Debate about how to respond to mass shootings has been stalled so long we’ve come to resemble a novelty device driven by magnets — the force of opposing poles spinning the thing around an axis, but taking it nowhere.
So, perhaps it’s good the debate seems to moving toward some action, although nothing we’ve heard from the right or the left seems to be a solution to this strange, particular and complicated problem.
The right says we ought to arm teachers, but there’s no reason to think that would improve the situation and plenty of evidence it might make it worse. We have an excellent local example in D’Ann Vonderau, former superintendent of High Island public schools. She was exactly who proponents of arming teachers are talking about when they talk about arming teachers.
She had been judged to have good sense and had earned a position of great responsibility in her field. She was licensed by the state of Texas to carry a handgun, which meant she had shown at least basic handgun proficiency and passed a test about relevant laws. She was certified through the state’s Guardian Program, which was designed to make children safer by arming school employees.
She might have been the poster child for arm-the-teachers except that about this time last year she left a loaded .380-caliber handgun unsecured in a school vehicle, where students found it. Fortunately, those teenagers had better sense than the superintendent did and turned the weapon in to a coach, rather than killing each other with it.
If we arm several thousand teachers, eventually, inevitably, one of them will be the perpetrator of a mass shooting at a school.
Even if arming teachers would make schools safer, it wouldn’t address the broader problem of mass shootings. What about the 58 dead at a Las Vegas concert just six months ago; the 26 shot dead at a Baptist Church near San Antonio five months ago; the 12 shot dead in a Colorado movie theater in 2012 and scores killed at their places of work over the years?
Meanwhile, the left argues we need more laws, despite the frequent failure of existing laws. It has become an invocation of sorts among gun control advocates that if we can just get down on paper some sort of restriction or ban on something, anything or everything, we’ll all be safer.
The premise is that the frequency of gun crimes rises along with the number of privately owned guns.
There are numerous problems with that reasoning, not the least of which is that the U.S. homicide rate has been falling steadily at a time when the private ownership of weapons has skyrocketed.
Here’s what James Jacobs, director of Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University School of Law, a professor of constitutional law, and the author of “Can Gun Control Work,” told Time magazine in 2015:
“We need to remember that we’ve have had a remarkable decrease in violent crime and gun crime in the United States since the early 1990s, even though the number of firearms has increased by about 10 million every year,” Jacobs said. “There’s no simple correspondence between the number of firearms in private hands and the amount of gun crime, and I often find it somewhat strange that there seems to be a perception that things are worse than ever when, in reality, things are really better than they’ve been for decades.”
Advocates for restrictive gun laws like to point to Australia, which in 1996 passed the highly restrictive National Firearms Agreement after a mass shooting at Port Arthur that killed 35 people. The argument is that in the years after that law the number of gun homicides has fallen, which it has, but, as in this country, the number already was falling and simply continued to fall at about the same rate after the government banned most firearms and confiscated more than 600,000 of them.
A comprehensive study published in 2007 in the British Journal of Criminology found that: “Based on these tests, it can be concluded that the NFA had no effect on firearm homicide in Australia.”
A 2008 study by University of Melbourne researchers made this conclusion: “The results of these tests suggest that the NFA did not have any large effects on reducing firearm homicide or suicide rates.”
Australia has not had a mass shooting on the scale of Port Arthur since the firearms law passed, although it has had them, and has had mass murders with numbers of victims ranging into the double digits, including a couple in which the weapon was fire by arson.
It might be coincidence, simple luck or divine providence that there haven’t been any huge mass shootings down under since the new law.
What might not be coincidence, however, is that Australia tripled its national spending on mental health care — from $2.9 billion to $9 billion — during about the same period of time.
What this country needs is for this debate to become a rational discussion and for that to happen among people willing to meet in the middle, rather than people entrenched on the extreme left or right.
We need to put real money into mental health care. We need to better enforce existing laws. We need tighter background checks, although that might be a far more difficult to achieve than many people realize.
A background check bill introduced last week by Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn, for example, would not apply to firearms sales between one private person and another, which would greatly limit its potential for doing any good. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, has advocated for tighter background checks on all firearms sales, which sounds good, but it’s not at all clear how to do that effectively.
The only thing certain is that a real solution, one that makes people safer, will require more thought and compromise than either the right or left has displayed so far.
• Michael A. Smith