A man our Army rejected as unfit for service; a man one of our colleges deemed too unstable for studies; a man apparently bent on violence, was able to walk into a store and buy a gun.
-President Barack Obama, Op-Ed on Gun Policy Reform
Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda.
The blood chilling report of gunfire is an everyday occurrence in the United States. Mass shootings like Tuscon, Virginia Tech and Columbine make the headlines and spark the most debate, but it sad fact that every day someone is shot at if not killed by gunfire, someone who often did nothing to deserve to be a target. Before the smoke clears or the blood dries, other sounds join the cacophony: the disjointed chorus of those asking what could we have done, the defiant challenges of those who equate guns with liberty, the passionate words of those who see no point allowing machines designed to kill things in our society.
Sometimes, we attempt to apply order to this chaos. We pass laws. We set protections in place. We try to make fewer people suffer the same heartbreak that the victims and families of victims in Arizona had to go through. The intent, I believe, is for the most part a noble one.
But the laws that get passed often are ones that were drafted before anyone pulled a trigger and made them seem more reasonable. The crimes that get them passed are often ones that would not have prevented the tragedies they are named after. The debate, as has often been observed, is a partisan one and tragedy can make radical ideas sound very convincing.
In the wake of the shootings in Tuscon, there were a few cries for such laws. Some of them had to with rhetoric, some of them had to do with the tools that were used to commit mass murder. The argument wasn't the same as it had been in years past, perhaps due to the political climate or perhaps because we've grown too accustomed to such events. But whether to our credit or to our shame, the debate faded much faster than it had in the wake of some other tragedies.
As the world has moved on and new, perhaps more significant stories have taken over the top spot on the nightly news, it seems almost a strange afterthought that the President of the United States has thrown in his opinion about guns in the wake of Tuscon. I think that perhaps it was prudence that delayed his statement; this area is full of landmines and he did what few others have had the wisdom to do, let tempers cool before stepping in.
What he calls for is not out of the question. He has suggested that we need to make the background checks we use to prevent felons from buying firearms more sure, more capable of preventing guns from being purchased by those who are most likely to do unjustifiable harm with them.
But looking at the quoted statement at the beginning of this editorial, I am struck with one small issue: What we're trying to stop is the bullet we never see coming. And that might be an impossible task.
Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter in Tuscon, was not a felon. He disturbed his teachers and his co-workers, but he was never diagnosed with a mental illness nor did any court pronounce him a danger to himself or others. He was, as the President notes, rejected by the Army, but it was for the fact he openly spoke of his use of narcotics. In short, there was never any official agency that would have provided a reason that he should have been legally barred from purchasing a firearm.
Even taking into account the obvious fact that he was not a garden variety weirdo, but a person capable of genuine evil and mayhem, we have to admit that until the day he pulled the trigger of a gun pointed at a US Congresswoman, we had no documentation of his capacity for atrocity. And what we want is a system that would have prevented him from buying a gun anyway.
The problem is that such a system would have to include prophecy.
When looking at this, we have to consider what criteria we're using to judge. We reject criteria by which we ourselves would not choose to be judged and seek to find some category that includes them (them being murderers, in this case) while preserving our liberties. And every time we do, we find someone who meets all the standards yet still does the unthinkable.
It is an axiom that there is no such thing as a perfect security system. This is not a reason to cease trying to improve the ones we have, but it is a statement that we must understand that no matter how clever we make it, one day it will fail. We have to understand that this is not because we didn't try hard enough but because we are not omniscient.
With that in mind, we must write our laws with the understanding that what they are there to do is set boundaries and to detail what happens when a citizen goes beyond them, not to fail to err. Going forward on the issue of gun control, we must remember that the point is to preserve the liberties of the many as well as to keep the tools of violence from the few. We must understand that there even if we tip the balance towards the draconian, no law will ever, with 100% certainty, prevent every possible Tuscon. There will always be a bullet we never see coming.
Because the other option is to push people closer towards living in well lit, well monitored boxes. Freedom involves risk; remove every risk and you remove freedom as well.
As to President Obama's suggestions, I hold any other judgment until I see any actual legislation proposed and what it entails. But if there is a law that can be passed that would have prevented Loughner from getting his Glock and not prevented anyone who would buy the same tool but never use it for the same purpose, I cannot imagine how it will be worded. I'd be glad to see it, if it can be written. If it cannot, however, I do not foresee supporting an imperfect substitute.