Leiden Law Blog

“Fire at Will”: The Role of Firearms in Mass Murder

“Fire at Will”: The Role of Firearms in Mass Murder

Columbine, Virgina Tech, the Amish Schoolhouse, the Aurora Movie Theatre and recently, Newtown: All of these massacres have something in common. The first is that the perpetrators are generally struggling with mental health problems – the specific psychiatric diagnoses vary widely, and range from clinical depression to psychotic disorders. Second, these perpetrators typically kill out of revenge, either against specific individuals or groups of individuals who represent society at large. In addition, these men have often been captivated by the idea that they will become posthumously famous. Most importantly, however, what these events have in common and makes them so deadly is the use of assault rifles that were freely available for the perpetrators.

Gun possession is deeply grounded in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Gun ownership is justified by the Second Amendment, which literally reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The fierce debate on firearm legislation typically focuses only on the second part of the sentence, thereby neglecting the cultural context in which the Amendment was created.

Those in favour of unrestricted firearm possession say that there’s nothing wrong with a nation of 315 million that possesses nearly 300 million guns. Most people who buy a gun think it will protect their homes and families. The reality, however, shows that areas with high gun ownership rates have the highest rates of gun-related mortality, and that persons with guns in their home are at an increased risk of being killed.  Gun advocates seem to neglect this fact, and divide the world into two types of people: “Bad guys” and “good guys”, or decent, law-abiding citizens. From this presumption, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.

This assumption directly underlines the response of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the biggest firearm lobbying organization in the US, to the recent Newtown shooting. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA executive director, suggested that every school should be equipped with armed guards, who would be prepared to ward off any dangerous outsider. Critics argue that his “National School Shield Plan” is more geared towards selling more firearms than protecting children. With this proposal, the NRA overlooks the fact that Columbine High School, for example, had an armed school resource officer on duty when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed one of the deadliest high school massacres in history. The officer could not be everywhere at once, so should Columbine instead have employed a small army to patrol each and every classroom? Furthermore, they disregard most school shootings being perpetrated by fellow students, rather than outsiders. These are exceptionally rare events. When they do occur, however, the likelihood for a large-scale fatal outcome is increased when firearms are used compared to other weapons.

As we deal with tragedies like these, we are asking, "Why?" Many are looking to point fingers of blame. To autism, violent video games, Marilyn Manson, bullying or inadequate parenting. Far more important is to do something now to help prevent such shootings in the future. A firearm can make an assault easier to attempt, and fatality is higher for firearm injuries than for injuries from weapons other than guns. Reducing access to firearms saves lives.

1 Comment

Vincent
Posted on February 27, 2013 at 17:51 by Vincent

Although I agree that reducing the access to firearms may save lives, did the author investigate what kind of firearms were used in the shootings? Perhaps handguns and shotguns were also used and not only assault rifles which are not very easy to use in confined spaces. Did the perpetrators use automatic or semi automatic assault rifles or automatic or semi automatic submachine guns?
In other countries the possession of firearms is higher or the same as in the US, though the gun-related mortality is much lower. For example in Canada or Finland. Could it be that fast repeating guns with high capacity magazines are just of mainly lethal in dense populated area’s and societies in which (gun) violence is common? Maybe there is a need for banning these firearms but not for slow repeating firearms like bolt action rifles? The banning of cars and planes may also save lives.

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