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Stabbings at Pennsylvania school add a new wrinkle to gun debate

The novelty of Wednesday’s knife attack on students at a suburban Pittsburgh high school provides a new debating point in America’s endless argument about guns. 

Proponents of an unrestricted right to own and carry all types of firearms will point to this incident and say it proves that any weapon is dangerous and that gun owners should not be singled out and shackled by government regulation. They will also insist that if there had been guns available to teachers and administrators at Franklin Regional Senior High School, where the stabbings took place, someone could have stopped the 16-year-old perpetrator as soon as he initiated his attacks.

Fans of gun control will counter by noting that, had the boy with the two knives been wielding an assault rifle instead, the students now in the hospital would likely be in a morgue and the number of victims would have been much higher. As it was, gun opponents will note, two school employees were able to subdue the boy without gunning him down and, unless one believes rough justice is better than a court, that is a good thing.

And so it will go. Old arguments will be rehashed and get us no closer to figuring out what to do about the acts of mass violence that come at us relentlessly, month after month, even day after day.

This week, the president was at Ft. Hood, Texas, leading the mourning for the most recent of two deadly shootings at that military base. There, as at the Pennsylvania school and in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., and all the other places where attacks have occurred, the question of motivation remains largely unanswered. Yes, most of the time, the individuals -- almost always men or boys -- who carry out these horrific crimes are mentally unstable. But we have always had mentally distressed people among us. Only in recent decades have massacres at schools, military bases and other public places become a common occurrence.

What is different now? Is it, perhaps, that one incident feeds on another? Is mass slaughter now the default action for many sick minds? Is it simply the thing to do if you are a loner with a grudge, a twisted grip on reality and a weapon?

If it is the case that this is something our society has grown into, a way must be found to grow out of it. After all, lynchings were once common; now they never happen. Law enforcement and a cultural shift made the difference in that case. It is harder to see what will make a difference in the case of the new American violence.

In Australia, a string of mass shootings quickly led to a ban on gun ownership. That seems to have done the trick; no more mass shootings Down Under. Of course, that will never happen here. It is unimaginable that Americans would give up their guns. Gun nuts won’t even give up dealing firearms from the back of their pickup trucks.

Guns are not the core problem; violent individuals are. But guns, unlike knives and baseball bats and fists, have driven a dramatic rise in the level of mayhem as firepower has increased. That is undeniable.

And guns are not the solution. More guns in more hands will not guarantee there will be someone there to stop the next attacker, but it will mean there will be more intemperate people who turn petty disputes into deadly confrontations -- a case in point being the fool in the Florida movie theater who gunned down a dad who was texting his child’s babysitter.

As the Australian experience proved, availability is a key factor. For a mentally disturbed person with an impulse to violence, it is nearly as easy to obtain a gun as it is to pull a kitchen knife out of a drawer. If, somehow, we could change that one thing -- make firearms less accessible -- we might begin to see fewer attacks.

But that is not the direction we are going in many parts of the country. One example: the Idaho Legislature has now made it legal for students to carry guns to class at colleges and universities. They did not do this because classrooms and campuses are dangerous -- on the contrary, they are among the safest places in America. They did it to please the gun lobby and the firearms industry.

And so we are stuck. The continuing debate will change no minds. Craven politicians will continue to make things worse through their cowardly obeisance to extremists. Teachers, students, shoppers, moviegoers, little children and all the rest of us will continue to wonder who among us is the next target, while tomorrow’s killers will have their pick of weapons.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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