Sunday, September 03, 2006

Limit gun violence by empowering responsible citizens

As Seattleites emerge from their state of shock over the July 28 shooting spree at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, there no doubt will be discussions on how to prevent a repeat of this kind of monstrous evil, whether perpetrated as a form of decentralized terrorism inspired by anti-Semitism, or as an act of a deranged individual. Predictably, there will be cries to restrict the instruments of Naveed Afzal Haq's actions — firearms — as a means to control violence of this sort in the future. Coming on the heels of another shooting spree in March of this year on Capitol Hill, there will be much political temptation to be seen to be "doing something."

And legislating more restrictions on the right to keep and bear firearms is often viewed as an emotionally satisfying and politically convenient way to meet that psychological need to do something — anything — in the aftermath of a tragedy like this. But that inclination is misguided on two points, one based on principle and the other on practicality. First, as a matter of principle, a free, open society like ours does not, and ought not, preemptively restrict freedom of the general population out of fear that a small criminal minority would misuse that freedom.

Just as the fact that a few pedophiles use the Internet to trade child porn should not move the society to restrict access to the Internet for the public at large, neither should the right of the vast majority of responsible, law-abiding citizens to own and carry guns be sacrificed in the false hope that criminals would then be constrained.

Second, as a matter of practicality, such a restriction on guns does nothing to curb violence. Even if legal firearm ownership were completely banned today, no serious person would argue that we could eradicate the availability of firearms on the black market. Those who intend to harm others will still be able to get guns — illegally. Those who are unable to do so, but still harbor criminal intents, will use other means to inflict harm. In England, for example, a man went on a slashing spree with a sword at a church in 1999; and early this year, a recent University of North Carolina graduate, a native of Iran, plowed into a crowd with a sport utility vehicle "to avenge Muslim deaths."

Guns, knives and any other conceivable arms are obviously banned in our prison system, but despite the most strenuous control measures, people are still assaulted and murdered at prisons, often with improvised weapons. It is a fact of life that there will always be those few, for whatever reasons, who seek to inflict physical harm upon others even in the most benign of utopias.

Then what are we to do as a society? What we ought to do is precisely the opposite — to encourage a responsible, armed citizenry. Of course, I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not encourage vigilantism. I am not suggesting that people arm themselves and go looking for trouble. You leave that to the professionals who get paid to take the risk.

Nor am I suggesting that an armed citizen could have entirely prevented the Jewish Federation attack. But an armed citizen defending his school, church, synagogue or home could mitigate the extent of the casualty level should such a calamity strike again (as happened in Pearl, Miss., in 1997, when an assistant principal interrupted a school shooting by retrieving his gun from his car — ironically it was illegal for him to bring a gun to school — and holding the suspect at bay until the police arrived).

Despite what some politicians and groups say, there is no magic solution for curbing murderous violence. We cannot ban mechanical objects and expect twisted human beings to cleanse evil from their souls suddenly. Furthermore, in a free, open society like ours, where we all live with some degree of mutual trust and a social contract to not do harm to each other, there is no reliable way of preemptively stopping someone intent on harming others. The only thing we can do is to try to limit the damage by continuing to empower the majority of law-biding, decent individuals with the freedom to defend themselves.


KS: Man found not guilty in shooting "A Butler County jury has returned a not guilty verdict in a case involving a shooting last year in El Dorado. Bart M. Thomison, 21, had been charged with murder in the second degree or, in the alternative, involuntary manslaughter. That was in connection with the shooting death of Joshua Freed, 19, at about 11 p.m. on the night of Aug. 18 of last year. The shooting occurred as the result of a confrontration between Thomison and Freed in a driveway at a residence in the 1200 block of Douglas Road."

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