The American gun debate has been a dialogue of the deaf for decades and no end is in sight. That is for the simple reason that the two sides each reflect incompatible and irreconcilable views on the matter. To simplify a bit, when one side feels that society would be safer with more guns and the other side feels society would be safer with fewer or no guns, there is not much middle ground that can bridge the differences. One side blames the gun for the crime (as if guns fire themselves) and the other side blames the perpetrator for the crime (as if he could kill people if he didn't have a gun). And so horrendous tragedies such as last week’s school massacre in Florida will continue to occur, rachmana litzlan.
Each side retreats to its arguments whenever a horrendous school shooting occurs. One side blames the easy access to guns as so obvious that it brooks no discussion. The other side blames the failure to diagnose and treat mental illness or at least intervene and curb the anger and delusions of the disaffected. There are so many layers to the problem that it becomes difficult even to discuss them or analyze them dispassionately. No one is in favor of providing weapons to the mentally ill; by the same token, we pride ourselves in not stigmatizing mental illness, so how can their rights be restricted? And by whom shall they be restricted? Add to this the collapse of the American family since the moral breakdown of the 1960’s – the plethora of fatherless children, the aimlessness of many youth, the broken homes and the lack of any moral guidance from authority figures (schools, churches, etc.) and one big problem looms. And add to that the modern drug of “fame” – the yearning to be noticed, to matter, to be significant in the eyes of society – as if that has any enduring value. There are too many losers who act in anti-social ways to get attention; a small percentage of them will turn violent.
It has reached a point where the arguments no longer address the issue at hand and the proposals made by the politicians satisfy a core constituency but would not solve the problem at all. Trying to prevent a school shooting by tightening the terrorist watch list is a non sequitur. Blaming the NRA and their campaign contributions for the presence of gun violence ignores the reality of the Second Amendment and presupposes that politicians would be amenable to restricting gun ownership if only they had the will. But such is false; most politicians – and most Americans – support gun ownership because they believe in the right of self-defense, itself a cardinal Torah principle: “He who comes to slay you, rise up and slay him first” (Masechet Yoma 85b). There is no virtue to allowing yourself to be killed by a criminal.
Defending the Constitution is seemingly as American as apple pie but its sundry clauses – especially in the Bill of Rights – always vex one group or another and is often under assault by government. Just in the last few years, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” of religion clause was assaulted by a variety of Obama administration measures, particularly regarding the provision of health care; many perceive the Trump’s administration’s hostility and verbal assaults on the media as infringing on freedom of the press; and all of us are subjected, and not always legally, to intrusive surveillance, searches and occasionally seizures with little redress, despite the Fourth Amendment. The Seventh Amendment’s right to a trial by jury sounds great but has not always served the cause of truth and justice.
For better or worse, guns are ingrained in American culture and it is foolhardy to think that the confiscation of 300,000,000 firearms (count ‘em) is feasible even if it were sensible. Some people, naturally horrified by school shootings and the deaths of innocent children, can rail against the prevalence of guns in society but usually will be unaware of the positive roles guns play in the society. The NRA magazine features a monthly column entitled “The Armed Citizen,” in which there are at least a dozen accounts drawn from local media of citizens who saved their own lives (and those of others) by employing a firearm against a hostile entity – intruder, burglar, assailant, rapist, etc. I sense that these accounts weigh more heavily on people’s minds that even the random shootings that, gun control advocates think, should shock people out of their lethargy. Obviously there is a hunting culture in America that uses weapons with much firepower, but since hunting doesn’t speak to me at all (Jews are not hunters) I downplay its role in this debate. Safety first.
If almost everyone is in agreement that someone like the Florida school shooter should not have been able to purchase a weapon, then why can’t laws be crafted that make it more difficult for such malefactors to be denied access and easier for the good citizens to acquire and carry firearms?
It also needs to be noted that, I suspect, most homicides in America are committed with illegal weapons, not ones that are legally purchased. Illegal weapons are easily attainable, even though the average citizen would never seek to acquire an illegal weapon. As such, gun control that is too restrictive leaves weapons primarily in the hands of the criminals and outside the reach of the innocent. That doesn’t seem fair. Nor does it make any sense to argue – as politicians do all the time – that this or that law would have made a difference. Last I checked, there are laws against homicide and yet, somehow, those laws don’t deter homicidal maniacs from killing people. It is not the law as much as it is the person and the person’s capacity and willingness to obey the law.
The most recent miscreant fell through the cracks and had all the indicia of trouble. Given up for adoption, adopted parents dead, expelled from school for violence, drifting, aimless, no future and no hope – a ticking time bomb ready to explode. In his own demented way, he was crying out for help. Someone who posts on the internet using his real name that “I want to grow up to be a professional school shooter” is begging to be noticed and stopped. That no follow up was done – that he was not found – is outrageous incompetence for which someone should be called to account. A cynic might speculate that had he said “I want to grow up to be a professional school shooter and I have evidence that Trump colluded with Russia before the election” the FBI would have found him within an hour. And the ongoing problem is that had he been found, there are no laws and there is no protocol that could have confined, stopped or deterred him.
There is no one law that will be a panacea, especially in the face of the great dysfunction of the American family. And it is not as simple as saying “we should not allow weapons in the hands of the mentally ill;” is a battered woman suffering from depression under the care of a psychiatrist and threatened by a violent ex-husband “mentally ill” and therefore not permitted to buy a gun to use to defend herself? And there are gradations of mental illness as well, from mild to severe.
What is needed in the long term is a cultural change – a moral renaissance reflected in the “bourgeois values” touted by Professor Amy Wax in an article whose thesis is so self-evident that in today’s climate was considered controversial and offensive – but even in the short term measures are necessary and mostly at hand. Schools are currently soft targets, accessible to one and all, student and psychopath alike. That has to change, and providing armed guards during school hours and searches, screening and profiling for all who enter the school building should be obvious. Such is done in Israel, as is the discreet arming of some teachers who rotate carrying concealed weapons on their persons. That secures the target, reasonably if not perfectly, and greatly enhances the chances of failure of the attacker to achieve his nefarious aims as to deter even the attempt.
As the school shooters have almost all been young males – from their teens to their 20’s – it is clear that males who have been expelled from school for violence, are under the care of a mental health professional, or have exhibited cruel and unusual behavior should be placed on a watch list that denies them access to legal weapons unless they are permitted to do so by a judge upon the testimony of doctors, parents, guardians and the like. Again, this is reasonable but not perfect. So is this: adults who store weapons in their homes and do not secure them sufficiently to prevent their use by murderers should be held criminally liable with a mandatory minimum prison sentence. Ah, isn’t this blaming the victim? Well, sometimes the victim deserves some of the blame. It is not sufficient to say “I trusted him,” “I didn’t know he had a duplicate key,” “I tried to turn him into a responsible adult,” etc. If it happens on your watch, you are liable. That should get the attention of law-abiding gun owners.
It is not fair to punish hundreds of millions of law-abiding citizens because of the despicable acts of a handful of people. Nor should we renounce constitutional rights that have safeguarded American liberties and provided an effective means of self-defense. Nor should we wash our hands and say that nothing can be done because there is no perfect solution. There is no perfect solution – the psychopaths can also acquire illegal weapons, psychologists will claim that putting their patients on a watch list would violate confidentiality and encourage reticence, the fantasy of a gun-free society will always animate some – but a sane society takes elementary measures to keep weapons out of the hands of the disaffected, a sane government focuses its efforts on defending its citizens, especially its children, and rational politicians – interested in more than retaining their seats and its access to the lucre of modern politics – know how to address complex issues with substance, sensitivity and efficacy.