in a sense caught between two opposing hazards, the one that "crazies" might become violent and might hurt or kill innocent people, and the other that our own government might trample our rights and impose a de facto dictatorship.  Some do not fear this because they think it could not happen.  On the other hand, Presidents back as far as Jefferson have expressed the attitude that the Supreme Court is welcome to make decisions but has no power to enforce them, and the same can be said about citizens in relation to the government:  without the right to bear arms, who will protect our rights against a government attack upon them?

Thus we have the consequences of the freedom of the people to arm ourselves against our government, that some of those who are so armed are crazy and dangerous; but we are offered the alternative of surrendering that freedom and giving government the power to strip us of all rights at its own pleasure.  We might not agree concerning which is the greater danger, but we ought to be aware of the choice if we are to discuss changing the rules.


Having considered why we have the right to own and carry weapons, against the suggestion that "crazies" who might be dangerous ought to be deprived of that right, it seems that there is some merit to the notion that we regulate not the guns but the people; there are, however, some practical problems to that.

The first problem is the sheer number of people who would have to be listed.  My correspondent suggests that it would be between five and ten percent of the population--a population which the census bureau reported at over three hundred eleven million in July of 2011.  If we assume ten percent, we are saying that we are going to name thirty-one million people on a blacklist; even at five percent, we are still looking at over fifteen million.  Further, it is more complicated than identifying fifteen million people; we need a program that can investigate any and all claims that someone is unfit to own a weapon, from which we expect to find between fifteen and thirty million who are.  If four out of five people investigated are exonerated, half the population will have been examined to reach that number.

It then makes sense to review only those people who are applicants; if you want to purchase a gun legally you must be examined by a state-appointed counselor to determine whether you are unstable.  But that means by default that we are giving the government the authority to determine who is permitted to own a gun, by screening gun applicants and looking for a reason to deny the application.  It is also going to be the tendency in such a system for the screeners to err on the side of caution--if they wrongfully approve, it will come back to them when someone goes over the edge, but if they wrongfully deny either no one will ever know or it gets thrown into an appeals process in which a court will decide whether permission should be granted.

But remember:  the entire point of the right to bear arms is so that when the government starts trampling our other rights the people who have guns can oppose them.  This system gives the government, the very people against whom the guns would be used if they were used as the Founding Fathers intended, the power to prevent anyone from having a gun who might so use it.

It thus seems that any system which registers people not permitted to own weapons by default must become a system of approving people who are, and thus stripping everyone of the right to bear arms until they can prove to the government that they are "safe" by whatever terms the government defines that.  To expect that the government would not ban anyone who believes that the right to bear arms is a right to take up arms against the government when the government oversteps its authority is wishful thinking.

Again, perhaps we do not want the right that our forefathers fought to guarantee.  We have been through some horrible wars in the past century, and are a bit shellshocked from it.  We are not a people who approve revolution or civil war, and we might easily be lulled into thinking that we can trust our government now and forever, and so surrender the right to change it by force of arms if necessary.  The problem is that this last line of defense against our own government cannot be recovered once it is surrendered, and if this rule can be changed so can every rule that protects us from our rulers.


Now we reach a problem with the system as proposed, of registering people who cannot own guns.  We observed that it would be impractical to attempt to identify everyone, and more practical to create the list by screening those who attempt to obtain a gun, and so determining if they are potentially unstable and unsuitable for gun ownership.  Consider, though, what this means.  When you attempt to purchase a gun, the seller must check the blacklist to find out whether you are blacklisted.  If you are on the list, you cannot buy the gun; if you are not on the list, though, then you must go through the process of proving that you are not unstable--and you must do this every time you attempt to buy a gun, as long as you do not fail the process (which, as we observed, is biased toward failing more people than it approves).  That means every time you buy a gun, you risk being blacklisted and of losing your right to bear arms, of becoming a criminal because you own the guns you were previously approved to purchase.

The alternative to this is the creation of a "white list", a list of people who are permitted to own guns and who thus do not need to go through the process.  Yet there are two serious problems with a "whitelist".

It was always implicit in the system of creating a "blacklist" that there was an implied "whitelist", that in examining each individual to determine whether he ought to be forbidden to possess a firearm we were identifying those who could exercise the right.  Yet the Constitution gives that right to all Americans.  As long as we were ignoring the implicit sense that the government was deciding who could own a gun (as opposed to deciding who could not) we were skirting the constitutional issue.  However, as soon as we make the "whitelist" explicit by making it real, by putting names on a list of people who are approved to own guns, we have clearly crossed the line and recognized that we are saying no one has the right until the government gives it to him.  That is the opposite of our intent, which is that everyone has the right until the government takes it from him, but if we require an examination for approval and create a list of those who are approved, we have openly declared that the right does not exist until the government grants it.  That's a constitutional issue.

Of course, that constitutional issue is already implicit in the blacklisting process; but it becomes explicit in the whitelisting process:  the whitelist itself is unconstitutional to the degree that it takes the constitutionally-granted right away from those who are not listed.  That is the first serious problem with the whitelist.

The second problem is that the concept of the whitelist undermines the entire purpose of the blacklist because, frankly, people are not generally born "marginally unstable".  They become so over time.  Thus the concept of the blacklist is not to list people who are marginally unstable in some absolute sense, but those who have become marginally unstable.  You might have been approved to own a gun when you were thirty, but are you still as sane and stable now at fifty as you were then?  If the point of the screening process is to identify those who are marginally unstable now, the fact that you were approved even six months ago might be irrelevant.  The whitelist undermines the process, allowing those who were able to prove themselves stable at some point in the past to obtain guns in the future, whatever their mental state; but absent the whitelist, we have the perpetual danger that with each new firearms acquisition the citizen might be ruled unfit, and his ownership of all his weapons change from a legal right to a criminal act.  Recalling, as previously noted, that it is inherent in the system that screeners will prefer to reject applicants rather than be responsible for issuing guns to applicants who later use them inappropriately, we are caught in a connundrum in which either we take the constitutional right to bear arms away from everyone and then restore it to a select few regardless of what happens to them in the future, or we force gun owners to prove that they should not have the right stripped from them every time they acquire a weapon.

Or, as we do it now, we assume that citizens have the right to own guns until something proves otherwise--because there is a blacklist of sorts.


We are exploring the idea of screening the "crazies".  Imagine for a moment you are one of our hypothetical screeners, charged with deciding whether individual gun applicants are "marginally unstable" and thus likely to do something crazy with the gun.  The first candidate you interview is John Jones, forty-something Manhattan banker of European extraction and deacon in a Presbyterian church.  The second candidate is Jamal Jones, twenty-something unemployed African-American from Harlem recently converted to Islam.  To which are you going to be more comfortable issuing a gun permit?

Probably you just made a decision based on bias.  It isn't even necessarily irrational bias--unemployed young black males are statistically more likely to become involved in violent crimes than middle-aged white bankers.  (For what it's worth, they're also more likely to be the victims of such crimes.)  Yet the decision cannot be based on statistics, but only on this individual's apparent stability or instability.  However, it will be difficult to escape bias.

What makes it more complicated is that it would not be sufficient for all screeners to act in an unbiased fashion in all instances.  If the outcome itself has the appearance of bias, the system is suspect and can be regarded prejudicial.  The courts have often rejected systems that were not created from bias but had a biased outcome--busing is the best known example, in which black and white children living respectively in black and white neighborhoods were sent to schools far from their homes so that schools which were segregated solely because they were local schools in segregated neighborhoods would be integrated.  If in fact more blacks than whites, or more Hispanics than Chinese, or more women than men, or more homosexuals than heterosexuals, or any other disparity between groups emerges statistically, it might not matter whether it emerges validly.  Tests which tend to exclude members of a particular group are frequently regarded unconstitutional simply because they have a discriminatory outcome.  Voter registration requirements based on literacy tests (which would have pleased the founding fathers who wanted only the educated to vote) have been struck down for being discriminatory on racial lines.

Yet the very concept of the rule is discriminatory:  we wish to discriminate those who are marginally unstable, those who are likely to use a gun for some kind of violent outburst, from those who are not, and we wish to treat those people differently, depriving them of rights afforded the others.  If that happens to reflect some ethnic or sociological groups as more commonly unstable than others, it will be difficult to prove that it is not bias in the method, that it is not the case that the system of identifying unstable individuals is not inherently flawed such that it is more likely to so identify members of particular groups.  It would be difficult even for those in the system to know that their judgments are not being influenced by sociological factors--if someone from a suspect minority group applies who seems unstable, can the screener compensate for personal bias without overcompensating?

And thus quite apart from the right to bear arms, the entire process is likely to collapse under the weight of the probability that it is unconstitutionally discriminatory.

A System

Yet the concern of my correspondent has some merit:  can we not identify at least some of those who are "marginally unstable" who might be a threat, and prevent them from obtaining guns?

The fact is, we already do something very like this.  We do not do this exactly, but we could possibly expand what we do and cover more potential threats.  There are two ways in which this kind of restriction is done.

The more common one is that persons on parole, in most states, are not permitted to purchase, own, or handle firearms; to do so is a violation of parole that puts them in jail.  It is not exactly a criminal offense, and they are not being arrested for having a gun; this applies to those convicted and sentenced who are released early on a promise of good behavior, and is the revocation of that release.  However, it is a situation in which gun rights of an individual are suspended temporarily.

The other situation is that if a medical or counseling professional believes that an individual poses a genuine threat of violence toward one or more specific individuals, he is required to take steps to warn the threatened persons or alert authorities to the danger.  That does not mean that such a person can be arrested or held, but it does mean that he will be watched; and there is no particular reason why that could not be the basis for questioning such an individual and seeking a court order to hold him.

Neither of those, though, is exactly what is sought here.  Even so, some kind of restriction on the right to have a gun might be defensible, if it met these conditions:

Such a program of preventing people who are marginally unstable already exists.  Licensed gun dealers are required to run federal background checks on potential buyers, and such a check will block sales to many groups including those convicted or only just indicted for certain crimes including domestic violence and drug use, as well as those involuntarily committed to mental care facilities.  That, though, raises one more issue, the matter of enforcement.


The system has most of what it needs, including an appeals process.  Of course, it does not keep guns out of the hands of criminals because private gun sales are not regulated by that system.  Further, there is a distinction between owning a gun and selling a gun, and a background check system only regulates the latter.  What is wanted is a way to prevent identifiably dangerous people from owning guns.

With parolees, the system is relatively simple:  since the individual is not permitted to possess a firearm as a condition of parole, the possession of such a weapon is sufficient to revoke parole and return the offender to jail.  Thus there are specific penalties connected to the original crime and the violation of parole which allow the parolee to be incarcerated, and which determine the period of incarceration.  The problem arises when we are talking about someone not convicted of a crime who is arrested for illegally possessing a firearm which would be legal for someone else.  Here we have several problems.

The first problem is the problem of notice.  If you put someone on a list of people who are not allowed to own firearms, you cannot subsequently arrest him for owning firearms if he has not been adequately informed of the restriction such that he understood it.  This probably puts us back in the position of needing to hold a hearing in which the individual is permitted to defend himself against claims that he should be deprived of this right; even if there is some summary system which allows a person to be deprived of the right directly, the individual must be afforded due process in the form of a speedy appeals process.  A gun collector served such notice would be in trouble very quickly, and thus the appelate process must include a stay of the action until the appeals have been exhausted.

It is also clear that there will have to be an identified penalty--a fine or term of imprisonment--and thus that owning or possessing a gun when you have been placed on the "dangerous" list is a crime.  That again means a hearing, or more properly a trial, to determine whether you knew you were not permitted to possess a gun and whether you intentionally violated that restriction.  Absent this, all we have is that the police can tell you that you're not supposed to own a gun and can confiscate it, after which there would have to be an appeals process to recover it, since that might be an unlawful seizure forbidden by the Fourth Amendment.

Further, it will have to be decided exactly how this will be enforced.  Will police simply check the list whenever they encounter someone with a gun?  Will they check the list as part of all routine stops such as traffic stops?  Will they be responsible to know what persons within their jurisdiction are blacklisted and make routine checks on them?  Will the list be made public, such that neighbors can know that they live near someone deemed potentially dangerous who is not permitted to own a gun (and perhaps criminals can learn what houses are unprotected for that reason)?  For the blacklist to have any value in preventing gun ownership or possession by the people on it, there must be some method of enforcement that allows the police to know whether the listed people have violated the restriction, and that probably means the elimination of several other rights, as the list becomes de facto probable cause for a search whether or not the individual has ever been known to have a gun.  Yet absent such invasive searches or publication of names, the list is reduced to an indicator that someone was worried about this person before he shot someone.

In the end, there is no genuinely practical way of regulating the possession of firearms by anyone who has not committed a crime; even the regulation of those in that category is limited.  We might all know people we think should not own a gun, but that's just not enough to deprive someone of a Constitutionally-protected right, any more than that we can deprive someone of free speech simply because we don't like what they are saying.


Just as we were wrapping up this series on gun control, there is another shooting.  It seems as if they happen far too often, as if we are becoming more and more violent as the years progress, and must do something to reverse the process.

Yet as with many things in which we rely on our impressions, this is not true.  Rather, the 1990s were a peak decade, and the aughts, the first decade of this century, decisively less violent in terms of such mass killings, according to those who study the issue seriously.  Further, the United States was considerably more violent in the past, with the 1920s holding the record for number of mass shootings in a single year.  It only seems to us as if there are more such shootings today.

One reason for this is media saturation.  It is difficult to imagine a shooting occurring anywhere in this country where no one on site would have a camera; they have become ubiquitous, existing in even cheap cell phones, and many will take motion video.  The nearly universal access to the Internet similarly means that anything "exciting" that happens is known around the world in minutes, and mass shootings are exciting, partly because they are dreadful, but partly because they are uncommon and most of us will never be in one.  The fact that news of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut was spread to so many so quickly (by the time those of us on the three to eleven shift were awake, it was already being discussed retrospectively by radio pundits) made it seem as if it could happen to any of us, but then, so do stories of lottery winners, and most of us are quite aware of the unlikelihood of winning a major lottery prize.  There are many unexpected tragic events--fatal school bus accidents, train wrecks, airplane crashes, killer storms, earthquakes.  Yes, they happen when and where least expected, and yes, they are least expected everywhere always, but they do not happen everywhere always.  It is precisely how rare they are that makes them so shocking:  we did not expect it, because it almost never happens to anyone.  So, too, it is the rarity of such shootings that make them shocking, and the fact that the people did not expect it that makes it feel as if it could have been us.  Indeed, it could have been us, but we are more likely to be killed by drunk drivers or household accidents, and most of us manage to avoid these deaths and die of something else.

Indeed, the number of deaths in the United States from gun-related violence of all types (including robberies, gang violence, and murders of individuals) is about thirty-two thousand per year.  Alcohol kills more than twice that number, over seventy-five thousand a year, of whom forty-one thousand die from injuries in accidents (mostly automotive) and another thirty-five thousand from diseases, mostly cirrhosis.  Drunk drivers alone kill an estimated twenty-seven people per day--far more in a month than random shooters of the Sandy Hook variety kill in a year.  Alcohol is the worse killer.  Yet we attempted to outlaw alcohol, and the result was booming criminal activity and the result that any suggestion that alcohol ought to be more strictly regulated is ridiculed as impossible.  The majority of drinkers, we are told, drink responsibly, despite the fact that every day an estimated three hundred thousand drive drunk.  Whether the claim that the majority of gun owners are responsible is true is almost irrelevant:  irresponsible drivers clearly outnumber irresponsible gun owners, with as deadly a weapon.

We focus on these shootings because they are emotionally wrenching and well publicized--the fact that over two thousand children die of cancer every year does not touch us so much as the appeal of one dying child in an Internet video.  It is certainly tragic when anyone dies of any cause, the more so if he might have lived long and done much, and the more so if we think it could have been prevented.  Guns make such murderous rampages easier, but high school students have built their own bombs, and used knives and axes and metal pipes and two-by-fours in fatal violence.  Someone who wants to kill can find a way.


The shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School brought gun violence into the forefront again.  As we noted, gun fatalities of this sort are rare compared to other forms of death, particularly drunk driving fatalities, but they have an emotional element that causes people to respond irrationally to them.  We want to find a way to prevent crazy people from obtaining guns, so they won't use them in this way.

Whenever these things happen, some people say that the shooter seemed like such a quiet and gentle person, and others that they always knew there was something wrong with him.  But then, everyone has someone who thinks they are a bit crazy, and so before the fact you could always find someone who thinks you are unstable and should not be permitted to own a gun.  I'm sure that some of my readers think this of me, whether because I am a dungeon master, a Christian, a rock musician, a science fiction fan, or some other reason, and you will find that you, too, fall into at least one and probably several categories that some people think make you dangerous.  Worse, after an event like this many people will reflect that they should have recognized this person as unstable even though they never did, and some will tell themselves that they did know it beforehand and should have mentioned it to someone, simply because they don't want to believe that they didn't know, that someone who seemed perfectly normal or at least perfectly peaceable could prove to be a violent killer quite without notice.  We do not want to believe that, in part because it means that our own friends, members of our own families, could be next, and in part because we realize that we could be next.  Yet anyone who has watched Michael Douglas' performance in the movie Falling Down, should realize that pretty much any one of us might be one terrible day away from becoming one of these shooters.

Therein lies the biggest problem with screening.  It is not sufficient to screen only those who attempt to buy guns through legitimate dealers, because guns are available in a thousand different ways.  It is not sufficient that we screen those few who someone suggests might be dangerous; we must screen everyone, because anyone might be dangerous.  Further, it is not sufficient that we screen everyone once, because any of us could be fine in January and unstable in June.  We are talking about a system in which everyone must report several times a year to a government psychiatric facility to be tested for mental and emotional stability, and have the details of potential stress situations in our lives constantly monitored.

Even with this, what do we gain?  There are millions who are mentally or emotionally unstable at any given moment, most of whom recover and move forward with life.  Maybe half a dozen become shooters.  We do not even know why, or how to spot them in advance.  We might have some faint hope that by screening everyone every three months and then looking at the past records of those who become shooters we might find patterns--but then, how many people will miss their testing appointments, and what are the odds that unstable shooters will be among them?  We have no data, no test, no certainty--and no system able to bear the burden of such an approach.

More than one person has suggested that the solution to combating school shootings is not a futile attempt to limit access to guns, but a concerted effort to train teachers and school personnel in firearm use and provide them with weapons for the defense of the students.  Some think that a joke, some react with horror to the suggestion of having guns in schools, but ultimately it is at least as good and more workable a solution than the other.  In most situations where a shooter was stopped early in his rampage, it was because someone present was armed and trained and able to end the shooting quickly.  We might prefer a solution in which no one had a gun and no one started shooting, but the more realistic solution seems to be that more people have guns and are prepared to use them in emergencies.


One of my readers observed that all talk of gun control is about so-called "assault" weapons, but that of all the mass shootings in recent history, such a weapon was only involved in one, the rest using ordinary rifles and pistols.  I do not know whether that is true, but it underscores two points.  The first is that those who favor gun control are ignoring an incongruity in their argument, that the guns they seek to ban are not the ones involved in these casualties; they are simply using the casualties for the emotional appeal, that children were killed by guns, so we should ban the most deadly guns despite the fact that they were not used.  The second requires a story.

It was the 1973 graduating year, and as I was sitting in a mid-day history class a bomb exploded in the third floor boys room next door, in a high school of 1200 students in an upper-middle class town.  No one was injured.  However, it was the first of a string of bombings--notably a car outside a private party in the next town, from which shrapnel came dangerously close to the crib of a sleeping baby, and finally the press box at the high school football field.  Although no one was injured, this one broke all the windows in the back of the school, thirty yards away and a hundred yards wide, and when custodial staff came to clean up glass on Sunday so that school could open Monday, there was no glass--they had been sucked out by the updraft from the blast.

Credit goes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who became involved after the pressbox bombing, and sufficiently reconstructed the simple bomb as to be able to track the local merchants from whom components were acquired, and from this identify the high school sophomore who was making the bombs, who rolled on the high school sophomore who was buying them and using them.  It took three weeks to identify him.  The perpetrator did it because he felt rejected by others--the car bombing was because he was turned away when he attempted to crash a private party.  The victims suffered only financial loss and fear, but there was significant fear in the local communities as no one could see a pattern in what appeared random bombings.  And on some level, the bomber was lucky--he could not have known, for example, that no one would be in the bathroom when he detonated the first.

His motivation seems to have been similar to that of those behind some of these shootings:  he wanted to feel as if he were in control, that he was more important than those he perceived as his persecutors.  I had known the kid--he was very briefly in our Boy Scout troop.  I could give you my mostly negative impressions of him, but as we noted in hindsight we all want to feel as if we knew or should have known that individual was dangerous.  In truth, there were a lot of kids in my high school I would have thought might do something like that, and it never occurred to me that he might be one of them.  Neither of them ever had guns; they used what they had, and it was adequate.  They easily could have killed a lot of people--choosing the cafeteria instead of the bathroom, detonating the pressbox bomb during a football game rather than the middle of the night.  Fortunately that was not their intent.  It might have been--and the next "shooters" might decide that bombs are more effective and less easily traced to them.  If we take away their guns, it becomes more likely.

So is this an argument that we need to let shooters have guns so they won't use bombs?  That would be silly.  Rather, the point is that those who reach the point that they choose to kill will find a means to do so, and they are not now using assault rifles and could quite easily design and build bombs.  Taking assault rifles out of circulation will not prevent the few massacres that are occurring; preventing people identified as "crazies" from purchasing (quite apart from possessing) guns will not prevent them from finding ways to kill.

On one level, it's no skin off my nose--I have never held, let alone owned, an "assault weapon", and it would take nothing from me--nothing, that is, but the Constitutional right to own one if I so chose, if the world became dangerous enough here that I felt that threatened.  As has been quipped, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.


One way arguments are obfuscated (as we recently saw in discussing what "marriage" means) is by using terms without defining them.  We might be in part guilty of this, as we noted that "assault weapons" were almost never used in the type of shootings on which gun control advocates base the arguments for banning them, but we did not define "assault weapon".  A similar problem arises in regard to "automatic" and "semi-automatic" with reference to guns; this hopefully will clarify these terms.

An "assault" weapon is one designed fundamentally for use in close combat.  It has a shorter range and generally a lesser impact than rifles made for hunting, or sniper rifles; often it has a bayonet fitting, on the assumption that the person using such a gun is in the middle of the melee and at times will be as easily able to stab his opponent as shoot him.  Such weapons are usually (but not necessarily) "automatic" or "semi-automatic", allowing reasonably rapid fire rates.  The designation is vague enough that the traditional "six gun" revolver could qualify, as it is designed for close quarters fighting and rapid reset for the next shot.

The definitions of "automatic" and "semi-automatic" are a bit more difficult.  Some suppose that any weapon which reloads itself after firing a shot is an automatic weapon, but although a revolver does exactly this it is not considered to be in these categories.  Some assume, again incorrectly, that the requirement is that the weapon ejects its shell casings.  For an "automatic" weapon, it is assumed by some that rapid continuous fire is sufficient to qualify, but a Gatling Gun produces rapid continuous fire, ejecting spent cartriges and loading new ones, and is not considered "automatic".

What makes a weapon "automatic" or "semi-automatic" is a strictly mechanical aspect:  it uses part of the energy from the explosion which propels the projectile to reset the weapon for the next.  If it is "semi-automatic", it does no more than that, requiring that the trigger be released and pulled for each shot; if it is "automatic", the trigger may be held, and the mechanism will fire the next bullet once it has been chambered.  Some "automatic" weapons have a "burst" setting, which causes the weapon to fire usually three to six rapidly consecutive shots on a single activation.

Fully "automatic" weapons are already restricted from civilian ownership.  In seeking to ban "semi-automatic" weapons, advocates are targeting primarily the pistols in common use by law enforcement and private security agents.  Rifles which require the user to operate the cocking mechanism by hand, revolvers, most shotguns, and of course Gatling Guns would be permitted.  Note that standard hunting rifles, shotguns, and Gatling Guns are neither "assault weapons", as they are considerably more powerful and not designed for close fighting or self-defense, nor "automatic" or "semi-automatic" weapons, because they do not use the power of the shot fired to chamber the next round.

At issue, then, is whether banning such weapons would have any impact on shooting deaths, or particularly on the kinds of shooting deaths which are cited in support of such bans.  We might decrease the number of semi-automatic pistols in circulation, but in all likelihood the owners would replace these with revolvers, and gun manufacturers could easily design guns that fire and reload rapidly without using explosive force to drive the mechanism--electric guns already exist, but are not in popular use because semi-automatics are simpler.  One thing that designer drugs have taught us is that any battle against current technology is bound to lose as new technology supercedes it.  We can ban "assualt weapons" and "semiautomatic weapons", but these will be replaced by other technologies that do the same job, probably more effectively.

And, as has been demonstrated by many accounts, making guns illegal only keeps them out of the possession of people who would use them legally.


While some states are proposing laws that arm teachers and administrators, here in New Jersey (which rates high in gun control laws) the debate is whether to put armed security in public schools.  Raymond Hayducka has given his informed opinion on the subject, but it is difficult to assess.  He suggests that towns should place armed police officers in the schools, but that those who cannot afford to do so should not allow guns in the schools and instead should use unarmed security guards or unarmed retired police officers.

On the one hand, Hayducka raises some cogent points.  Active duty police are kept current on all training certifications; they know how and when to use a weapon.  They are also connected to the police communications networks, and can not only request assistance but interact smoothly with it both after and before it arrives.  They are authorized to make arrests, and their presence in the schools would make them available as assets in other areas, working as "resource officers" and so becoming involved in teaching and counseling.  His suggestions that armed security officers, even retired police officers, do not have these advantages and might create a liability situation for the schools in a bad situation, are certainly worth considering.

On the other hand, Hayducka's positions as president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police and as South Brunswick police chief may suggest that the man is both biased in this opinion and ill-informed of the situation elsewhere in the state.  The bias is obvious:  police in schools would mean more hours for police officers and thus larger police forces.  There is the bias of the self-defined expert against the perceived amateur--the example of the study in which psychologists showed no bias in evaluating the diagnoses of other psychologists or psychiatrists, but psychiatrists generally concluded that diagnoses which they were told came from other psychiatrists were right and those said to be from psychologists were wrong is exemplary in this, but it applies in many fields.  There is also a vested interest in keeping control over persons working in what you deem to be your field, and private security would be outside the direct control of the police.  Mr. Hayducka might not be intentionally biasing his statements, but the potential is there.

As to being ill-informed, the Brunswicks are part of the more densely populated New York metropolitan area, and a relatively affluent section.  His position in an association of chiefs of police puts him in touch with those towns that have police chiefs.  There are in this state many communities which have their own schools, or which host regional schools for several townships, which have no police departments, relying on the New Jersey State Police to provide police and emergency services.  For them, it is not a matter of whether or not they can employ additional police, but whether they can afford any police department at all.  These frequently are communities where farmers and hunters flourish, where guns are common and young people often have access to them.  Hayducka would have it that if you live in such a community, you should not place armed security in your schools because, in his apparent opinion, your children will be safer if no one has a gun in the school (except the shooter) than if those present who have guns are not part of his organization.

Mr. Hayducka's position should not be dismissed easily; there are certainly advantages to having armed police officers in schools (indeed, the Rutgers University New Brunswick/Piscataway campus has its own New Jersey community police department covering the campus).  That does not mean that the advantages of having armed security forces which are not police officers is a worse idea than having only unarmed security officers.  The latter could, presumably, use their bodies as human shields against the bullets fired at our children, but that does not seem to be as practical a defense as arming a few people in the schools.

No, it seems that if having armed police officers in schools is a good idea because they are armed, having armed security is also a good idea--perhaps not as good an idea, but one that might be accessible to all those communities who otherwise would merely be hiring more playground monitors and putting them in uniforms.

Mental Health

In 1972, George McGovern ran for President against incumbent Richard Nixon; McGovern's running mate was Thomas Eagleton.  Nixon would one day quip that it is the job of the press to examine everyone with a microscope, but that in his case they used a proctoscope.  What the press uncovered examining Eagleton was that some years before he had sought and received psychiatric care.  Questions were raised as to whether he was suited to be "one heartbeat away from the presidency", and McGovern immediately made a statement giving his full support to his running mate; but a few days later Eagleton resigned from the race, to be replaced by Sargent Shriver.  It was catastrophic for the McGovern campaign.

In the midst of it all, there was one cogent comment that had nothing to do with politics.  Someone said that this would set mental health back decades.  Indeed, it is easy to see that a depressed and suicidal college student might hesitate to visit the university counseling center, faced with the possibility that decades later it might cost him the best opportunity of his career.  Psychiatric care was a black mark on an otherwise exemplary record, and a fatal one.

Today there is talk of stripping the second amendment right to own a gun from anyone who has received specific types of mental health care.  There are certainly good reasons to want to keep crazy people from having guns, and to some degree that is already covered in the existing background check system.  The rules and proposed rules at present refer only to those involuntarily committed, and so it might be assumed that it does not cover those who voluntarily seek psychiatric treatment or counseling, but there are several reasons why even so limited a rule will have a negative impact on the nation's mental health system.

First, it must be recognized that whatever the law actually says is not going to be common knowledge, and people are going to chatter about what they think it says and what they think it means.  Many are going to believe that anyone who sees a psychologist or psychiatrist will be blacklisted for gun ownership, and are going to avoid seeking any such care themselves as well as advising others of the supposed danger.  The exact definition of the line that has to be crossed to be disqualified will not be clear in the minds of most people, and so the fear of having constitutional rights taken because of mental health treatment is going to keep them out of care.

Second, even if a person knows that it is only involuntary commitment that will get him disqualified, the further he keeps himself from mental health care professionals the less likely he is to be involuntarily committed.  A psychiatrist who decides that his patient needs inpatient care and is not going to undergo it voluntarily could have him committed swiftly; the fact that a spouse thinks you're crazy does not get you the same treatment without a lot more intervening steps.

Third, and perhaps most important, is that the rule stripping those involuntarily committed of their second amendment rights is a new rule.  People who were involuntarily committed fifty years ago as twenty-year-old hippies did not at that time lose their rights to own weapons then, but only later when the rule was created.  In the future it might happen that a new rule would take gun rights from those who were voluntarily committed, or who received any other specific or general psychiatric or psychological care.  The rule might say that anyone diagnosed bipolar, or depressed, or psychotic or schizophrenic or anything else, cannot own a gun--and no one can know what label might be attached to him when he first comes to the mental health care system.  Maybe no such rule would ever come to be; however, the possibility that it might, and that it would retroactively cover those who received such care at any point in the past, would itself have a chilling effect on those needing such care now but fearing the potential future consequences.

Thus a rule banning those with a history of psychiatric care has a broad negative impact on the mental health care world.  This in turn means diminishing returns for the efficacy of such a rule, because the longer it is in effect the fewer people will seek mental health care, and the less able to identify--or to address--the potential dangers the system becomes.

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