Once again, the nation's attention has been captured by a horrific act of violence. Gunfire in a high school. A teenager killing teenagers. Any family's worst nightmare. Chardon, Ohio, will never be quite the same.
Inevitably, the question on most people's minds is "Why?" What possibly could have caused 17-year-old T.J. Lane to turn a gun on his fellow students, killing three and wounding two more? There is talk of bullying. Of an abusive father. After all, he was attending a school for kids who have had trouble in traditional schools.
The "Why?" question is certainly important. If we are ever able to offer meaningful help to troubled kids, we must better understand the factors that cause teens to be so alienated and enraged that they would engage in violence. But the dominant focus on "Why?" often obscures the nature of the problem posed by tragedies like Chardon.
Let's face it. Chardon happened not because an Ohio teenager was so troubled that he became violent. Chardon happened because a troubled, violent Ohio teenager was able to get access to a gun.
Remove the gun from the equation and there may have been a violent incident involving T.J. Lane. But it is doubtful that three young people would have died and two been seriously injured. The nature and scope of the Chardon tragedy was determined by the nature and lethality of the weapon. It's not just a question of "Why?" It's also a question of "How?"
Take the gun from Seung-Hui Cho and 32 Virginia Tech students would not have died almost five years ago. Nor would 15 more have been injured. Take the guns from Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and 13 students and teachers would not have died at Columbine High School, nor would 21 others have been injured. Give these violent individuals baseball bats or knives instead of guns and everything changes. The problem is not just the people. The problem is also the guns.
It's not just the mass killings where the gun makes the difference. In general, assaults with guns are 23 times more deadly than assaults with other weapons or bodily force. Suicide attempts with guns are far more likely to result in death than attempts using other means. Accidents with guns are more deadly than accidents with other dangerous objects.
While we are trying to figure out how a young heart could become so hardened that it would lead to an act of unspeakable violence, can we not also have sensible policies to prevent hardened and violent kids from getting access to guns? I have no doubt the gun lobby welcomes our obsession with the "Why?" question. It deflects attention from the deadly role of the guns.
I remember well the congressional debate on proposals to extend Brady background checks to all sales at gun shows in the wake of the Columbine massacre. It was undisputed that the Columbine killers exploited the "gun show loophole" to acquire their weapons. Yet the strategy of the gun control opponents was to focus the discussion entirely on the question of "Why?" They talked about the destruction of American values, the erosion of morality, violent video games, and inattentive parenting. In response, Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) acknowledged the relevance of many such factors, but added a compelling truth: "But when all is said and done, the main culprit was the easy accessibility of guns to the children."
We are repeatedly told, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Clever, but tragically misleading. A gun enabled T.J. Lane to be an efficient and effective multiple killer.
We lost three young people in Chardon. But we lose eight young people every day to gunfire. The problem is the guns.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)