In several instances in the recent past, mentally disturbed individuals in China have gone of rampages that have left more than one person dead and a larger number wounded. In all of these instances, these individuals have been armed not with guns but with knives–or, in one instance, an ax–and the toll in human lives and misery has been much lower than it has been in the United States in similar instances. Here, the firepower of semi-automatic pistols and rifles has insured that deranged individuals with easy access to such weapons can in a matter of moments cause carnage on a scale not otherwise seen outside of war zones.
I had saved those news items from China and intended to do a post on how they illustrate the absurdity of our current gun laws—the absurdity of our political paralysis against a gun lobby that will connect any effort to place reasonable restrictions on who can buy a gun and when with dark fantasies of a federal conspiracy to seize all privately owned firearms in the country.
But then came the news of a much more horrific story from China: as many as ten masked killers ran through a crowded train station in Yunan Province, wielding long knives indiscriminately against those in the crowd. When the attack was over, more than two dozen people lay dead, and more than 100 had been wounded.
And almost immediately I thought of how the gun lobby would use this incident. I could hear the arguments, their triteness inversely proportionate to the loudness with which they would be expressed: it’s not guns that kill people—for these killers didn’t even have guns and look at the mayhem that they inflicted; and if people in China were free enough to own and carry guns, some of those in the crowd could have defended themselves and others against the killers.
It wouldn’t matter, of course, that such arguments would ignore several fairly obvious facts.
First, during this rampage, it took ten killers to kill less than three dozen people. All one has to do is consider the death tolls at Aurora or Sandy Hook, where individuals in mere moments murdered dozens of people, to recognize immediately the multiplying effect of semi-automatic weapons.
Second, in the chaos of a sudden, mass attack such as this, the chances that a citizen with a gun would be able to stop even one of the perpetrators with a bullet without also shooting bystanders seems very minimal. Indeed, since the perpetrators weren’t armed with guns, it seems likely that any attempt by citizens armed with guns to stop the attack would have significantly increased the toll of dead and wounded.
Lastly, there is a significant difference between an act of terror and a mass murder committed by a mentally deranged person in terms of how we can anticipate and mitigate such attacks. We depend on law enforcement to identify and thwart terrorist acts in the planning stages, before they can be perpetrated. But there aren’t laws that we can pass to make it more difficult for terrorists to acquire any of the many means available to inflict mass casualties. For instance, Timothy McVeigh’s truck bomb consisted largely of common fertilizer. But we know what kind of weapons are the weapons of choice for the deranged loners who commit mass murders. Moreover, we now have more than a large enough sample size of such murderers to be able to identify circumstances under which an individual should have much more difficulty purchasing a firearm, especially a semi-automatic firearm.