Jacob Sullum over at Reason Magazine has a new article up that rehashes most of the same worn out talking points that place the blame for mass shootings like those at Virginia Tech and Fort Hood at the feet of weapons bans and gun control advocates. He argues, like many before him, that had the shooter's victims been armed the events of that day would have been very different.
He's not wrong; but different is not necessarily the same thing as better.
Those who lost loved ones at Fort Hood have, of course, my profound sympathies. I watched my wife struggle with the loss of nine of her students in the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 and if it were within my power to magic a pistol into the hands of Matt LaPorte or Pfc. Marquest Smith I'd do it in a heartbeat.
But we can not reach back through history to do that.
Putting a pistol into the hands of the right person at the right time means arming a population with all the risks and benefits inherent in doing that over time. Mass shootings do not happen in a vacuum but are surrounded by the mundane of the day-to-day and while accidents are rare they do happen. No one ever won a Pulitzer covering firearms accidents but the death toll from those far outstrips the body counts at Fort Hood and Virginia Tech and the victims of those accidents are just as dead and their families just as bereaved.
Yet firearms accidents rarely enter into this debate because, for better or worse, we have come to terms with the risk those accidents pose in our society. Accidental shootings are tragic but they are within the pool of risks that we assume in our day to day lives along with automobile accidents and drownings. Mass shootings fall outside that group of normalized risks and thus we feel a far more profound and immediate impetus to take action against them despite the comparitively smaller risk they actually pose.
That leads writers like Sullum to suggest replacing a unnormalized risk (mass shootings) with a normalized one (firearms accidents). But of course, there is more to this issue than such a simple replacement.
Sullum's argument rests upon an anachronistic foundation - namely that it is possible to change something about the past. He wishes us to reach back into the moment when Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood and replace his unarmed victims with individuals armed and ready to fire back. But that is not how history works nor is it how reality works.
If we insist on playing the "what if" game we must follow it, like a spinning dirvish, down its winding and contradictory path. If the troops at Fort Hood were carrying sidearms Hasan would have known about it; he would have planned for it. Perhaps he would have used different guns, attacking from longer range with a scoped rifle. Perhaps he would have use bombs instead of guns or changed his target entirely and attacked a base school. Perhaps he would have struck outside the Fort, shooting people he knew not to have guns. Perhaps his attack would have been less effective but it could easily have been more effective. Perhaps Hasan's victims would be alive today or perhaps we would be mourning them and many others besides.
Sullum tacitly acknowledges this reality when he argues that shooters are drawn to unarmed populations [emphasis added]:
If someone else at the processing center had a gun when Hasan started shooting, it seems likely that fewer people would have been killed or injured. Furthermore, the knowledge that some of his victims would be armed might have led him to choose a different, softer target in order to maximize the impact of his attack.
There are killers amongst us and while it might be comforting to place the blame upon the sholders of partisan enemies who can be politically defeated a more sober assessment leads us to the conclusion that so long as the will to kill and the willingness to die in the attempt exist, laws - either allowing or prohibiting the carrying of firearms - can do little to protect us.
When spree-killers strike they do so with tactical and strategic advantage and full knowledge of the nature of the population that they attack. Stopping them requires more than a wand a a wish to change the past.