18 April 2007

Gun control

[UPDATE: some changes and additions made to the text; links updated]

Steve Soto beat me to the punch, but the buzz is just beginning to rise. There have been many exchanges over gun control since the Virginia Tech shooting--with some comments being plainly delusional--but, best I can tell, no one proposed a rational approach to policy change following the tragedy. Rep. Jane Harman took the opportunity--in my view, inappropriately--to plug her bill to renew the assault weapons ban. She failed to explain how her proposal would have prevented or mitigated the most recent disaster.

Conservative blogs put on a dog and pony show to convince the masses that it would have been better if Virginia Tech did not have a gun ban because than any half-cocked student or professor with a concealed weapon could have taken out the creep. (And this is only some of the nonsense that's flying out there. There is also a distinct blame-the-victim tinge to their comments.) None of them consider the other likely consequences (especially in light of John Derbyshire's admission of utter inability to shoot straight). With multiple gunmen, the likely outcome indeed would be a possibility--nothing more--that someone would have shot the perpetrator. There is also a distinct possibility that the resulting barrage of bullets would result in significant collateral damage, compounding the tragedy. And, to make matters worse, there is also the possibility that, in a rush to resolve the situation, NYPD style, the police would end up shooting the "hero". And if they did not do it, a bunch of "heroes" likely would shoot each other. Color me unconvinced.

My initial instinct was that the gun dealer would be blamed. I was likely mistaken. The state should escape liability. But the university itself--and, yes, I know it's a state institution--may well be on the hook, especially with the latest revelations. Cho's background may also take the wind out of gun advocates' sails.

Here's the news, in a nutshell:

The Centreville man responsible for Monday's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech was questioned by police twice in 2005 after female students complained he was harassing them and was hospitalized after he was reported to be suicidal, the campus police chief said this morning.
In the first case -- in November 2005 -- officers referred Cho to the university discipline system. The next month, at the request of the second female student, officers met with Cho to ask him not to contact her again.

Hours later, a friend of Cho's called campus police to say he seemed suicidal, Flinchum said. Police then contacted Cho again and persuaded him to undergo an outside psychiatric evaluation. Officials said they did not send Cho to the campus counseling center because staff there do not have the authority to involuntarily hospitalize patients.

Cho was admitted to Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital in nearby Radford, Va., on Dec. 13, 2005. Officials said they believe Cho entered the hospital voluntarily. They would not say how much time he spent there, citing privacy rules. [emphasis added]

To sum up, the kid was 1) a serial stalker, 2) became despondent and suicidal when confronted, and 3)was institutionalized for mental problems as a result.

An average Second Amendment dead-ender will say, "So what? You can't make laws to take all crazy people into account. If someone wants to get a gun, he can get illegally. Are you going to penalize all normal people because of some crazy guy?"

There is a simple concept known as hedging. We don't lock our doors to prevent burglaries--we do it to make them more difficult. We don't invent draconian travel restrictions to guarantee that terrorists will not find their way in. No--we do it to make it more difficult for them. Abortion opponents demand waiting periods, notifications and multiple consultations. Do they think that they are stopping abortions? No--they are making them more difficult, acting as a deterrent in at least some cases. [Note: I don't support these tactics, but for unrelated reasons.]

Why not institute a background check that puts up red flags not only on ex-felons, but and those who satisfy conditions (1), (2) or (3).

Mental health advocates might object that I am proposing taking rights away from people simply because of their health problems. Although this may nominally be true, the health problems are not the cause of the action I propose--it is the specific nature of the problem that makes gun possession an unjustifiable risk.

People enter mental health facilities for a number of reasons. Not all of these pose risk, but certainly, if the cause is depression, suicidal tendencies (a variation on depression, I suppose), drug or alcohol abuse or more pervasive disorders (e.g., schizophrenia), possession of guns poses a risk. Certainly an involuntary hospitalization points to an extensive problem and lack of self-control that would be anathema to gun possession. I am sure there are professional publications that outline all the risk factors for random violence, and they should confirm my theory. I am not suggesting that every behavioral flag should turn into a background check flag, but there is no question that some represent a major change in risk and should be considered in a background check.

Specific forms of obsessive behavior--such as stalking or domestic abuse--are also major risk factors that should be taken into account. Not all stalkings result in abuse, and, of those, fewer still involve weapons, but the risk is unacceptable, compared to the risk from an average person without these problems. Domestic abuse reports and stalking reports--should go into a closed law-enforcement database that is only used for gun permits and sales. I am not suggesting that it should be used for other purposes.

Add these to the restrictions on felons--especially those who were involved in violent crimes or drug-related crimes--and we have a fairly comprehensive background check. On top of this, of course, there is the usual restriction on non-citizens--not even the most zealous Second Amendment advocate would argue against this particular restriction (in fact, they are likely to demand it).

There are some fine points that need ironing. For example, in Wisconsin, the first drunk-driving conviction is not a felony. For my money, someone who drives drunk shows the kind of lack of self-restraint that should result in the deprivation of a gun license, irrespectively of whether the specific offense is a felony. If one drives drunk, what would prevent him from handling a gun drunk?

Worse yet, many states don't even require a license or a permit, so implementing any restrictions would be difficult. But not impossible...

Even Second Amendment zealots admit that civilian gun ownership is meant to support a militia--not the White Supremacist or survivalist kind, obviously, although, some of the true nuts do not make that distinction. And, since the purpose is, ostensibly, "a well-regulated militia", there is no reason why militia-related training--er, gun handling training--should not be required. Want to buy a gun? No problem--just show proof of recent training for the type of weapon you want to buy or sign up for a class. And mandate periodic "continuous education" type training as a condition for perpetual extension of a permit. This should also weed out people who get red-flagged after getting a permit or whose mental condition slowly deteriorates.

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