Tragedy demands a careful response

Published April 19, 2007

A disturbed man shoots and kills 32 people and himself in Virginia, and we're not supposed to talk about it?

Apparently not. Here are the rules:

Your side, whichever side it happens to be, gets to talk about What This Proves.

The other side is the one "politicizing" the tragedy.

It is not disrespectful to the victims for us to ask, even so soon, whether we should be doing anything differently.

If you believe that our Constitution includes a right to bear firearms in America, there is no shame in saying so, even this week; it does not make us promurder. But neither does that have to be an absolutist position.

There have been many comments since Monday that if Virginia Tech allowed guns on campus, if someone had a concealed weapon, the shooter might have been stopped.

But that buys into a Hollywood-and-network-TV view of gunplay -- the hero calmly produces his weapon and takes out the bad guy.

Even police officers, with training and mental preparation, can be hard pressed to use their firearms accurately on the spot -- that's why they don't try to "wing" suspects like on TV. As for civilians, they manage to miss each other at close range with surprising frequency.

No. If the remedy is to have even more people walking around with guns, we need to reconsider the "well-regulated" part of the amendment.

It does not seem too intrusive, given the compelling danger, to require licensing and training and familiarity with guns, from childhood onward - ironically, in a way, for us to become more of a gun culture, not less.

The opposite solution involves trying to move our culture away from gun ownership, even if that means amending the Constitution.

But as the truism goes, anyone who really wanted one would have one. Maybe Cho Seung-Hui would have said, "I can't buy a gun, so that is the end of that." But I doubt it.

A third route is to become even more of a police state with metal detectors and security guards everywhere. Certainly there are Americans ready to live that way, and entire industries ready to serve that fear.

A fourth route is to get better at identifying risks. There was nothing that flagged this young man at the gun store. Yet there are reports that he had been referred to police for stalking female students and was taken to a mental health facility in 2005 as a suicide threat.

Surely that should be in our law, shared by authorities, and relevant when such a person tries to buy a gun.

The fifth route is to do nothing.

But I think there is room. All the freedoms in our Bill of Rights are subject to reasonable limits, and they reach those limits when they collide with the rights of others.

We can demand more from our system and rules of ownership. We can revise the hands-off nature of our laws on purchase to include mental histories and deeper background checks.

It feels good to say, "Ban everything," and it feels good to say, "Let everybody have guns," but neither is realistic. Tragedy impels us to drastic measures; well-considered steps are more likely to work.

Times columnist Howard Troxler can be reached at troxblog@tampabay.com. Readers are posting comments about gun ownership and the events in Virginia on TroxBlog.