I was in fifth grade when Columbine happened. At the time, it was the worst atrocity anyone could imagine. We had already assimilated “going postal” into our lexicon and witnessed the Oklahoma City bombing, but the tactical hunting down of students was a good deal more nauseating than anything callously discarded as “terrorism” or “crazy.” Being that last week’s Newtown massacre is universally seen as something of a final straw, or at least part of a trend, it’s an exercise to try to recall the time when that kind of horror was novel.
Back then, in a panic, my school threw together a one-sheet of improvised protocols in the event of such an attack, and sent it out to all our parents. We were drilled on it once or twice during class. Through it all, we students were fully aware of the situation. Nothing needed to be explained to us 11-year old boys: guns were out there, they were mostly awesome, and if you wanted to, you could go du-du-du-du-du-du-du wherever you wanted, really. What could stop you? Plshhhh, would go the other people. And all the world would know your name.
We also understood that what we were told to do in the event of a school shooting was cower helplessly in terror and pray that he didn’t come into our room. The faculty tried to convince us that there would be a coordinated response underway from the police and staff, but it was plainly obvious that unless there was a gun locker in the principal’s office we didn’t know about, we were sitting ducks. There were guns in my house that I had been shown and had held. Why weren’t any in the school, I wondered?
NRA poster boy Wayne LaPierre made waves today when he finally hurled his organization’s cards unambiguously on the table and demanded that armed security be placed in every school in the country. This is, in effect, what we wanted back then. Were we right?
As I see it, there are three starting points to begin this analysis from. The first is that if you had to choose whether to be armed or not while standing in the same room as an insane killer, you would rather have the gun. I would be curious to hear any counters to the proposition that this is true on its face.
The second is that the increased presence of guns leads to easier access to guns, which on aggregate, increases their adverse use. This is a contended point, but there is good evidence to support what to me seems like a common-sense supposition. This article by Richard Florida cites “weapons in high schools” specifically as the fourth-highest corollary to gun fatalities of his study’s variables.
The third might be labeled the “constitutional carry” idea, that the foremost consideration in any kind of discussion about gun restrictions is the immutable right to a firearm as enshrined in the Second Amendment. Even more than the previous point, this is the most contestable and rarest position to see advocated. Mainstream America seems to dismiss the idea that we cannot legislate our safety due to an ambiguous reference to single-shot muskets owned by farmers in a wilderness two centuries ago. I join this near-consensus.
The issue presented by LaPierre, an echo of Rick Perry’s statements of this week, is further complicated by the fact that what is being proposed is not the mere owning of guns, but the ability to access them in schools. I think a proximal issue to debate is the larger one of concealed carrying.
The first two arguments run into each other quickly after leaving their docks. If we all want to have a gun when faced with a deadly criminal, we then have to confront what a world would look like with vastly more guns in it. If having no guns makes you safer, then what do you do when a gun would save lives?
Consider that a loaded gun is never failsafe. Not even responsible owners are immune from the mechanical accidents of a firearm, let alone the ubiquitous factor of human error which guns magnify to a potentially tragic degree. At some point, the determination must be made whether the risk of one of these accidents — and, on a societal level, the more-likely risk that not all recipients of carry licenses will stay sane for the full five-year lives of their permits — is greater or lesser than the risk of being confronted with lethal aggression. In a school, the risk goes up at least somewhat simply due to the density of immature and emotional people.
Finally, CCW proponents, by virtue of the fact that they perceive the ambient danger of our world as a higher risk than those associated with constant armament, are in that light the worst judges of actual danger. In other words, the decision of whether to engage deadly defense is rarely left to the sanguine and cool-headed, because with a lower or nonexistent level of idling fear, they probably wouldn’t choose to carry. Phrase it how you will, but the culture of “don’t leave home unarmed” relies on paranoia and suspicion, which are two things that don’t help a person decide if the shadowy figure walking towards them is friend or foe.
On the other hand, gun proponents get frustrated with the anti-gun reaction to Sandy Hook. To them, a crazed gunman is a predictable danger. The fact that one never knows when trouble is coming is precisely the reason to be prepared if it comes. They anticipate the potential for necessary defense in all situations. A massacre like this is almost a confirmation of their caution. To see the anti-gun crowd crying to stay even more unprepared as a means of protection is ironic and dishonest. Both sides agree that such an event is a heinous breakdown of society. The gun owner, however, considers him or herself prepared if the unfortunate need should arise.
The level of risk on both the pro-personal defense and anti-gun side comes down to perspective, which is the uncoverable middle ground of this debate. Ultimately, one side can only relate to the other to the degree to which they can understand the risks that are perceived by the other. Do I agree with Rick Perry and Wayne LaPierre? I’m not sure, but I think I know where they’re coming from.