On One Hand

April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech’s Lessons on Violence

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 10:14 pm
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Aside from arguments that it’s “too soon” to discuss gun control laws in light of Virginia’s student massacre, I haven’t heard any good reason why there shouldn’t be a call for gun restrictions now that we know the killer used tools only made available after the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 expired in 2004.

Gun proponents across the country are literally up in arms (no pun intended) over the possibility that their guns could be confiscated, as they’re worried, politicians and firearm proponents explain, that personal firearms are necessary for self-defense.

I have no problem with households in rural areas keeping a rifle by the nightstand in case of an armed intruder. I don’t even have a problem with suburban families keeping pistols or even larger collections of guns for protection or novetly purposes. I can see a scenario where a person hears someone breaking in downstairs late at night, and since police are at least several minutes away in an unincorporated county, the gun is a useful a means of self-defense in the bedroom. I can see recreational shooting at firing ranges that involves single-shot pistols and hunting rifles that result in few accidents and a healthy exersising of individual freedom.

But the assault weapons ban only applies to “semi-automatic” weapons, which include grenade launchers, detachable magazines (for rapid re-loading), the ability to hold more than 9 rounds per clip, or a flash-suppressor, which makes the flash of light when a gun is fired at night invisible. The assault weapons ban made many other features illegal, and some of its aspects were superficial; there were restrictions on what kind of scope a gun could have, and for a gun to be considered an “assault weapon,” it needed to have at least 2 of the qualifying features, so any gun with just one of these capabilities was permitted.

The once-banned weapon feature used in the Virginia Tech massacre was a detachable magazine holding 15 rounds, which meant that the shooter only needed to spend a 1-2 seconds for infrequent reloads, and could meanwhile kill up to 15 people with each magazine. If the gun were limited to fewer rounds or required a complicated reloading process, the shooter could have been stopped while re-loading by anyone who dared to tackle him during that generous window.

There is no conceivable scenario in which a gun that fires more than 9 rounds per clip could be used in self-defense. One to three shots are enough to kill any intruder, and if there is a group of intruders who all have guns, there is no way the victim could shoot and kill all of them before being shot him or herself. These assault weapons are allowed on the market simply for the entertainment purposes of gun advocates who like to use them, and the sacrifice is the blood of innocent people and the threat of terrorism to all Americans.

There is also no conceivable scenario in which it is useful for a gun to be powerful enough to hit an airplane from the ground, or to shoot a person from miles away. In the age of terrorism, it seems that every person flying on an airplane or who is a public figure has the right to know these weapons aren’t available to any person as long as he doesn’t happen to have a criminal record. An intruder or threatening attacker would never be dangerous at such distances, so once again, there is no useful self-defence purpose for such weapons. Yet they are all currently legal in the United States.

Gun proponents say that if someone in one of the shot-up classrooms at Virginia Tech had been carrying a concealed weapon, the massacre could have been prevented. Concealed weapons are banned on most college campuses, including Virginia Tech, so this was not a possibility on April 16. But this kind of approach toward self-defence puts the burden of law enforcement on average individuals, who, no matter how well-trained in accuracy and target practice, have no experience handing dire situations with firearms. It also introduces the possibility of the presence of weapons during chaotic situations like athletic events and student-led riots, where the risks of firearm use are far greater than any benefit. Then consider the burden on individuals caught up in bank robberies or gas-station holdups – the far majority of which do not result in injury – whose anxious but quiet situations suddenly become all-out shootouts as soon as one of the bystanders whips out a gun. Meanwhile, for a tragic event that is witnessed by one in tens of thousands people during their lives, individuals would have to bear the burden of carrying a concealed weapon all the time. In all liklihood, even if concealed firearms were permitted or even encouraged on the Virginia Tech campus, so few people would exersize that right that no one who witnessed the massacre would have been carrying a gun. And it’s a far greater infringement of individual liberty to force private citizens to carry weapons out of necessity than it is to ban them entirely, ensuring all are safe.

Police officers are paid through tax dollars to protect people in violent or dangerous situations. If someone is paying taxes for personal safety, he or she have a right to be protected, not stuck with the burden of carrying a weapon needed to protect him or herself from countless other weapons in a society saturated with ridiculously powerful guns.

Luckily, preventing tragedies like this doesn’t require the total gun control that we see in the United Kingdom, which might work for small, dense countries but not for big sweeping areas like the United States. It only requires that the most dangerous millitary-type weapons be banned – weapons with no practical purpose besides entertainment, or rarely, killing dozens of innocent people. It might be an exciting moment when a gun-lover, with no bad intentions whatsoever, first pulls the trigger on a weapon that rips apart a paper target with machine-gun force and can shoot for a long time without a reload. But others have the right to live, and its time to stop letting people be killed for a novelty item.

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9 Comments »

  1. there’s another argument posed by some, which you very nearly hit the nail right on the donkey when you referred to them as “the most dangerous millitary-type weapons.”

    there is the Second Amendment arugment, not in just the RIGHT to bear arms, but the potential need should government overstep its bounds. now, I don’t personally agree with this argument, as I think an uprising with some militia groups and grenade launchers poses little chance of overthrowing any US government, but in defense from such a powerful government, I can see the validity of the concern over the lack of an adequate defense.

    beyond that, I entirely agree: the aftermath of a tragedy is the perfect time for two things: to mourn, and to take action based on the lessons learned so that the victims’ deaths won’t be in vain.

    Comment by mylifeasamoose — April 18, 2007 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

    • There were times in American history whe someone thought the “government overstepped it’s bounds.” One of them is the Civil War. If you ask me, I’ll say arming revolutionaries is much more of a threat in a free society than a benefit.

      Comment by ononehand — April 18, 2007 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

  2. Re: Virginia Tech’s Lessons on Violence

    This is a very well-thought-out post — it’s rare that I see writing with this much thought put into it, that really makes the reader think so much about the topic at hand. I have to start by heartily commending you for that, Matt. 🙂

    As far as my position, I can say that I largely agree with you in principle, although I may differ as to some details. For example, I’m not even sure it would take a 9-round clip to take out a single intruder — I wonder if even 6-7 rounds wouldn’t suffice. Perhaps 9-10 rounds might be necessary to take out two intruders — I mean, home intruders are sometimes known to work in pairs — but like you said, beyond two intruders, the homeowner probably isn’t going to survive a gunfight anyhow.

    No firearm other than some military artillery (I’m talking ground- or vehicle-mounted weapons that really can’t fire parallel to the ground, i.e., weapons that civilians really can’t get their hands on) can move a bullet much more than one mile. Even the .50 caliber bullet, which is about as large as you can get for a handgun, only carries enough energy to fly a little over a mile — and that assumes that the shooter can even BEGIN to handle the tremendous recoil a .50 produces. The Virginia Tech shooter was using a 9mm and a .22, neither of which has a range much beyond a few hundred yards.

    As to your final two sentences, I want to say something for all the “gun nuts” to think about. We already ban the use or possession of other things that could conceivably be called “novelty items” in the sense that you used that term here — things for which the users of the item likely have “no bad intentions whatsoever.” One perfect example would be marijuana. We ban that, so why can’t we ban certain types of firearms and ammunition that are clearly designed for military assault use?

    I made an entry in my own blog and LJ earlier today, in which I referred people here for this discussion of guns and the VT massacre. I also cross-posted my own blog entry to Daily Kos, so if you get a crapload of comments from people you don’t know, they could very well be DKos users linking to you from my “diary entry” on DKos. I do think that highly of your writing here and the thought behind it, so I figured I should try to bring it to a wider audience.

    Comment by larrysphatpage — April 18, 2007 @ 11:57 pm | Reply

  3. Misstatements

    I’m new to this blog. I got here from a link in a journal over at DailyKos. But I am going to take a wild guess from your post that you don’t know much about guns. Apologies if I am wrong, but I’ll try to walk through the various misstatements in the post since you do seem to really be trying to get a handle on this issue rather than demagogue.

    First, you emphasize that the Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) applied only to “semi-automatic” weapons. Semi-automatic simply means that a weapon fires one shot per trigger. As opposed to “automatic” weapons, which are machine guns (i.e., they fire many bullets with one pull of the trigger). Other types of actions are pump action, lever action, bolt action, and revolvers. A very large percentage of hunting/sporting long arms (rifles) are semi-automatic, with the remainder being bolt action.

    Automatic weapons have been basically banned from civilian ownership since 1934. As to the rest, you have a large mass of guns that fire one shot per trigger pull. Banning all semi-automatic arms would ban a huge number of sporting rifles and shotguns, and for no net decrease in lethality. A cowboy lever action fires a powerful rifle round, and shoots just as fast.

    Further, had Mr. Cho used a hunting rifle or a 12ga. shotgun instead of his pistols, the results would likely have been far worse. Rifles and shotguns are FAR more lethal than pistols. A single bullet from a hunting rifle can go through one victim and kill a second, with one shot.

    You do recognize that the AWB focused on some cosmetic features, but mention as exceptions the ban on flash suppressors and grenade launchers. These are both cosmetic as well. A flash suppressor does not make muzzle flash “invisible” as you claim. The muzzle flash of a weapon with a flash suppressor is clearly visible to anyone watching. Rather, the point of a flash suppressor is to reduce the amount of muzzle flash visible to the *shooter*, so the shooter does not lose their night vision from the bright flash. The grenades launched by grenade launchers are Class III destructive devices whose possession is absolutely prohibited to civilians under federal law. Neither flash suppressor nor grenade launcher regulation would have made a bit of difference in this shooting, or any other I am aware of.

    Similarly, you mention the ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds. I don’t see how much difference this makes. A magazine takes about 1 second for a competent person to change, so you are talking about the difference between firing ten shots –> reloading for 1 second —> firing ten more and firing fifteen shots —> reloading for 1 second —> firing fifteen more. I don’t really see the point in this regulation.

    As to the “usefulness” of such magazines for law abiding citizens, you are right that it’s unlikely any lawful scenario would require more than 10 shots. But I drive a Volkswagen that will cruise at 120 mph easily, even though 70 mph is the maximum speed in my home state. Your argument that magazines be limited to 10 rounds is analogous to stating all cars should have a device that limits them to 70 mph. I like the fact my VW will go 120, even though I’ll probably never need to drive that fast. Same with magazine size.

    I don’t really understand your comments about guns shooting planes down or hitting people from miles away. Most any heavy hunting rifle would bring down a small plane if it at the exact right spot. But hitting a plane moving 200 or 300 mph is something that is nearly impossible. I’m not aware of a plane ever being brought down by a nut or terrorist with this kind of small arms. It’s a silly scenario.

    As to shooting people miles away, any hunting rifle has the capacity to accidentally kill someone a mile or more away. Bullets go a long way – that’s why hunters have to be so careful. But aimed fire? No way. 1000 yd shooting is the furthest distance any competitive shooter shoots. Hitting a target at 1000yds is an incredible feat of marksmanship. A mile away? Maybe the very top echelon of elite military snipers can do that. 2 miles away? No one in the world could hit a man-sized target even close to 2 miles away.

    Comment by Anonymous — April 19, 2007 @ 12:18 am | Reply

    • Re: Misstatements

      [CONTINUED]
      You dismiss the possibility of a law abiding citizen using a concealed pistol to put an end to such a massacre because regular people have no experience handling “dire situations.” This is patently untrue. Just a few years ago, a madman at Appalachian Law School tried the same kind of thing – but he was stopped when a student retrieved his pistol and subdued him. At UNC-Chapel Hill in the nineties, Wendell Williams opened fire on a crowded street and the campus police fired *3000 rounds* without stopping him. Mr. Williams was stopped when a citizen tackled him.

      Allowing students to carry concealed might not have stopped Mr. Cho. But then again, it might have. Have you ever wondered why no one goes on a shooting spree at a gun show? At a police station? At an army base? At a gun store? At a shooting range? They are afraid of the victims shooting back. Mass shooters seem to prefer locations where guns are banned, where they know their victims will be unarmed. Schools. Churches. Post Offices. Personally, I’d like to see the number of “guaranteed unarmed victims” locations reduced.

      As a closing point, I’ll just point out that the worst school massacre in history was not carried out with a gun. A nut upset with his taxes blew up a school in Bath, MI in 1927, killing 45 and wounding 58. Even if we waved a magic wand and all the guns went poof, you can’t prevent bad people from doing bad things.

      Comment by Anonymous — April 19, 2007 @ 12:19 am | Reply

      • Re: Misstatements

        Thank you for your expertise on firearms. Its true that I don’t know very many specific details about guns, and I am dealing with conceptual issues. I don’t know which specific guns should be banned and which should not, but a gun expert will be able to explain which could possibly be used to kill large numbers of people or kill a person from a long way away, and I will trust his or her judgment.

        My main point is, perhaps if I had a handgun I could protect myself from a person who shot into my classroom. But I don’t want the physical and emotional burden of carrying a gun all the time for something that is unlikely to happen even once in my lifetime. I’d rather let the police serve as law enforcement – and if a gun-saturated culture makes it likely that police are unable to protect me from gun violence, that’s an infringement of my rights, far before any gun-owners rights come to play.

        You make a comparison between guns that can shoot more bullets than are needed and cars that can drive faster than is allowed. The cars-to-guns metaphor is a common one in issues dealing with gun control, but cars and guns are ultimately unlike each other. There is no need for a magazine holding large numbers of bullets and no need for a car that can drive 150 miles per hour, but no one killed 30 people at Virginia Tech in their classrooms with a car driving 150 miles per hour. He used a gun. And if fast-moving cars suddenly became commonly-used weapons of terrorism and intentional mass violence, even a limit on automobile speed might be called for. Fortunately, traffic barriers around landmarks and high-rises are enough to keep car-bombs away from what they protect, and speed control is not necessary.

        I’m glad concealed firearms might have saved lives in the past. However, the fact that guns are required to protect people from the violence that guns facilitate in the first place does not seem to speak to a redeeming value of guns. I understand why some people would like to have them, and though I disagree that owning firearms is a fundemental “right,” I am willing to compromise and don’t take it upon myself to ban them for everyone. But I think it’s absolutely the duty of a responsible government to limit firearms as much as is necessary to avoid mass tragedies like the one at Virginia Tech.

        Comment by ononehand — April 19, 2007 @ 6:16 pm

      • Re: Misstatements

        It seems that there are three ways to prevent a person from committing a tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech:

        1) Stop the people before they do it. The shooter was known to be mentally ill, and if he was detained based on his known “danger to himself and others,” he couldn’t have killed anyone. Many are already calling for this approach. But people who are mentally ill don’t have any control over whether they’re ill or not, and to put the emphasis on them – the vast majority of whom do not commit crimes – is tantamount to persecution. There are huge conceptual problems with detaining people based on their thoughts – reminiscent of 1984. This could conceivably lead to discrimination over harmless people who suffer from conditions like OCD, bipolar disorder, schitzophrenia, etc… . Anyone who is suicidal would be suspect and the tremendous suffering they are already going through would be exacerbated. This sort of rounding-up of and hyperventilating over victims of ilness is a very, very, very bad idea.

        2) A let-it-be approach. These things are hard to prevent and “rare,” so one approach would be to condemn them and do nothing but try to re-build afterward. This is probably the position that most conservatives will advocate – and probably what will happen.

        3) Control the tools used to commit the action. No one can shoot dozens of people without a gun. They might try to stab or bomb them, but it is far easier to protect yourself or survive a knife attack than it is to survive being shot in the head. Bombs, on the other hand, are neither causable nor preventable by guns, so should be dealt with as a separate issue. I think I’ve said enough about why I support (some) gun control, but I don’t see any other plausible way to prevent events like this from happening.

        Comment by ononehand — April 19, 2007 @ 6:28 pm

    • Re: Misstatements

      First, you emphasize that the Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) applied only to “semi-automatic” weapons. Semi-automatic simply means that a weapon fires one shot per trigger. As opposed to “automatic” weapons, which are machine guns (i.e., they fire many bullets with one pull of the trigger). Other types of actions are pump action, lever action, bolt action, and revolvers. A very large percentage of hunting/sporting long arms (rifles) are semi-automatic, with the remainder being bolt action.

      I think you may be confusing the technical definition of “semi-automatic” with the more colloquial one that Matt has used here, which is a weapon that fires one round per trigger pull BUT ALSO does not require user intervention to re-charge or re-arm.

      Similarly, you mention the ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds. I don’t see how much difference this makes. A magazine takes about 1 second for a competent person to change, so you are talking about the difference between firing ten shots –> reloading for 1 second —> firing ten more and firing fifteen shots —> reloading for 1 second —> firing fifteen more. I don’t really see the point in this regulation.

      I think Matt’s point was that requiring more frequent re-loading would have given some “hero” more opportunities to try to take down the shooter in this case. To fire 32 rounds with 15-round magazines requires three magazines (two full ones and part of a third); with 10-round magazines, it takes four magazines. One more re-loading delay could very well have been critical in saving at least a few lives.

      As to the “usefulness” of such magazines for law abiding citizens, you are right that it’s unlikely any lawful scenario would require more than 10 shots. But I drive a Volkswagen that will cruise at 120 mph easily, even though 70 mph is the maximum speed in my home state. Your argument that magazines be limited to 10 rounds is analogous to stating all cars should have a device that limits them to 70 mph. I like the fact my VW will go 120, even though I’ll probably never need to drive that fast. Same with magazine size.

      All of this may be true, but it also ignores two important things: (a) the responsibility of those who produce products to make their products as safe as possible, and (b) the right of government to regulate product safety. For example in the case of (b), I seem to recall 2001 and later Suzuki Hayabusas being electronically restricted to 186 mph after several governments, including ours, threatened to impose regulations mandating lower speed governors and other speed-reducing modifications.

      As to (a), I bet your VW has an electronic speed limiter at a speed lower than it is actually capable of running — simple math tells me that my Saturn would run 163 mph at red-line in top gear, but to save the original-equipment tires, the ECM from the factory limits the car to roughly 110 mph. Your VW is in all likelihood similar.

      Comment by larrysphatpage — April 19, 2007 @ 3:48 am | Reply

      • Re: Misstatements

        “I think Matt’s point was that requiring more frequent re-loading would have given some “hero” more opportunities to try to take down the shooter in this case. To fire 32 rounds with 15-round magazines requires three magazines (two full ones and part of a third); with 10-round magazines, it takes four magazines. One more re-loading delay could very well have been critical in saving at least a few lives.”

        I agree with you that that was the point, I just don’t buy it. Basing a firearms regulatory regime on *one* extra second of reloading in firing 30 rounds seems a weak justification, at least to me. Especially since one of the reasons someone would take a second gun would be to have one ready to fire while the other is being reloaded.

        I don’t know anything about motorcycles, and I assume you are correct regarding the Suzuki Hayabusa, but doesn’t that make my point? A motorcycle that will go 186mph (with the governor) is a motorcycle that will go more than twice the legal limit in US. Nevertheless, they are sold.

        I also need to correct my earlier post, slightly. The name of the UNC-CH shooter was Wendell Williamson, not “Wendell Williams” as I originally posted.

        Comment by Anonymous — April 19, 2007 @ 3:47 pm


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