SALT LAKE CITY — It's hard to understand why people kill other people. Perhaps I have grown up in a time, and in a culture, when war is something seen in movies or on History Channel documentaries. Perhaps I was raised in communities where crime was low and where death was more likely to come to the elderly, in a hospital, or by auto accident. Always a tragedy and sad affair, but natural.
Murder, though, is not natural, and why people kill other people is difficult for me to understand. Even more difficult is why someone would kill the vulnerable, especially children. As we reel with shock over the deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary, intellectually I know it is not the first time a monster has killed the young and innocent. In fact, history is full of evil men who have wielded power against children. Whether it is Herod's massacre of children of Bethlehem two thousand years ago or Hitler's "Final Solution" that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in the last century, innocents have been killed by evil men.
But not in America. In this land, founded on principles of freedom and equality, we are supposed to be different. Children are our future, and schools are supposed to be safe havens for learning. It's why we have created them to be, in many places, gun-free zones. We want our children to be safe, and so we've limited the ability to let them be hurt by making it criminal to possess a gun at or near a school.
In some states, malls, parks and other public places are also classified as gun-free zones. They are places where we can "feel" safe because we can assume that it is against the law for guns to be carried.
Ironically, Sandy Hook was a gun-free zone. The 20 children and six faculty members who were slain there were killed by a combination of several guns, including one semi-automatic commonly called an assault rifle because of its similarity to the rifles used by the military. None of the laws in Connecticut, though, prevented Adam Lanza from entering the school and killing.
Which brings me back to my question: why do people kill each other? Why would Lanza, raised in an affluent upper-class home, decide to kill so many people? Or anybody at all?
It's a question we may never be able to answer, since Lanza ended his own life before he was taken. By all reports, Lanza suffered from mental illness, reportedly some form of Aspergers, a disorder similar to autism which causes sufferers to struggle with social interaction and the development of relationships. He was assigned his own psychologist, and his mother went to lengths to keep him out of public and to compensate for his illness.
And perhaps therein lies part of the answer. As a nation, we've jumped quickly to the conclusion that we need to attack the weapons that Lanza used to end the futures of so many. It's easy to point at guns — in the hands of the likes of Adam Lanza, like in the hands of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, they take the lives of our most vulnerable members — our children. Within hours of the shootings' news hitting the air, pundits began calling for restrictions of gun sales, making no bones about their intention to use the tragedy for passage of long-sought gun restrictions.
But will more laws limiting the sale of guns accomplish the end we want? Maybe. Maybe not.
In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik attacked and killed 69 students at an island retreat in Norway, injuring another 110. While guns are not illegal in Norway, the country does have a total ban on automatic rifles, and ownership of firearms is limited and highly regulated, and civilians are not allowed to carry concealed weapons. Never the less, Brievik was able to perpetrate the most deadly attack in Norway since World War II. During the trial, Brievik, a right-wing extremist, admitted that he had carried out the killings, but said he was not guilty because he had acted on necessity.
Closer to home, Utahns might remember the shootings at Trolley Square in 2007. Sulejman Talović shot nine people, killing five before an off-duty police officer at dinner with his wife returned fire, keeping Talović pinned down until a SWAT team arrived to shoot him. The off-duty police officer is credited with saving the lives of many people in the Trolley Square shopping center. To this day, it is unclear why Talović went on his shooting spree.
Were guns at fault? It's hard not to see their role in the killing. However, outlawing guns at schools and making it difficult to get them in Norway did not save lives. If anything, it disarmed the people that might have stopped the killing earlier. At Harrold Independent School District in Texas, Superintendent David Thweatt has since 2008 made teachers the first responders to any attacks.
Were guns at fault? It's hard not to see their role in the killing. However, outlawing guns at schools and making it difficult to get them in Norway did not save lives. If anything, it disarmed the people that might have stopped the killing earlier.
"We’re the first responders. We have to be,” Thweatt said a year after the program was implemented, training teachers to carry concealed weapons. “We don’t have 5 minutes. We don’t have 10 minutes. We would have had 20 minutes of hell” if attackers had targeted the school.
Ultimately, I don't know that arming our teachers is the solution, though it may be a solution. I believe that classrooms are still, in spite of the horrific events of Sandy Hook and Columbine, safe places for our children.
Perhaps there needs to be a conversation about the kinds of guns we feel are acceptable for the public to own, or the kind of training and review that citizens must undergo before owning them. It's a conversation that can only help, both for those who advocate for more laws and those who see gun ownership as a Second Amendment protected right not to be infringed by government action.
However, no matter what or how many laws we pass, there will always be evil men. Outlawing the tools that they use will not prevent them from finding a way to accomplish their ends. It will, however, prevent good people from fighting back.
Before we jump to conclusions, pass laws with long-reaching consequences, let's take time to take a closer look at those who are behind the guns. They are, in many respects, those who need our help the most, and by the time they have taken up deadly weapons, we have as a society missed their need for help. Restricting gun ownership is an easy, if misguided answer. Addressing how we help the mentally ill and those on society's fringes will require more of us, but ultimately will save more lives.
Daniel Burton lives in Holladay, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, books and ideas.