Ross Douthat: The Simplest Response to School Shootings

From a New York Times column by Ross Douthat headlined “The Simplest Response to School Shootings”:

To fully understand a problem like terrorism, you need to accept complexity, a sprawl of general factors — personal, historical, cultural — converging in a specific movement or a single actor. The kind of mass-murdering, effectively-suicidal terrorism that has taken hold in America in the 23 years since Columbine is no different, even if it doesn’t wave a flag or make political demands.

The cascade of mimetic violence, the despairing anti-politics, the horribly vulnerable targets, the young men willingly becoming monsters — so much is implicated here: our media ecosystem and our education system, religion and technology and fatherhood and relations between the sexes, a tangle of roots in poisoned soil.

But an important truth about policymaking — a conservative truth, in many contexts — is that you don’t have to fully understand a problem’s roots in order to do something about it. There’s no simple path to a future America where young men like the killer in Uvalde, Texas — may his name be blotted out — no longer seek apotheosis through mass murder. But as long as we live in this America, I want the next teenager with an obvious set of warning flags — severe familial disorder, self-harm, violent online threats — to find it much harder to turn 18 and immediately acquire a high-powered weapon.

The specificity of the problem is important. I am not interested in the liberal desire to fold the problem of Uvalde-style mass shootings, of nihilistic terrorism with a misogynist or racist edge, into a larger problem called “gun violence.” America does indeed have a lot of gun violence, and we have more of it in the past few years, but that violence is first and foremost a crime problem — one worsened by the easy availability of handguns but also by other novel factors, including the school closures and the police retreat that blue-state liberalism has recently encouraged.

Better enforcement of gun laws has its place in any response to the current homicide spike. But the liberals pining for sweeping new federal gun restrictions seem to be imagining either toothless laws that don’t affect anyone except the scrupulously law-abiding or some version of Michael Bloomberg’s aggressive-policing regime imposed all over the country, when they themselves decided that Bloombergism was authoritarian and racist.

In either case, the liberal anti-gun impulse often tends toward culture-war posturing, not an actual strategy for bringing homicide rates back down or preventing the kind of “school shootings” that are just general lawlessness spilling over onto school property.

At the same time, I also have no interest in the apparent conservative desire — or least the Ted Cruzian desire — to turn America’s schools into a zone of overpolicing, duck-and-cover fearfulness and military-level vigilance. Yes, there are schools in high-crime areas that need a police presence and there are school buildings well suited to have a single, secured entrance. But beyond these basics, the potential ubiquity of armed security and active-shooter drills is its own sacrifice of liberty, and even if the right to a demilitarized childhood isn’t enumerated in the Constitution it should be treasured and preserved.

Conservatives and libertarians should be especially aware of this given that they have spent two years arguing, reasonably, that the infliction of Covid security theater on children does more harm than good. If that logic applies to the low risk to children from the virus, it surely applies to the low risk of school terrorism as well. And Covid theater, at least, did not risk spreading the virus further, whereas I strongly suspect that a constant childhood drumbeat about the risks of school massacres contributes to the dark romance of the deed — especially among those unhappy kids for whom K-12 education feels like a prison anyway, with or without metal detectors.

So don’t give me a fanciful general war on guns or a general “hardening” of elementary schools. Give me policies, the simpler the better, that would stand between some meaningful percentage of mass shooters and their arsenals.

We have a decent sense of what those policies might be. The people drawn to this kind of terrorism are overwhelmingly of a type — young, troubled, socially awkward men. They are not necessarily gun experts, prepared to retrofit any weapon they acquire for maximal lethality, nor are they necessarily experts at navigating black markets to acquire weapons they can’t get legally. And they often expose their instability and intentions in advance.

Yes, some will overcome all obstacles or strike without warning. But many others, including the Uvalde shooter, seem potentially deterrable at the point of weapons acquisition. As the University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford puts it, in a recent interview with The Dispatch, “if you make buying a firearm more difficult for people who find it difficult to do anything socially, that makes a difference.”

Those difference-making difficulties could be imposed via restrictions that target age and weapon type at once. Or they could be imposed through laws encouraging pre-emptive action by parties who might see the threat coming in advance. Age requirements for the purchase of AR-15s and other semiautomatic rifles fall into the first category; red-flag laws, which enable interventions that temporarily strip dangerous-seeming people of their guns, are the best example of the second approach.

I’m open to both options, but my current policy preference is slightly different. I worry that red-flag laws demand too much of bystanders and family members, while offering too little in cases where the potential shooter has cut himself off from normal contact. I’m not sure an age limit of 21 covers enough of the young male danger zone, and I also understand the objections of gun rights advocates to a system that demands that a 20-year-old enroll himself for potential military service but refuses him adult rights of self-defense.

So I would like to see experiments with age-based impedimentsrather than full restrictions — allowing would-be gun purchasers 25 and under the same rights of ownership as 40- or 60-year-olds, but with more substantial screenings before a purchase. Not just a criminal-background check, in other words, but some kind of basic social or psychological screening, combining a mental-health check, a social-media audit and testimonials from two competent adults — all subject to the same appeals process as a well-designed red-flag law.

This is an alteration and refinement of an earlier suggestion I floated following the Parkland shooting, which would have staggered the age at which various guns become available for legal purchase. Of course it generates its own set of objections, practical and constitutional; every potential gun regulation does. And if you fear our government enough, there will always be a reason to imagine that to yield anything is to yield everything — that today’s screening for early-20-something gun owners will become tomorrow’s tacit ban on conservatives buying guns, to pick the most obvious possible response.

But that’s a counsel of futility for responding to almost any threat, as long as our politics are polarized and trust in government stays low. And I’m not interested in futility, any more than I’m interested in the forms of right-wing overreaction or left-wing fantasy politics criticized above.

There’s a future where America’s gun-ownership rate is as high as ever, where our schools still look like schools rather than airport security lines and where 18-year-olds under a demoniac shadow face meaningful obstacles to arming themselves for terrorism. Let’s try living there, and see what happens next.

Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.”


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