Gun control debate requires rational minds

Echoing my liberal friends, “frightening” and “absurd” leapt to mind when I first heard about Republican ideas to arm teachers.

As someone who wishes our nation didn’t have a deep reverence for firearms, I immediately saw this as a recipe for danger rather than safety.

But then, partly because I agree with the GOP on many other issues, I asked another question: What do I really know about this?

The answer: not much. Turns out this seemingly bizarre idea is a reality. About two dozen states, including liberal California, allow staff members to carry guns on campus. The Los Angeles Times also reports that experts have not yet determined if they deter school shootings.

The lack of data is not surprising because mass shootings like the one Nikolas Cruz perpetrated in Parkland, Florida two weeks ago are exceedingly rare. There have been 20 such incidents – where at least four people were indiscriminately killed in a public place – at American schools since 1966 (albeit seven of them have occurred since 2012).

More broadly, the New York Times reports that at least 239 school shootings nationwide since 2012, “in which 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed.”

Of course one shooting is one too many. But their rarity is clear given that there are about 140,000 educational institutions in the United States.

In fact, gun violence in general has declined markedly in the United States even as the number of firearms has increased and gun laws have become more permissive. In 1993, there were 6.21 deaths per 100,000 Americans due to firearm violence; in 2016 the rate was 3.4.

Those numbers only begin to suggest the complexity of this issue which, the Parkland shooting reminded us again, we are incapable of discussing with reason or rigor. Instead we get angry, my way or the highway rhetoric, that makes an exchange of ideas almost impossible.

The crime scene had barely been cordoned off, no facts beyond the bloody death toll had been established, before we once again saw the mirror image of the knee-jerk j’accuse that occurs after every terrorist attack: Many conservatives tried to minimize and contextualize the problem while most liberals engage in an ugly form of collective guilt.

In an act of gross simplification – here’s the one problem – the NRA and its millions of law-abiding members were cast as the culprit. Politicians supported by the organization, including senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr and many of our state’s Republican legislators, were also blamed for the Florida crime. After all, no one could honestly oppose progressive stances on guns, so they must be corrupt.

In a particularly shameful display of emotional exploitation, CNN broadcast a town hall meeting where traumatized students parroted liberal talking points. Seventeen year-old Cameron Kasky all but accused Sen. Marco Rubio of murder when he told him “it’s hard to look at you and not look down a barrel of an AR-15 and not look at Nikolas Cruz.”

I can’t imagine the students’ pain. But I do know that frightened children should not be driving national policy on a deeply divisive issue. Death did not turn them into instant experts. Their call for new regulations on semi-automatic weapons and legal gun owners ignores the fact that at least 90 percent of homicides are committed with illegally obtained handguns.

In the days following the shooting, evidence mounted that the Parkland rampage was not a failure of gun laws but law enforcement. The Naples Daily News reported that “Broward County deputies received at least 18 calls warning them about Nikolas Cruz from 2008 to 2017,” including concerns that he “planned to shoot up the school.” On Jan. 5 a woman placed a 13-minute call to the FBI’s tip line alerting them that Cruz was “going to explode.”

We have also learned that several law enforcement officers failed to enter the school after hearing shots fired. And that an Obama-era push to combat the “school to prison pipeline” by minimizing disciplinary offenses may have allowed Cruz to pass gun background checks after he allegedly assaulted a student and brought weapons to school.

Addressing those specific issues – along with a greater focus on the link between mental illness and violence – seems like a more productive avenue then rehashing tired shouting points.

The Second Amendment and the wide ownership of guns make the most direct solution – ban them all – a non-starter. Those constraints make it even more necessary for us to put our emotions aside and question our often uninformed assumptions so we can see if there are any evidence-based strategies that will truly make us safer.

Sadly, this tragedy suggests we are more interested in playing politics.

This column ran in the News & Observer of Raleigh on Feb. 27, 2018.

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