I guess I would put the point made by my esteemed co-editor in a slightly different way. I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary were foreseeable. In fact, the events leading up to the massacre appear to have been quite peculiar: a young man with what appears to have been a worsening mental illness but with no criminal record; an unsuccessful attempt by that young man to buy weapons (note: CT’s gun laws worked); a number of semiautomatic weapons legally owned by the young man’s mother; the young man seizes those weapons, kills his mother with one of them, and then drives to a school which a couple of reports say he attended at one time, probably long ago, though it’s unclear for how long; and then he goes on an unfathomable shooting rampage. What remains unanswered is why – why kill his mother, why go to that school, and why now?
But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? You never know what peculiar string of circumstances will come together in precisely the wrong way to lead to a horrific event like Newtown. So what is foreseeable – and I think perhaps this is Bob’s point, if I may be so bold – is that if weapons designed to kill many people quickly and efficiently (and that’s what these weapons are) are readily available and legal for private individuals to own, then inevitably they will fall into the hands of people who really shouldn’t have them. And when that happens, very bad things result. It’s nearly impossible to predict exactly which person will be next to act in the way that the Newtown shooter or the guy in Tucson or Aurora did, or which school or movie theatre or mall will be next, but the easy availability of powerful weapons like those used in Newtown, Tucson, Aurora, and elsewhere makes it far more likely that something like what happened there will happen somewhere else.
In other words, this is all about probabilities. There are a lot of people in this country, and it’s not possible to predict which one is going to be the next one to want to go on a shooting rampage, nor is there any way to determine which school, mall, theatre, or other location will be hit next. So what we should do is take whatever steps we can to make it less likely (a) that people ever get to that stage (i.e., improve mental health services); (b) that people who do reach that stage have access to dangerous weapons (i.e., make them illegal for private ownership); and (c) that such people who somehow get a hold of a weapon can squeeze off a lot of shots in a row (i.e., ban large clips and certain types of ammunition). I’m sure there are many more steps along these lines that could be taken.
As President Obama said last night in his superb speech (which you should watch if you haven’t already), no step we can take will guarantee that the events in Newtown or elsewhere wouldn’t have happened. That’s certainly true of the steps I suggested. But they would, I’m pretty confident, make such events less likely. Indeed, the fact that CT’s gun laws prevented the Newtown shooter from buying a weapon did, in fact, make it less likely that he could do what he did. Unfortunately, he had another option because his mother owned a lot of guns – but perhaps the next guy like him won’t have that option, and so that guy won’t be able to shoot up a school. And, of course, if semiautomatic weapons had been illegal when the mother was gun-shopping, she wouldn’t have bought them, which would have removed that option as well, further decreasing the likelihood that Newtown could have happened at all, or that it would be as bad as it in fact was.
It’s about probabilities. So that, it seems to me, is where we should start.