New laws can’t prevent school killings

By Steve Chapman

Rain in Seattle is not news; the news is when rain fails to fall, as it has been doing lately. Likewise, what is conspicuous about the aftermath of the school shootings in Red Lake, Minn., last week was what didn’t occur — a torrent of calls for new gun-control legislation.

The attack was the worst at a school since Columbine six years ago. It came on the heels of some other publicized eruptions of gun violence — including a rampage by a defendant at an Atlanta courthouse and a mass shooting at a worship service in a Milwaukee suburb. In the past, any of these might have spurred gun-control advocates into a major push for action. But this time, not much has happened, and not much is likely to.

Why not? One simple reason is that Congress and the White House are both in the hands of Republicans, who generally aren’t eager to impose restrictions on firearms. But maybe the Republicans are in power partly because of the new mood that has settled over the issue of gun violence.

It’s become clear over the years that most of these spectacular episodes are so freakish that they are not amenable to regulatory solutions. It’s also become clear that any imaginable gun-control laws are not likely to have much effect on crime in America.

Even the staunchest anti-gun organizations made only perfunctory efforts to capitalize on the Minnesota shootings. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence used the opportunity to criticize Congress for letting the federal “assault weapons” ban expire, mandating immediate destruction of the records of gun sales, and considering a bill to limit lawsuits against gun dealers.

But these had nothing to do with what happened in Red Lake. Records of gun sales? The killer, 16-year-old Jeff Weise, wasn’t old enough to buy a gun legally in Minnesota. At least two of his guns were stolen from his grandfather, a police officer whom he killed.

Assault weapons ban? His arsenal included no such weapons — only a .22-caliber pistol, plus a police-issued .40-caliber handgun and 12-gauge shotgun. Limiting lawsuits against dealers? A bill that hasn’t been enacted couldn’t have caused a mass shooting yet.

The Violence Policy Center charged that the problem lies in “America’s love affair with guns,” and held up the example of countries that, it says, have prevented mass shootings through “severe restrictions on the availability of specific classes of firearms, such as handguns and assault weapons.” This statement only confirmed the National Rifle Association’s suspicion that gun-control advocates are bent on banning entire categories of common firearms — even though most owners use them in a responsible and law-abiding manner.

But decrying America’s love affair with guns is like decrying America’s love affair with football or movies. There are some 260 million firearms in private hands in this country. Any solution requiring vast numbers of people to reject something they have long valued is not a solution but a fantasy. It’s also an admission that no politically feasible options are likely to have any perceptible effect on crime.

Support for gun control has been sliding in recent years. In 1990, 78 percent of Americans said they thought laws on firearm sales should be stricter. By 2004, only 54 percent agreed. By a 2-to-1 margin, they oppose a general ban on private ownership of handguns — as dreamed of by the Violence Policy Center. When Congress let the “assault weapons” ban expire last year, there was no public uproar.

Past experience with school shootings, horrific as they are, may have also made people skeptical of overreaction. As it happens, this sort of mayhem is rare and getting rarer. Last year’s annual federal report on school crime and safety notes that the number of kids killed at school dropped from 33 in the 1998-99 school year to 14 in 2001-02. Other violent crimes against students at school have also declined.

Common-sense security measures, like limiting access to schools by outsiders, may help. But eliminating such shootings entirely is asking too much. Says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the California-based National School Safety Center, “It’s very difficult to stop an incident like this unless you have an army standing at the door.”

Most Americans have probably figured that out, and while they may be shocked and saddened by mass murder, they don’t expect it to ever be eradicated entirely. That sort of realism is no ally of gun control.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at: schapman@tribune.com