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The question of guns

The natural response to yesterday’s shooting death of thirty-two people at Virginia Tech is, what can we do to make sure this never happens again? In March, 1996, just over ten years ago, a deranged man walked into a school in Dunblane, Scotland, and shot sixteen children and their teacher. As a consequence, Parliament banned all handguns. The question that will immediately occur to you is, has the gun ban made the British people safer?

A report by the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College, London, last year found that illegal handguns were being used more frequently in crimes than before the tough ban. The number involving firearms in England and Wales increased from 13,874 in 1998/99 to 21,521 in 2005/06.”

It appears that in Britain the handgun ban has seen gun crime rise significantly. Australia had a sweeping gun ban in 1997, and Canada strengthened its gun ban in 1999. Both have seen similar violent gun crime increases. America, by contrast, has seen a decrease in violent gun crime. Is there a connection? Do law-abiding people with guns deter criminals?

Law-abiding citizens say they want the ability to defend themselves and their families if they are attacked. With very few exceptions, they give every indication they can handle guns respectfully and responsibly, and teach their teenage children how to do so. (I was surprised to learn that more young American children lose their lives in swimming pools than due to guns.)

There are other questions as we examine the question of what could have been done to avert this tragedy. Virginia Tech was a “gun-free zone”, but apparently no one checked to make sure guns were not being carried on campus. As in Britain today, only non-law-abiding people were carrying guns. Do we want to be searched on the street, on campus, and as we enter buildings by police searching for guns? Would that stop the criminally insane or determined killer?

Would Virginia Tech have been safer if students had guns? Not far away in West Virginia, a similar rampage was brought to an end when a student ran out to his truck and picked up his rifle from the back shelf. He was able to intervene and stop the killing. Consequently the death toll was far lower.

No one today can imagine becoming the victim of genocide, but there are many people in the 20th century who met this horrifying fate with their families and friends. None of those people had the right to bear arms. Unarmed, they could not defend themselves.

There are other questions. Could relinquishing our right to bear arms, which was part of the British Bill of Rights and remains part of the US Bill of Rights, have prevented the killing in Virginia?

We are left wondering how our individual and joint efforts can help to build a family, a community, and a nation where the use of weapons to hurt others is a very rare occurrence.