July 7, 2022

Preventing Gun Violence

It has been difficult not to think about the numerous mass shootings that seem to have become a daily feature of news in America. What can we possibly do to lessen the frequency of these events?

After each horrific event, there is an attempt to discern why a shooter acted as he—inevitably he—did and whether there were warning signs that might have been used to predict future violence and perhaps prevent it. Warning signs are usually discovered but only after the fact.

So-called red flag laws, which allow removing weapons from people who are thought to be a danger to themselves or others, are popular. The recently enacted federal gun legislature provides financial incentives to states to enact red flag laws. Studies have suggested that such laws have effectively prevented suicides, though their effect on mass shootings is less clear.

There are several problems with red flag laws. First, although a person may have shown a propensity toward engaging in violent behavior, the signs may be missed or ignored. Shooters are often found to have been active on obscure social media sites where they expressed an affinity toward violent behavior, for example. Participants in discussions on such sites may be sympathetic and disinclined to report distressing behavior.

Red flag laws to not remove guns permanently from potential shooters. Temporary removal may be effective in preventing suicides, which often are inspired by some powerful, yet transitory events. For someone with antisocial tendencies and an inclination to methodically plan a mass shooting, temporarily removing a gun or guns may only delay an attack.

 Red flag laws raise serious civil rights questions. This may be less true for minors, but adults are another matter. If someone writes favorably about violence and this is used to take away a weapon, are we not violating free speech rights? It is difficult not to see red flag laws as punishing someone for crimes not yet committed. One immediately thinks of Minority Report. This is distressing.

So red flag laws are problematic and perhaps not even effective at preventing mass shootings. It is very difficult to identify and stop someone contemplating mass murder. Some have advocated “hardening” potential targets. I suggest, however, that we neither want to nor can afford to make every school, church, and courthouse an impregnable fortress. Nor do we want to treat every Fourth of July parade the same way we treat outdoor speeches by the president of the United States.

In the end, we have a choice. We can accept mass shootings as the cost of “freedom,” or we can restrict the ownership of guns. I sincerely hope that, as a society, we make the latter choice.

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