- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

Rain in Seattle is not news. The news is when it fails to rain, which has been the case lately. Likewise, what is conspicuous about the aftermath of the school shootings in Red Lake, Minn., this week was what didn’t occur — a torrent of calls for new gun-control legislation.

The attack was the worst at a school since Columbine six years ago. It came on the heels of some other publicized eruptions of gun violence — including a rampage by a defendant at an Atlanta courthouse and a mass shooting at a worship service in a Milwaukee suburb. In the past, any of these might have spurred gun-control advocates into a major push. But this time, not much has happened, or is likely to.

Why not? One simple reason is Congress and the White House are both in the hands of Republicans, who generally aren’t eager to restrict firearms. But maybe the Republicans are in power partly because of the new mood about gun violence.

It has become clear over the years that most of these spectacular episodes are so freakish they are not amenable to regulatory solutions. It has also become clear any imaginable gun-control laws are unlikely to much affect crime in America.

Even the staunchest anti-gun organizations made only perfunctory efforts to capitalize on the Minnesota shootings. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence criticized Congress for letting the federal “assault weapons” ban expire, mandating immediate destruction of gun sales records, and considering a bill to limit lawsuits against gun dealers.

But these had nothing to do with the Red Lake events. Records of gun sales? The killer, 16-year-old Jeff Weise, wasn’t old enough to buy a gun legally in Minnesota. At least two of his guns were stolen from his grandfather, a police officer he killed.

Ban assault weapons? His arsenal included none — only a .22-caliber pistol, plus a police-issued .40-caliber handgun and 12-gauge shotgun. Limiting lawsuits against dealers? An unenacted bill couldn’t have caused a mass shooting.

The Violence Policy Center charged the problem is “America’s love affair with guns,” and held up the example of countries that, it says, have prevented mass shootings through “severe restrictions on the availability of specific classes of firearms, such as handguns and assault weapons.” This statement only confirmed the National Rifle Association’s suspicion that gun-control advocates are bent on banning entire categories of common firearms — even though most owners use them in a responsible and law-abiding manner.

But decrying America’s love affair with guns is like decrying America’s love affair with football or movies. There are some 260 million firearms in private hands in this country. Any solution requiring vast numbers of people to reject something they have long valued is not a solution but a fantasy. It’s also an admission that no politically feasible options are likely to have any perceptible effect on crime.

Support for gun control has been sliding in recent years. In 1990, 78 percent of Americans said they thought laws on firearm sales should be stricter. By 2004, only 54 percent agreed. By a 2-1 margin, they oppose a general ban on private ownership of handguns — as dreamed of by the Violence Policy Center. When Congress let the “assault weapons” ban expire last year, there was no public uproar.

Past experience with school shootings, horrific as they are, may have also made people skeptical of overreaction. As it happens, this sort of mayhem is rare and becoming rarer. Last year’s annual federal report on school crime and safety notes the number of kids killed at school dropped from 33 in the 1998-99 school year to 14 in 2001-02. Other violent crimes against students at school also have declined.

Common-sense security measures, like limiting access to schools by outsiders, may help. But it’s too much to expect complete elimination of shootings. Says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the California-based National School Safety Center, “It’s very difficult to stop an incident like this unless you have an army standing at the door.”

Most Americans have probably figured that out, and while they may be shocked and saddened by mass murder, they don’t expect it to ever be eradicated entirely. That sort of realism is no ally of gun control.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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