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Sanity About the Newtown (CT) School Massacre

by Richard Kostelanetz (January 2013)


Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. - John Adams


Since so much has been written and said about this unfortunate incident, I was initially reluctant to say anything additional, judging that writers more familiar with the issues could do better by a subject I’d not confronted before; but since certain truths weren’t being heard, I felt obliged to articulate a few, initially with an email to friends in which I said:

Shocked through we all are to learn of the terrible massacre in CT today, may I state again what should be obvious to all who think the problem through:

Mass shootings become possible only when no one else present has a gun. They could never happen in an Israeli school, where an armed guard is prepared to take out anyone posing such threats. Even a middle-aged female American teacher with a licensed weapon in her purse could have prevented this massacre.

While some might lament the proliferation of guns in America, we also know, first, that 99.9999% of them are not used in this way; second, that an early move made by any authoritarian state is taking guns away from citizens so that the state can have a monopoly on murdering its own. In this respect, they are 99% predictable. In the 20th century, perhaps 100,000,000 people were killed by their own states. One difference is that these latter mass massacres have been "legal."

If anyone in CT advocated that this school be a "gun-free zone," may this smug idiot be indicted for making manslaughter possible. To repeat, mass shootings are impossible when a citizen present has a gun.

How naïve I was to think such simple truths would be easily accepted. A new friend’s lover, a government professor, responded with some observations on the Second Amendment, which didn’t enter my argument at all. Another assumes that I should be discredited for advocating universal pistol-carrying, which I didn’t do here and don’t.

What I wanted to do was make my friends initially and perhaps people generally UNDERSTAND truths that are not being heard. This second aim accounts for why I publish this article.

While all of us justly fear guns, disarming everyone wouldn’t make me feel safer. Some forty years I taught at John Jay College (CUNY), when most of my students were policemen required by law to possess their guns at all times. A lay student complained that all the guns around him the classroom made him nervous. (No matter, as I learned, that cops rarely fire their weapons.) What would you prefer, I asked? That they be piled at the classroom door? Now that would scare the hell out of me.

One fact that few commentators confront is that this latest mass murderer took his mother’s weapons that were properly licensed to her as an experienced shooter. If advocates of tighter gun-control want to identify groups that should be denied legal access to weapons, beginning with ex-convicts, why not learn from this example to forbid them to mothers with male children? (Young women, it seems, don’t mass murder with guns yet, though some Muslim girls accomplish similar results with suicide bombs.) May I wait until hell freezes over for an avowed feminist to advocate this specific restriction?

Another respondent raised the familiar government statistics about guns killing and maiming as many people as automobiles. What is missing from this glib recital is that they affect different kinds of people. May I suggest that most readers of this text know more individuals destroyed by cars than by guns. Why? Consider that many, if not most, gun killings in the USA come from people who feel they can’t resort to the police or legal processes to get the results they desire. (Any detective will tell you that most murderers knew their victims.) May I further venture that, unless they are involved in illicit activities, most of my readers don’t know such people. That fact in turn accounts for why they (we) know fewer people damaged by guns than by cars.

Thought pundits can speculate about why a crazy person should want to murder many others, this has nothing to do with the availability of guns. (Incidentally, the same government webpage totaling roughly equal numbers of “firearms deaths” and “motor vehicle traffic deaths” tells us that a yet greater number have been killed by poisons. What’s this about, may I wonder?) My hunch is that this last mass murderer chose a school because previous mass murderers had and because he could be sure that no one there, whether uniformed or not, would defeat him. While some might cite video games incorporating shooting as a pernicious influence, consider that television news unwittingly has taught this guy and perhaps the next, alas, where to go and what he could do. To put it differently, as long as media show how a lunatic can shoot up a school, another lunatic will duplicate him. As teaching machines, the media are complicit. (Somewhere I read that school shootings never happened prior to 1970.)

To return to my original point, If we agree that a mass murderer can kill wantonly only if no one else in the space has a retaliatory weapon, it follows that further disarming of the law-abiding populace would make such mass murders more likely. Got it? Need I also add that nearly all of the 300 million guns reportedly in the USA have never killed another human being. What happened at Newtown, as well as the Columbine (CO) high school before it, is a statistical aberration.                                                      

Don’t forget that the desire for defensive weaponry in one’s home distinguishes rural folk from urban. Law-abiding people residing far away from any police station would rather protect themselves before waiting for cops to show up. Don’t forget as well that the principal reason why there has never been a military or police takeover in this country, much as some loonies would like to engineer one, is that too many individuals possess guns. Acknowledge as well that making illegal anything that some people desperately want creates an uncontrolled black market, whether for abortions, alcohol, marijuana, or, alas, guns. Of abolitionists for any of these always ask: Do you want to create a black market?

People genuinely at risk also merit personal weapons. To those who fear a gun-toting society, may I recommend a trip to Israel where guns are visible everywhere and few are misused. Two images remain in my head from thirty years ago. At an elementary school was a geezer, probably a pensioner, accompanying the kids everywhere they went. Second, when an Israeli soldier boards a public bus and lays his gun down on the edge of the aisle, everyone scrutinizes it to make sure it’s unloaded. They know guns; and if the kid has erred, no one hesitates to tell him. I suppose a similar scrutiny happens when Americans go on a hunting trip. (Since I mentioned the Israeli example, may I wonder if certain urban American elementary schools wouldn’t benefit from the presence of an amiable armed geezer of a race or ethnicity similar to the most violence-prone students?)

I can recall Thomas Sowell claiming that though skiing is more dangerous than boxing, Lord know how measured, do-gooders want to ban boxing, which enables African-Americans to become millionaires; but they can’t ban skiing because they ski. Unlike NYC me, a subway rider who has never owned a car, do-gooders also drive. Nonetheless, cars frighten me more often than guns. (As a NYC pedestrian, I’m scared yet more of bicyclists whose chariots make no noise as they blind-side me, but that’s another subject.)

May I remain puzzled about why tighter gun-control became a cause for those calling themselves “liberal,” who usually claim to favor empowering the underclasses. That’s what gun possession does, as “the great equalizer,” say for little old ladies confronted by a marauder. Especially for those physically disadvantaged, simply brandishing a weapon, without shooting it, can be an effective defense. Indeed, if grandma’s firing her gun makes news, simply showing it does not. There’s no statistic. Do liberals fear empowering people they’d rather control paternalistically? Conservatives, by contrast, want to oppose any empowerment that they want to monopolize for themselves. Likewise the police who love to tell stories of civilian incompetence with guns. Don’t forget that a Republican governor named Ronald Reagan imposed in California the tightest gun control laws of any state in the nation.

The answer to my puzzle apparently turns upon understanding how the National Rifle Association was hijacked by extremists in the 1970s. The NRA then became a DC lobby courting conservative Republicans, thus driving knee-jerk liberals to a contrary, ultimately unliberal position. (Similarly, whereas non-Catholic conservatives should in principle defend personal choice apart from state intervention regarding abortion, liberal advocacies drove their knee-jerk conservatives into a position unnatural to them.) Ironically perhaps, an armed citizenry prevents NRA extremists and their kind(s) from taking over our country.

None of my correspondents wanted to address the question of the confiscation of private weapons as a measure of a vulnerable society; that truth is no less obvious. Had they done so, I would have necessarily reminded them of the Nazi dependence upon European Jews lacking them or of the Japanese reluctance during WWII to invade the American mainland because they imagined a gun behind every leaf. Whereas the Dutch East Indies fell in four days in March 1942, its Dutch people imprisoned in concentration camps, its women raped (including people I’ve known personally), America remained untouched. Nor did any correspondent want to confront my conclusion that so-called “gun-free zones” are finally less safe, because they are.

The measure of an intellectual idiot is a failure to think his position through, especially if such thoughtlessness makes him feel smug. Don’t tell me how much you care about children if you can’t understand they need armed security as much as everyone else vulnerable. Potential mass murderers don’t take their mischief to police stations.

What might seem initially attractive—taking guns away from law-abiding American citizens—would actually have disastrous effects (aside from making its advocates feel better about themselves). To raise the question of likely results is forcing someone to think his position through, which is another measure of growing up. Similarly, advocates of a higher minimum wage feel smug, even if it makes young people and poor people less employable.

Only to those simple-minded does my being anti-anti-gun activism mark me as pro-gun or did my anti-anti-Communism, say, make me a Communist. No way either way. Gun-abolition insanity is a dangerous disease that I’d rather not write about again.

May I return to my two original theses, which I think are indisputable: Mass murder by a gun-toting individual can’t succeed if someone else in the space has a gun. Authoritarian governments depend upon disarming their constituents. Advocates of tighter gun control in America must understand these perils.

P.S. I agree that President Obama’s reasonable proposals as I heard them on 21 December, but still fear the likely negative effects of tighter gun control.

I find the NRA proposal for a national force of single armed school guards curious for an organization purportedly libertarian. (Maybe it’s just routinely misunderstood.) Such an option should, instead, reflect local choice. Either forbidding or requiring it by federal law is, however, dangerous.

Also consider that a single uniformed armed guard becomes the first victim of a truly bad guy who, once the guard is taken out, can wreck wonton damage. That’s why the DC private school favored by presidential children, Sidwell Friends, reportedly has more than one armed security person, notwithstanding its Quaker name. Were I a parent, I would feel more comfortable sending my toddler to a school whose staff included adults licensed to carry concealed weapons.

May I hope that nothing in my text is untrue. Too much of what I’ve read about the Newtown shootings is filled with lies, yes smug lies.


Richard Kostelanetz’s books include SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (Routledge, 2003).

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