Like clockwork it has happened. Anytime there is a shooting there is a call for stricter gun control laws. Whether in reaction to the recent shootings in Tulsa, the school shootings in Ohio and California, or the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, more laws on gun use and ownership are seen as the answer for preventing similar incidents from repeating. It’s as though all we need to keep people from killing one another are laws that restrict access to guns or increase punishment for violent crimes. The laws are not the problem, the people who commit the crimes are.
Most people would refrain from shooting someone whether there was a law in place or not. It is the rare individual who would say, “The only thing keeping me from opening fire on a classroom of innocent people is the law.” No, most of us don’t murder because we know murder is wrong, not because the law tells us it is, but because our moral compass does.
By combining data from the Census Bureau and the FBI we see that in states with the death penalty for murder the murder rate in 2010 was 25% higher than in non-death penalty states. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, California, where a man just shot ten innocent people in a college classroom, ranks among the states with the strictest gun laws. Likewise, New York and New Jersey have some of the strictest gun laws in the nation yet have a higher murder rate than Ohio and Virginia where gun laws are among the weakest. The states with the lowest murder rates are Vermont and New Hampshire. These two states rank among those with the weakest gun laws.
Of course these statistics don’t prove that laws are worthless. But what they do show is the limited capability of laws to determine outcomes in individual cases or to shape behavior in general. Laws are not to blame, the individuals who commit the crimes are. What we need to understand is what leads these people to commit such horrific acts of violence.
What we know of the shooters in Tucson, Chardon, and Virginia Tech is that the shooters felt isolated and estranged from the rest of society. They felt alone and desperate. It would not be a surprise if the shooters in Oakland and Tulsa had the same disposition. No law would have made these people feel connected, empowered, or improved their view of humanity.
Others who commit heinous crimes may have some other form of depravity that drives them to do what normal people would not. It is impossible to know all that motivates people but it is easy to understand that laws are not the only answer. Laws are insufficient correctives for the depraved soul or mind. Rather, laws punish misdeeds, remind us what society expects from us, and in some instances provide a deterrent for those less determined to harm others.
Laws are not useless, but to think of them as the only answer or the best answer is wrongheaded. To think that more laws and stricter laws are the right answer is a misguided assumption. A new emphasis should be placed on cultivating character not crafting laws. Such an endeavor does not follow a clear course of action nor does it satisfy our needs for clarity and immediacy but it does provide a more productive path forward.