Monday, February 18, 2008

Tragedy at N.I.U. - Why 'Why" is the Wrong Question

Earlier this morning I read a letter from a close friend whose son is s student at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. His son is understandably freaked out and my pal is furious. He wrote to his congressman about the insanely easy availability of guns. His response is the most cogent answer I've yet heard in all the prattling that's been going on in the media since this most recent shooting.

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As a society there is NOTHING we can do about the states of mind that might cause an individual to commit seemingly random violence. We cannot monitor everyone's psychological health nor make it illegal to stop taking one's meds. It is not the responsibility of classmates, peers, family or school administrators to keep tabs on people's emotional well being. So 'why' Steven Kazmierczak opened fire on 200 students in a lecture hall at N.I.U. is impossible to answer. It is also a dangerously misguided question.

The question is this: How can this society continue to allow the gun lobby and the 2nd amendment fundamentalists to distort the painfully plain reality that these kinds of weapons are far too easy to acquire? As my friend points out, we now have all kinds of laws that purport to make public safety a high priority. In Illinois, a potential driver has to take classes, pass both a written and a practical driving test to get a certificate, then do 50 hours of practice driving before getting a license to drive. You can get busted for not wearing a seat belt. People are no longer allowed to smoke in public places.

Yet anyone with a few dollars in their pocket can legally purchase a deadly weapon with no training, virtually no delay and without any compelling and certifiable evidence that they should be allowed to possess a device that can do unspeakable harm in a matter of seconds. All of the NRA's arguments notwithstanding, the simple truth is that the easy access to guns is responsible for the current state of terror many Americans are experiencing. This internal threat is just as alarming as the danger posed by state sponsored terrorism and we ought to take it just as seriously.

'Why' is irrelevant. 'How' is the only question that can be answered and it is the crucial one for the safety of all citizens. In societies where there are more guns there are more murders. In countries where there are strict gun control laws fewer people get killed by their fellow citizens. Remember that we are not discussing criminal activity here - just the access to guns that each and every one of us has, whether or not we are sane, competent, intelligent or have a demonstrable need to own a gun.

Here's a question worth considering on a philosophical level: Can a compelling argument be made that, while driving is a "privilege, not a a right", gun ownership is just the opposite: a right allegedly guaranteed to all Americans? Perhaps we need to take another look at that Constitution of ours.

I have a son who is a student at a college in central Illinois. This tragedy could just as easily have occurred at his school; he might have been a victim. I have two other children who will attend college soon. My definition of "homeland security" includes reasonable protection for my children (and yours as well) from people who can purchase and use deadly weapons regardless of their intellectual or emotional stability. The only protection we have is on the "supply side" of the equation. Let's not let the wackos in the NRA dictate gun policy. We need the kind of protection that only strict gun control can provide.