In the wake of the horrible tragedy that left 28 people, including the shooter, dead in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, activist groups all over the nation have been demanding stricter gun-control legislation, as happens in the wake of every tragedy in which firearms are involved. They mean well, but despite their noble intent, this approach will not work in America. Assault weapons bans cannot and will not prevent mass shootings.
One of the primary ideas pushed forth by gun-control groups, for instance, is to reinstate the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which lasted from 1994 to 2004 . This act banned all semi-automatic firearms that shared certain characteristics with fully automatic assault rifles (which have been banned since 1986). While reinstating this act might seem to be a good idea at face value, one must face the fact that the ban didn’t really do much in the way of stopping crime. In particular, this is largely due to the fact that such “assault weapons” are only used in about 2 to 8 percent of gun crimes, according to the Washington Post. In fact, a Department of Justice study found that not only were “assault weapons” used in an extremely low percentage of crimes (and even then usually associated with organized crime), but also that the vast majority of criminals who reported owning assault weapons didn’t even use them while committing the crime that landed them in prison. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban had little to no measurable impact on gun-related crime in the United States, and the Columbine High School massacre, possibly the most infamous school shooting in history, occurred in 1999, when the ban was in full effect.
In addition to this, one must note that shooters do not need a “long gun” like the Newtown shooter’s Bushmaster (which would have been illegal under the Assault Weapons Ban) in order to kill many people. A prime example of this can be found in the case of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, the deadliest shooting incident perpetrated by a lone gunman in U.S. history. The perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre managed to kill 33 people (including himself) and injure 17 others using only two handguns (a Glock 19 and a Walther P22), both of which are easily obtainable and have never been illegal. In fact, the Newtown shooter also had two handguns (a Glock 20 and a Sig Sauer) on his person that were more powerful in terms of bullet caliber (10mm/9mm vs. 9mm/5.6mm) than those used by the Virginia Tech shooter, with which he would have just as easily been able to kill all 27 victims even in the absence of his Bushmaster. Only under a blanket ban on all firearms would such small handguns be outlawed, and such a ban would be completely impossible to implement without a Constitutional amendment.
Instead of devoting countless hours and valuable resources advocating for gun-control legislation that will not (and cannot) do much at all to prevent tragedies like Newtown’s, we should instead focus on two completely different things: mental health awareness and cultural change.
Firearms are not the only thing that the Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown massacres had in common: all three were perpetrated by individuals with mental health problems, though varying in both type and degree. Legislation must be put forth to provide for a better awareness of those who are mentally ill and to provide them with the care they need, both for their well-being and the well-being of the general populace. The current background-checking system is incomplete and flawed, as evidenced in the Virginia Tech shooter’s purchase of firearms after being ordered to seek outpatient psychological treatment. Doctors need to be able to identify and treat at-risk individuals. The public as a whole needs to be given more information about how to identify the mentally ill and act to help them before it is too late.
The second action we as a nation must take is much more subtle. In our culture, mass killings have a special mystique; whenever one occurs, the nation watches little else for weeks, even months afterwards. People talk about them to one another in casual conversation. The major news networks drop everything and report on nothing but the death toll, victim reactions and the entire life of the shooter. By the time the coverage ceases, the shooter has become a household name and his picture has been carved into the eyes of the whole nation. This process, which, without fail, occurs every single time such an event happens, merely perpetuates the cycle of violence by making a lone, mentally ill gunman into some sort of anti-hero and martyr for future shooters to emulate. The public does not need the name and life of every person who goes on a rampage permanently etched into its memory, and it is for this reason that I have omitted the names of these shooters from this column. The public need only focus on the events and victims, while the media need only report new developments, not constant repeat coverage, as clearly the world does not just stand still while the investigation is happening. For example, Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, the second-longest serving senator in U.S. history, a World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, died Dec. 17. His passing and contribution to America were barely reported at all, buried under the casualty lists and blood.
Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.