Friday, December 21, 2012

Hitchcock: If Not Now, When?

Editor's Note: The following piece was submitted to the Idaho State Journal by Leonard Hitchcock and appears here with his generous permission.


According to the New York Times, on the day that a young man in Connecticut shot twenty children at an elementary school with a gun, a man in China assaulted twenty-two children at an elementary school with a knife.  All twenty of the Connecticut victims died; none of the Chinese children did.  These incidents underline both the efficiency of firearms, and one reason why they constitute a substantially greater danger to the public than knives.

Once could elaborate on this lesson.  In a violent confrontation between two people, the chances of death resulting for one or both of the parties is, in part, a function of the instruments of violence in use.  A gun is a more effective inflictor of damage than a knife, which is, in turn, is more effective than fists.  A gun can also be utilized more quickly, and at a distance. 

If what prompts the use of a weapon is sudden rage, a gun is therefore more likely to cause serious harm than implements that are either less effective or that can only be brought into use more slowly and at close range.  It is well known that rage ebbs sooner or later, and that the continuation of violence, for humans and many other animals, is inhibited by one of the combatants showing signs of injury and/or an unwillingness to prolong the fight.  Hence, “fighting to the death” in cases of conflicts between animals of the same species (as opposed to predator/prey interactions) is usually avoided.  But if one of the combatants is able, when at the height of anger (or fear), to quickly employ a lethal weapon that is very efficient in inflicting mortal wounds, and to do so before the other is able to exhibit submissive behavior (or an abatement of anger), the chances of death are greatly increased. 

And what if both combatants have guns?  I have not found data pertinent to this situation, but my guess would be that under those circumstances the probability of death increases, especially if one takes into consideration the law’s propensity (as in, e.g., Florida) to regard preemptive strikes as justifiable when there is a perceived threat of serious bodily harm.

(There are those who hold the seemingly-paradoxical belief that if we were all armed with guns, fewer of us would be killed by them.  This reasoning would suggest, by extension, that the world would be a safer place if all nations, including Iran, possessed deployable nuclear weapons.)

Of course the conflict scenario considered above – something on the order of a bar fight -- is only one of many circumstances in which lethal violence can occur.  If causing death is someone’s conscious plan, for example, then, while it is still the case that using a firearm to achieve that aim is a more efficient means than most others, the assailant is less likely to be inhibited by submissive behavior on the part of the victim.

Yet it seems obvious that, no matter what the circumstances, public safety would be enhanced by reducing the frequency with which violent confrontations involve the use of guns.  That would mean, among other things, reducing the likelihood that people prone to engage in such confrontations, i.e. those particularly subject to sudden rage or those who suffer from mental conditions which foster the desire to kill others, would possess firearms.

It will be objected, no doubt, that citizens have a Constitutionally-protected right to possess such firearms.  To which the obvious response is that no Constitutional right is absolute.  Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater or inciting a mob to burn down a building are impermissible exercises of the right of free speech.  Generally speaking, when the public’s welfare and wellbeing are seriously endangered by actions formally classifiable as protected rights, then it is justifiable to deprive those actions of protection.   There is no reason at all that gun ownership, whatever the Second Amendment might be taken to mean, should not be subject to the same rule. 

An incident such as the Connecticut killings provides a further incentive – if one was needed – to extend controls on gun ownership and use.  Guns designed for military use, such as the Bushmaster used by the killer in Newtown, should not be available to civilians.  Neither should large ammunition magazines or clips.  Guns of any kind should not be sold to persons with criminal records or records suggesting a predilection for violence, or to persons suffering from personality disorders likely to entail violence.  Background checks should be required for all gun sales, not just those involving commercial dealers, and information for such background checks should be collected from all relevant sources.

Eli Wiesel, holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner wrote in the New York Daily News on Dec. 17th, “If this tragedy does not produce universal gun control, what can and what will?  What else do we need for preventing further horrors such as this?”

If not now, when?

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