By John McClaughry
In the wake of a Florida school shooting and a thwarted attack targeted on Fair Haven High School, the Legislature and governor have embraced a bill touted by its advocates as “gun violence prevention.” Its main features are background checks for firearms transfers among all but immediate family members, a ban on standard capacity magazines, and no sale of firearms to anyone under 21, unless that person has completed hunter safety training.
The bill is founded on the view that guns are the problem, and if the government can keep guns out of the hands of the people that the government determines shouldn’t have them, there will be less “gun violence.”
Well, yes, probably so, but it’s not likely there will be a significant reduction in gun violence no matter how intense, expensive and intrusive the government’s enforcement of these provisions may become.
In a nation with 300 million privately owned firearms, determined people will acquire firearms to commit illegal acts, like murder. The Florida school shooter bought his guns after passing a background check. The Sandy Hook shooter in Newtown, Connecticut, acquired his by killing his mother and taking hers.
Diminishing sudden violence by demented individuals is in some ways a more intractable problem than thwarting and apprehending criminals and terrorists. The too-simple solution of confiscating firearms from persons suspected of violent tendencies raises very serious policy questions.
Vermonters have a constitutional right to “keep and bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state.” That right can be taken away for commission of a felony, or for involuntary commitment to psychiatric care. But it can’t be taken away just because somebody reported that a person exhibited threatening and potentially dangerous behavior, any more than freedom of speech can be restrained because the speaker might say unpopular things.
The conservative Heritage Foundation has just published a thoughtful Backgrounder (No. 3295) called “Focusing on School Safety After Parkland.” First, it explains that despite highly publicized school shootings, “statistically, schools are the safest place for America’s children to be at any given time.” And it dismisses most purported “gun violence prevention” measures as unlikely to accomplish their ends.
The report then advocates fast, armed responses to active shooters, ending “gun free school zones” that invite gun violence, and reversing Obama-era policies that threatened schools with the loss of Federal funds if they disciplined too many non-white students.
Then the report goes to the heart of the problem: the identification and reorientation of potentially dangerous individuals, usually young males who come from broken homes and lack a moral compass, and who have become variously undisciplined, unstable, alienated, angry, unbefriended, overdrugged, hopeless and delusional.
In some schools, the report says, “behavioral intervention teams” have shown promise in addressing disruptive and potentially dangerous student behavior. (Such programs can be expensive.) The authors support judicial gun violence restraining orders to remove firearms from individuals if law enforcement convinces a judge that it has clear and convincing evidence of impending dangerous behavior. In Vermont, such “red flag” orders — with safeguards that, hopefully, will prevent over-zealous enforcement — will soon be authorized here by S.221, a bill that passed the Senate 30-0 and the House 136-0.
Beyond steps taken by governments, there are numerous encouraging examples of non-governmental efforts to divert potential shooters from their path to murder. Philanthropists Foster and Lynn Friess recently matched the first $2.5 million contributed to the Return to Civility Fund to support local initiatives to salvage the lives of disturbed young persons inclined to violence.
Among the local efforts they laud are Elevate Phoenix, an initiative working to deliver “life changing relationships with urban youth” by mentoring young people to develop character, life skills and leadership; Rachel’s Challenge, founded in the wake of the 1999 Columbine school shooting to help children dealing with broken families and school bullies; and Sandy Hook Promise, a group that trains school staff to recognize mental health problems and build positive relationships with at-risk individuals.
The bottom line here is this: Passing more laws aimed at further restricting firearms ownership offers little prospect of preventing more gun violence, and it threatens the constitutionally protected right of self-defense by law-abiding citizens. Instead, schools need to make it difficult for an armed assault to succeed, stamp out bullying, and provide the intervention support that potentially dangerous youths need.
Finally, the institutions of civil society need to multiply their efforts — such as the three cited above — to help disturbed, hopeless young people overcome their demons, while their lives can still be turned around.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.