Published on this site, April 16, 2007
Polytechnique (Québec), Dunblane (United Kingdom), Jonesboro (Arkansas), Columbine (Colorado), Nickel Mines (Pennsylvania), Dawson College (Québec), Virginia Tech (Blacksburg) today – what do these and several other mass killings of students and children have in common? The answer is not obvious.
What is obvious, though, is at least one factor they don’t have in common: the liberty to keep and bear arms. We have to look at the phenomenon with some time perspective. Mass killings were rare when guns were easily available, while they have been increasing as guns have become more controlled. In the early 20th century, guns were easily available to common people in all civilized countries; in many cases, individuals could freely carry them concealed. These countries included England, Canada, many parts of the U.S., and France. In fact, before the 60s, mass killings were rare.
Dunblane occurred in a society where, after seven decades on increasing gun controls, it was very difficult for a simple citizen to own guns, especially handguns, and illegal to carry them virtually anywhere. Similarly, Dawson occurred after 15 years of galloping gun control, to the point where, in Canada, it is even illegal to bear arms on your own property. Even in the U.S., which has been leading the way in the horror stories, federal gun controls have increased nearly continuously since the 1960s, and none of the massacres was committed by people who were legally allowed to have guns where there. In fact, these killings typically occur in gun-free zones.
In Blacksburg today, the tragic spectacle of tens, if not hundreds, of heavily armed policemen, with at least one armoured vehicle, all powerless to prevent a single gunman from killing and maiming more than 30 people reminds us of a dire fact: it is impossible to be totally protected against madmen, except by turning society into a convent or a jail.
One question needs to be asked, though. What if a student or a professor had been armed today at Virginia Tech? This possibility was very remote since guns are illegal on the Virginia Tech campus, and non-criminals usually try not to become criminals. At Dawson, what if the security guard who, we are told, helped some students flee and was not far from the killer had been armed? In all these tragic events, how many students wished, before dying, that they had a gun?
I am not claiming that the freedom of non-criminals to carry guns would be a panacea. Obviously, when you live in a society where madmen are intent on massacring defenceless students, including young women, there is no panacea. Yet, there must a reason why these madmen don’t go to, say, the University of Utah, where people licensed to carry guns can freely bring them on campus and in university buildings. There might be a reason why the Dawson killer, who had a car and apparently no special reason to target that specific college, did not go instead to the National Police School, about 150 kilometres from Montreal. I was there once: all students are armed.
Given this momentous phenomenon of senseless mass killings of young people, something other than the low probability of being stopped before doing much damage must be at play. Economists don’t like to think in terms of changes in preferences: after all, there is no reason to believe that mankind is intrinsically different today than it was fifty years ago. However, economists know that choices, for good or evil, are made not only on the basis of individual preferences, but also given the constraints imposed on these preferences by the social environment.
Some decades ago, most people, including unruly youths and, I would guess, even some criminals, were under certain moral constraints that they were ashamed to break. Although this is banal to say, it remains true that these moral constraints have crumbled, to be replaced by the naked force of the state. Individuals have become entitled dependents of a state that defines morality for them, besides providing for their happiness.
Another, perhaps related, hypothesis is the demise of culture. By culture, I simply mean what Marc Fumaroli (in L’État culturel, Paris, 1991) called “la culture cultivée” (learned culture): the knowledge of, and the joy of learning through, the intellectual and artistic adventure of mankind. With culture generally comes the love of life and the good things in life: wine, fine food, sex, smoking... The young illiterates who now come out of public schools seem just ripe for a nasty, brutish, and short life.
There have always been madmen who, in order to leave the only mark they could leave on history, waged destruction. Erostrates, who, in the 6th century B.C., and precisely for this reason, burned the temple of Artemis in Grece comes to mind. I wonder, though, if he would have killed schoolchildren or young women even if he had had the power to.
If I try to avoid wishful thinking and ignore what I have been fighting against for decades (and still am), my prediction is not very optimistic. Gun control and people control will grow. Individuals will become more and more infantilized. But except if the state grows from soft to hard totalitarianism, uncultured madmen will proliferate. (If hard totalitarianism comes, these uncultured madmen will man the state.) Senseless mass killings will become a permanent fixture and, after guns are outlawed, they will be committed with cars, light planes, bombs, fire, etc. And each time, the clamour will mount for more control, perhaps focussed on scapegoat minorities.