Last month, seven college students were murdered in Santa Barbara. When I first learned about the massacre, I found myself horrified and disgusted — but not surprised.
Perhaps I was surprised seven years ago, when I turned on the television to discover that a Virginia Tech student had killed 32 of his peers and teachers. Perhaps I was still surprised a few years later when a mentally ill man killed six people and severely injured a congresswoman at a grocery store in Arizona. Perhaps some part of me still felt surprise during the following years as mass killings occurred at a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and an elementary school in Connecticut.
But when I heard that another disaffected, possibly mentally ill young man had killed students at UC-Santa Barbara, I just sighed and wondered how long it would be until the next tragedy.
While this attitude may seem cynical, the opposite is in fact true. The true cynics are those who still feign surprise at these events despite their regularity. According to Mother Jones, there have been at least 70 mass shootings in the last 30 years. Unless that rate changes, we can expect at least one such tragedy in the coming 12 months.
The response to these events is, by now, familiar to most Americans. First comes a national revulsion. Then, a brief push to heighten gun regulations. Finally, a push back orchestrated by the National Rifle Association that accuses gun control activists of exploiting a tragedy for political gain. The end result is that nothing ever changes.
It is this meta-tragedy — the failure of the American people to learn the lessons of countless acts of mass murder — that allows the cycle of violence to continue. In order to reduce the number of gun-related deaths in the United States, we need to reduce the number of guns.
However, there are two main objections to gun control reform. The first is empirical; it asserts that reducing access to guns won’t actually make people safer. The argument often states that dangerous folks will find a way to acquire firearms despite the regulations, leaving law-abiding citizens powerless to protect themselves.
This argument is flawed, especially regarding the assault weapons that are used in the deadliest murder sprees. How often do you see law-abiding citizens carrying assault rifles around for personal protection? The truth is that firearm regulations have been proven to be an effective way to lower violent crime. A recent Harvard study found a negative relationship between the strength of a state’s gun regulations and the number of firearm deaths in that state.
The other main objection to gun control reform is that such legislation would violate the Second Amendment. For many, the text of the amendment is perfectly clear: The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
But what are ‘arms,’ exactly? Is it true that in the United States today, there are no regulations on the types of weapons that citizens may own? Of course not. It would be illegal, for example, for you to build a hydrogen bomb in your backyard, even if it were for self-defense. Similarly, any attempt on your part to create a new, weaponized strain of anthrax would be met with a visit from the FBI and a life sentence.
These examples might seem hyperbolic, but they drive home an important point: The government can and already does infringe upon the right of citizens to bear arms. Rights aren’t absolute — sometimes limitations must be placed on them so that they do not infringe upon other, more important rights.
For example, in the Schenck v. United States decision, the Supreme Court noted that the Constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech does not entitle a person to scream “fire” in a crowded theater, since this infringes upon other theatergoers’ rights to safety. This is the logic that drives the government to prevent you from owning a hydrogen bomb — your right to bear that particular kind of weapon is less important than your neighbor’s right not to die in a nuclear accident. It is our job, as a nation, to decide how best to balance the right of citizens to bear arms with the safety of the public.
In order to strike this balance, we must rid ourselves of our collective amnesia regarding acts of mass violence. More than half of mass shooters use assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. We should ban these, as Senator Dianne Feinstein unsuccessfully attempted to do last year. Many people who commit mass murder have a history of mental illness — we should require background checks before every gun sale to prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands.
These changes aren’t radical, and enacting them would be a first step towards bolstering the safety of grocery shoppers, college students and elementary school children, among the many varied groups in this country. It’s time we start learning from the history of mass murder in America. If we continue to willfully ignore it, we are doomed to experience the tragic consequences again and again and again.
Contact Joel Gottsegen at Joeligy@stanford.edu.