If I go to the freezer every night and scoop up a large bowl of chocolate marshmallow ice cream, after a while I will start to gain weight. Whose fault is that - mine or the spoon's?
Clearly the fault is my own since a spoon is an inanimate object with no will of its own. It is merely a tool used by humans in their quest to feed themselves. If I took all the spoons out my drawer but really wanted some ice cream I could contrive to use something else with which to scoop it. A fork might not be as efficient but could still get the job done. To paraphrase a trite but true phrase, spoons don't fatten people, people fatten people.
Yet after last month's tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., most of the national discussion has centered on tools. Realistically, we cannot remove all the tools that are used to murder people. A look at the history of mass murder (defined as four or more people killed) shows people who want to kill others will find the way to do so.
Grant Duwe, author of "Mass Murder in the United States: A History," says mass murders are neither unique to America nor the modern era. Two terms that mean to go on a killing spree, amok and berserk, have been around for centuries, he said. Throughout this time mass murders have been accomplished with a variety of weapons: guns, of course, but also swords, axes, knives, arson and explosives.
The first school shooting in America occurred in the summer of 1764, when four Lenape American Indians shot a teacher and 10 students dead in Greencastle, Pa. More than a century passed until another school shooting occurred. Since then, the United States has experienced two waves of mass shootings. The first occurred in the 1920s and 30s with 1929 having the highest recorded mass murder rate in history. This wave was characterized by family killings and felony-related massacres (think Al Capone, gangsters and Prohibition).
The 40s and 50s were a tranquil period with regards to mass public shootings in America. Ironically, this was also a period when rifle clubs and guns themselves were in almost every high school. It was common for students to hunt in the morning and leave their guns hanging in cars and trucks parked in school lots all day long. Competitive shooters brought rifles into school and left them in their lockers or with a homeroom teacher. My research did not uncover one mass shooting at the hands of a rifle club member.
The second wave of mass shootings stretched from the mid-sixties to the early 1990s and began with the infamous University of Texas incident in which a student climbed a 27-story tower and shot and killed 14 people and wounded 31. It wasn't until the 1990s, though, that mass public shootings really started to tick upward. There were more than 40 mass public shootings in that that decade but the years 2000 to 2009 saw a drop as the number fell below 30. This past year, however, we witnessed seven mass public shootings. Suddenly it is starting to seem like these awful events are far too common.
Yet what gun laws have changed over those years that have made weapons more accessible? If anything, gun laws have become stricter over the past few decades yet those with murder on their minds and in their hearts find access to weapons, either by legal or illegal means.
This brings us to the one constant in these horrific crimes - people. Mentally unstable and disturbed individuals have always existed and their illness sometimes (though actually very seldom) reveals itself in murderous behavior. The tools they use vary from crime to crime and all the laws in the world seem unable to prevent someone who really wants to kill from doing so. Think about it - is someone intent on breaking God's or nature's law against taking life really going to be concerned about breaking man-made laws about which tools he cannot use?
It is especially frustrating to watch lawmakers in Vermont, many of whom don't seem to know a magazine from a clip or an automatic from a semi-automatic weapon, jump on the anti-gun bandwagon. Vermont does not have a gun problem and many would say this is precisely because our gun laws are so liberal; there is respect for firearms here. According to FBI statistics Vermont has one of the lowest rates of criminal firearms usage in the nation and our murder rate involving guns is an extremely low 0.75, making us 44th out of 50 states. Robberies and assaults involving guns also rank very low here. So why do lawmakers and city councils feel it necessary to fix what obviously isn't broken?
Worse, emotionally-driven laws punish responsible citizens and gun owners but do little to inhibit those who disregard laws. They also make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves. Incidents of lives being saved by gun are many but receive little attention from the media or the politicians. Just like spoons, guns can be used for good or evil,
As with any situation involving human beings, circumstances surrounding shooting incidents are complex. We can never predict and prevent the many factors that lead to someone taking murderous actions. We might feel better as a society when we put a bandage on the collective emotional wound these incidents open but we rarely put in place measures that actually prevent more. People have been finding ways to kill each other for centuries. Unfortunately, laws won't change that.
Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.