But a society is in a much better position to stop shooting deaths when it can tightly regulate the buying and carrying of weapons long before they are ever used to murder anybody. In all but a half dozen American states, it would be perfectly legal for people like the Charlie Hebdo killers to walk to the very front door of their targets with their rifles slung over their shoulders, lawful responsible gun owners to the very second before they opened fire on massed innocents.
Like the villagers in the flood plain in my parable, Americans are unlikely to see much benefit from their ingenious technical solutions to gun violence so long as guns are easily available to just about everyone who wants them.
So in a limited sense, the gun advocates are right. The promise of “common sense gun safety” is a hoax, i.e. Americans probably will not be able to save the tens of thousands of lives lost every year to gun violence—and the many more thousands maimed and traumatized—while millions of Americans carry guns in their purses and glove compartments, store guns in their night tables and dressers. Until Americans change their minds about guns, Americans will die by guns in numbers resembling the casualty figures in Somalia and Honduras more than Britain or Germany.
It’s truly hard to imagine that this change will be led by law. Guns are inscribed into the Constitution of the United States and the individual states. On the other hand, it’s also in most states legal for a parent to strap her child into a car seat, roll the windows up tight, and smoke a pack of cigarettes in the vehicle. Parents almost universally refrain, not because they are compelled, but because they love their children and will not willingly expose them to acknowledged dangers.
Maybe the most decisive first step toward a safer society is to think less, for now, about (comparatively rare) mass shootings—and think more instead about (horrifyingly commonplace) everyday tragedies like this one in Tampa, Florida, on September 21: “A 4-year-old Florida girl has died after accidentally pulling the trigger of a gun when she reached into her grandmother's purse for candy.”
Or this one, September 29, in Dearborn, Michigan: “Two three-year-old children have been shot by another toddler at a home daycare facility in the US state of Michigan.” Or this, from Kentucky on August 1: “Police said a 2-year-old died Monday after being shot in the head in his Louisville home. … [T]he boy and his 3-year-old brother found the gun in the top of a closet.”
The adults who exposed those children to death and injury surely thought they were doing the right thing by having guns in their home. But they were wrong, dead wrong. As Melinda Wenner Moyer writes in the current issue of Scientific American: “The research on guns is not uniform, and we could certainly use more of it. But when all but a few studies point in the same direction, we can feel confident that the arrow is aiming at the truth—which is, in this case, that guns do not inhibit crime and violence but instead make it worse.”