Hours after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the quest for simple explanations and easy solutions had begun. "Is there anything…the federal government can do to prevent things like this from happening?" one reporter asked President Clinton at a press conference that evening.
The honest answer is no. Not surprisingly, that is not the answer Clinton chose. Instead, he rambled on about handbooks and grief counselors and "access to weapons."
The president said the Littleton massacre, in which two teenagers armed with guns and homemade bombs murdered 12 fellow students and a teacher before killing themselves, raised "the possibility that it could occur anywhere in America." But "that shouldn't make people believe that every school is in danger." Got that?
Perhaps the president was trying to make the point that, despite a string of highly publicized school shootings during the last year and a half, violent crime has been falling recently, both in schools and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is impossible to predict when and where a teenager with a grudge might go on a shooting spree.
There is no way to guarantee that "things like this" will never happen again, though politicians thrive by pretending otherwise. "This is something we cannot tolerate anymore," Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) told Clinton, as if until now we had viewed murderous rampages with equanimity. "We have to do something."
Now, there's a sentence that should send a chill down your spine whenever it's uttered by a member of Congress. Since McCarthy's political career has been built on hostility toward firearms, the "something" she has in mind is bound to be some form of gun control.
Lately, McCarthy has been pushing a bill called the Children's Gun Violence Prevention Act. She claims it "shuts down the sources of guns for kids" by imposing criminal penalties on parents who do not keep their guns locked up and revoking the licenses of dealers who sell guns to minors.
McCarthy's bill reflects the belief that good intentions will automatically translate into good results, that we need only pass a law against something to eliminate it. But if that were true, the Littleton massacre could never have occurred, since Congress has already declared every school in America a "gun-free zone."
Police say the two assailants, 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold, were armed with a 9-mm pistol, a 9-mm carbine, and two 12-gauge shotguns. The pistol and the rifle were bought at stores in the Denver area, but not by Harris or Klebold. The shotguns, said to be decades old, were apparently purchased at a gun show by a friend of Klebold's.
Clinton wants to require background checks at gun shows, but as far as we know there is nothing that would have disqualified Klebold's friend. Nor is there reason to believe that any of Clinton's other gun control proposals would have stopped Harris and Klebold from carrying out their plans.
Indeed, with some 215 million guns in circulation, preventing a criminal from obtaining one is only slightly less ambitious than cutting off unauthorized access to gasoline, propane tanks, nails, and glass bottles. These were some of the ingredients in the bombs that Harris and Klebold constructed–devices that could have killed far more than 13 people if they had all gone off.
While the gun controllers are guilty of magical thinking, their opponents are sometimes guilty of not thinking at all. "It's not a gun control problem," Representative Bob Barr (R-Ga.) told The Washington Post. "It's a culture control problem."
In his eagerness to protect the Second Amendment, Barr seems to have forgotten about the First. Perhaps we can look forward to a ban on "assault music" or a waiting period for renting action movies.
The news media were also quick to blame violence in popular culture for the violence in Littleton. ABC News correspondent Tom Jarriel noted that Harris was "a fan of the computer game Doom, one of the most violent computer games you can buy. The player gets to annihilate a nonstop stream of enemies….Did virtual reality contribute to the real thing?"
Given its source, this sort of reckless speculation is especially galling. Of all the influences that might have helped inspire the murders in Littleton, media coverage of earlier attacks is the most plausible. Yet the press has been strangely silent about the need for news control.