Problems, solutions in gun debate

Sunday voices: Dan McLaughlin

Commentary about the Florida school shooting has been profuse, as expected, with some being shrill and ideological and others thoughtful and logical, and a lot can be gleaned by looking from various perspectives. With children being so vulnerable, there is an obvious need to change something to protect them.

There have been mass killings in other public places and there is the high level of gun homicide in the United States versus other countries. These are related, but they are different issues, on different levels of specificity and locality, and thus the characteristics of the problems and their solutions will be different.

The school shooting issue is the most specific and local. Schools have particular characteristics, of the institutions and of the people, and those characteristics are similar throughout the country. They are, in fact, similar to schools in many countries throughout the world. One country where we would expect a high level of mass shootings at schools is Israel, because they have terrorist groups all around them who have no hesitation to kill school children to inflict terror. As it turns out, since the first school attack in 1973, there have been only two other incidents, and in both cases, the shooter was killed by armed teachers. In Israel, by law, schools are required to have armed guards on premises and train any teacher in firearms use who is so inclined. An attacker, before he goes in, knows for sure he is going to face lethal defensive force from people who know how to kill him.

American public schools, on the other hand, are, almost universally and by law, gun-free zones. No armed guards, no armed teachers, no armed administrators. All potential victims are known to be defenseless. The shooters know that there is nobody who could resist them and take them out.

The idea that we need armed guards in schools is, at first, repugnant to me, but it is certainly worth examining. The unfortunate fact is that there is a lot of copy-cat-ism with the shooters, knowing details of prior attacks and viewing them as heroic tales of a sort. There will be more attempted massacres as the path gets more worn in. There were many signs of mental disturbance among the shooters so far, and signals that didn’t get relayed to the right people. That will happen in the future, and it is likely that more students who don’t give the telltale signs will become perpetrators.

What the killers have experienced so far is that they can be very successful and get a lot of notoriety. All it would take would be for a couple of future perpetrators to be taken out at the first shot. From that point on, school shootings would likely be as frequent as they are in Israel.

Israel’s population is fewer than 9 million people, relatively homogeneous in culture and history, and existing on a comparatively small piece of the earth’s surface. America, on the other hand, is 3.5 million square miles, with extreme variability in geography, climate, population density, cultures, and a whole host of other features. There is no region or city that matches the averages and gross aggregates.

With the issue at hand, some regions have a very high rate of legal gun ownership and others that have very low rates. Some areas have extremely high rates of crime, and other very low. What matters for understanding is not the aggregate of anything, but rather the relationships between guns and crime in high-gun areas versus low gun areas. Do more guns actually equal more homicides and more crime in general? The answer, surprising or not, depending on your view, is that it doesn’t. There is no statistically significant correlation when you compare areas with actual strict gun control with those without. Even with international comparisons, if you remove the American cities with the strictest gun control laws, which also have the highest crime rates, including homicide, the concentration of legal guns per person is even higher and the homicide rate falls well down in the list of countries.

The gun issue, as with any social characteristic in a very large, heterogeneous society, is extremely complex, and simple two-factor comparison of large aggregates doesn’t tell much. So the issue is not settled and likely will never be settled, because each side will use their own statistics for justification, whether or not they are valid for the circumstances. Let the discussion continue, but don’t pretend that there is overwhelming evidence that more guns equals more crime.

The remaining issue is mass killings outside of schools. The shooting in Las Vegas is typically used as the example, where 58 people were killed at a concert by a sniper in a hotel and many more were injured, but the real issue is not gun killings. It is, rather, mass killing and injury. Las Vegas was not even close to being the worst mass killing in America or the world. In that case, the killing tool, an AR-15 rifle or rifles, was much less efficient than others have devised. The most traumatic one used two airliners as the weapons, where the official count is 2,977 dead, and many more injured. The Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 and injured 680. In 1990, a gasoline fire was used to kill 87 people inside a social club. Mass killers obviously don’t need firearms to commit their acts, and the worst ones didn’t. They have used anything from pressure cookers to dynamite, to pipe bombs, even baseball bats or ax handles. Internationally they also used sarin gas, poisoned grape drink, machetes, and many others.

The problem we have is not the tool. The problem we have is people, and it is not a new problem. The first school mass-murder in America occurred in 1927, using dynamite, killing 45 and injuring another 58. Terror attacks existed long before that, through human history, because they have a certain predictable affect and gain immediate public and political attention.

The solution to the problem, however, is also people. These killers do these things for a reason. We, as parents, teachers, politicians, employers, and every other type of role model, need to be aware of what we are teaching our children and how we model behavior that doesn’t degrade human life to the point where it is acceptable to kill. We as parents, teachers, and leaders need to take more responsibility for our children, how they act, and what they do. We as parents, teachers, and leaders need to find ways to notice children who are disconnected and alone and make sure they get connected and know they are loved and appreciated. Those children eventually grow up, and it makes a difference.

This problem is not going away any time soon, but there is an immediate thing we can do on the ground now for schools to make them safer so that there is one less thing students need to worry about. I don’t know how the logistics would work out for armed guards and trained, armed teacher volunteers, but one thing I believe is patently obvious. Gun-free zones are target-rich environments with little risk for shooters.

Dan McLaughlin, a Randolph resident, is the author of “Compassion and Truth-Why Good Intentions Don’t Equal Good Results.” Follow him at