What is a gun?
To answer the question literally, it is a device that creates a small explosion for the purpose of hurtling a small piece of metal at a very high speed toward a specific target.
To answer that question metaphorically, it is our society’s single greatest symbol of individual power.
We have been trained in movies, televisions and books to fear the gun carrier. We subjugate our will to theirs. And from the gun holder’s perspective, it offers a boost in confidence, that if our random and chaotic world turns on us, we have our own recourse.
Some people like guns for the same reason people like antique cars, baseball cards and old coins. They are collectible. They are interesting. They say something about the kind of people who first made and used them.
Some people like guns for the same reason they like gory movies and violent video games. They offer a real life connection to a grotesque fantasy world that appeals to society’s outliers.
Some people like guns just for the sake of liking them. Because the Constitution permits the bearing of arms, people bear them. For these people, a gun is a symbol of personal liberty. It enables a sense of self-determination. It reinforces the intrinsically American ideal that we are all in control of our own destiny.
Of course, the latter sentiment is a facade. If the events in Colorado last week remind us of anything, it is that no one is truly in control of their fate in life.
Gun rights advocates will argue that, if only someone in that theater had been in possession of their own firearm, perhaps fewer people would have died. The argument holds about as much water as the barrel where all those fish get shot. Seems to me if a bunch of people all start firing guns in a crowded theater shrouded in smoke and darkness you’re much more likely to wind up in a circular firing squad than with all bullets expertly trained on the lone bad guy.
But all of this largely misses the point. Gun control laws are important and I believe they should be strengthened, but arguing better gun laws would have prevented this particular tragedy is disingenuous. Smart regulations could have lessened the carnage — for the life of me I don’t know why we think it’s a good idea to sell ammunition clips that allow a shooter to get off so many rounds without having to stop to reload. I don’t intend to diminish this point because we’ll never know how many people would not have died had the shooter stopped sooner.
There is a simple reality, though: No amount of government regulation will prevent tragedies like these from happening. James Holmes, like all the gunmen in these things, was a deranged soul. He plotted his crime with precision for months. And he did so surrounded every day by experts in human behavior as a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Denver.
If an entire graduate department of experts can’t identify a mass killer and stop him, what gun control law can?
That isn’t to say gun control laws are useless. Quite the contrary.
Better gun control laws reduce violent crime rates. This is especially true when the focus of law enforcement is on cracking down on illegal, unregistered handguns. Smart programs like Buffalo’s no-questions-asked gun buyback program reduce the number of deadly weapons that can find their way into criminals’ hands. That’s a good thing — and the kind of government regulation that all responsible gun owners can support.
There are other sensible regulations — like preventing the mentally ill and Americans listed on the terrorism watch list from buying guns — that are no-brainers. Naturally, the gun lobby opposes these measures. Why, other than blatant greed, would the NRA want to sell guns to crazy people or terrorists?
Smarter gun control will lead to a better and safer society. None of the things I’ve mentioned infringe on the rights of lawful, responsible citizens who want to buy a gun. This won’t stop the zealots from protesting, but reasonable people should be able to agree on it.
However, saying gun control laws would have prevented the tragedy in that movie theater is no more accurate than saying more guns would have meant fewer dead people once the shooting started.
As a person who believes in better gun control laws, I’m heartened to see so many Americans reflecting on the issue, even in the wake of such tragic events. But no matter the noble intent of gun control advocates, misappropriating a tragedy that can really only be laid to the randomness of life isn’t going to advance the cause.
Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.