Since Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend and then himself on Sunday, some in the media, including NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas and Kansas City-based sports columnist Jason Whitlock, have politicized that tragic event, apparently to bolster the case for enacting new broad-based gun-control legislation, i.e. further restricting Americans’ access to guns on the premise that doing so would’ve saved lives in this case and many other cases. Upon a closer inspection of the psychology and history of gun use, however, Belcher’s murder-suicide does not advance the case for broader gun control at all.
Last summer, I wrote a column explaining the many similarities between Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik and alleged Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes. One major dissimilarity, however, is that Breivik perpetrated an even more lethal mass shooting (not that the pain of Holmes’ victims and their families is any less) despite the fact that Norway has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the world. Breivik’s chilling success in obtaining the means to commit mass murder in spite of Norway’s laws illustrates the extreme motivation of committed mass murderers. Their zeal to kill is such that you would virtually have to go door to door, search out, and seize all of the guns in a country before you could reasonably hope to stop motivated mass murders from acquiring guns notwithstanding.
While it’s true that European countries with stricter gun-control laws generally have lower frequencies of shootings per capita than does the U.S., the reasons for that appear to be historical as well as statutory, and the historical factor is chilling in its own right. Those countries have generally had authoritarian governments or occupations at one time or another, during which purges of firearms from the civilian populace were able to be successfully undertaken. Such a purge has never occurred here in the U.S., and the very idea of one is both constitutionally impermissible and quantitatively impractical. Even if the Constitution were rewritten or disregarded, with the millions of firearms in the hands of our civilian populace, it is unreasonable to think that a purge could be successful enough to prevent mass murderers from still acquiring guns thereafter.
It’s understandable that many people, including, I suspect, the otherwise-intelligent Costas and Whitlock, react emotionally to events like Belcher’s murder-suicide. It’s extremely sad, especially because Belcher’s infant daughter has been left with neither a mother nor a father. But what makes us feel better in the short term is often not what makes the most sense for us in the long term. It may be easy for many Americans to endorse abridgments of their right to bear arms now, while our government is generally respectful of our civil rights, but we must remember the lesson that our nation’s founders learned from a bitter war for independence and wisely enshrined in our Constitution thereafter: A populace capable of forcefully resisting the encroachment of authoritarianism is part of the reason why we have not experienced it.
Costas and Whitlock concluded that “if Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and Cassandra Perkins would both be alive today.” Maybe so, maybe not. Just last week, a deadly shooting was committed on a Wyoming college campus with a bow and arrow. The fact is, individuals have been “going rogue” and committing murder since the beginning of humanity, even in the absence of guns, even in authoritarian nations like China. A couple of years ago, I helped cover a rash of mass stabbings in China in which several disaffected middle-aged men rampaged through schools murdering small children and their teachers with machetes. Yes, a murderer can murder more people more quickly with a machine gun than with a bow and arrow or a machete – the point is that motivated murderers find means.
I would like nothing more than to tell you that, one day soon, mental-health professionals will be able to identify and neutralize or even “fix” such individuals before they wreak havoc, but I am not that narcissistic. It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions in the Belcher case, but it has been reported that alcohol and/or drug abuse may have been involved. There’s also speculation that repetitive concussions sustained on the football field could’ve given Belcher brain damage known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can be characterized by suicidal, even psychotic, depression. I’ve written and spoken about this phenomenon following the suicides of retired pro-football players Junior Seau and Dave Deurson. The latter committed suicide last year by shooting himself in the chest and left a note explaining that he had wanted to leave his brain intact so CTE researchers could study it.
On first impression, Belcher, at age 25, seems to me to have been a little young for CTE to have played a major role in his case, but again, a definitive determination of that will take time. The fact that Belcher shot himself in the presence of his male coaches also makes me want to learn more about potential personality factors perhaps related to his formative paternal influences, or possibly the lack thereof. Despite expressions of utter surprise from some who (at least thought they) knew Belcher well, it’s been reported that he did in fact have some history of violence and impulsiveness off the football field, and I can affirm that murder is virtually never the first destructively-antisocial act that a person ever commits, i.e. nobody “snaps.” Regardless of any other factor(s) that may have been in play, it’s important to keep in mind that murder, ultimately, is virtually always a conscious choice, for which the perpetrator bears full moral and legal responsibility.
Whenever a gun, in the possession of a determined murderer, is used as the means of murder, as in the Belcher case, we hear about it. But when a gun, in the possession of a citizen, cop, or soldier, prevents murder – which I believe happens far more often – we don’t often hear about it. In fact, when the fear of confronting a defensive gun deters a murder from being attempted in the first place, typically no one other than the would-be murderer ever knows about it. On balance, I believe, the gun has prevented far more murders than it has facilitated, meaning that, on balance, the gun has been an instrument of peace rather than an instrument of violence.
Costas, quoting Whitlock, stated “Handguns do not enhance our safety.” Yes, they do. Given that motivated murderers find means, and given the volume of guns already in the hands of American civilians, the greater likelihood is that the frequency and lethality of future tragedies could actually be reduced by more guns, not fewer. Last summer’s Colorado movie theater massacre may prove to be the most poignant illustration in recent memory of the folly in believing that a “No Guns Allowed” policy is likely to prevent gun violence. No one who’s motivated to commit murder is going to be deterred by the prospect of committing a misdemeanor by entering the crime scene with a prohibited gun. A “No Guns Allowed” policy simply ensures that law-abiding, well-trained, well-vetted, civilians licensed to carry guns will not have their guns available if violence breaks out on that premises, i.e. it simply ensures that the murderer will likely be the only person on the scene who’s armed.
While no one but the shooter is responsible for the movie theater massacre, one has to wonder whether it would have been as lethal if a number of moviegoers had been equipped to return fire. Yes, the shooter wore body armor, but even so, it would likely have been difficult for him to have sustained the assault under a hail of return fire (just ask a soldier or a police officer who has taken a bullet while wearing body armor). And yes, casualties could possibly have been caused by crossfire, but it is nevertheless difficult to imagine the existing body count having been elevated thereby. As other pundits have noted, events like the Colorado massacre never seem to happen in police stations or gun clubs.
Costas, again quoting Whitlock, stated that guns “exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it.” No, they don’t. There’s no evidence, for example, that licensed concealed handgun carriers instigate or escalate confrontations because they have guns. On the contrary, earlier this year, concealed handgun carriers thwarted attacks and saved lives in two cases that got national coverage. One occurred in a Florida Internet café, where a concealed handgun carrier stopped an armed robbery and chased the robbers from the premises. The other occurred in a Utah grocery store, where a concealed handgun carrier stopped a knife-wielding assailant who was randomly stabbing shoppers as they entered and exited the store.
And, in the latter case, there is yet another lesson to be learned: When the concealed handgun carrier ordered the assailant to drop the knife or be shot, the assailant dropped the knife and was subdued by store employees and shoppers, illustrating that even someone whose behavior may appear “insane” is generally still aware of what he is doing and is generally still motivated primarily by self-interest/preservation. People who feel entitled to exert control over innocent others through force generally have little respect for words, but they generally do have respect for reciprocal force. In fact, they are usually cowards. Therefore, while a would-be mass murderer is likely to be emboldened rather than deterred by a “No Guns Allowed” policy, he may be deterred by the inability to know whether, when, and from whom return fire is likely to come.
So, does that mean there’s not a role for government to play in reducing gun violence in America? No. Our federal and state governments can reduce judges’ discretion to allow dangerous individuals and repeat offenders to remain on the streets by, for example, increasing mandatory minimum sentences. Our federal government also can better integrate the patchwork that is our national background check system for firearms purchases. These measures would’ve stopped, or at least delayed, for instance, the Virginia Tech shooter. In other words, we can do a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of people we know to be dangerous without taking guns away from people who’ve shown no propensity toward criminal violence. That kind of narrowly-targeted, common-sense legislation is not, however, what Costas and Whitlock have apparently advocated. Maybe their views have been obstructed by emotion and/or ideology, but they’ve simply called this one wrong.