Gun control is a good crime-prevention measure but not for mass murder

By James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

June 10. 2012


THE May 30 mass shooting in Seattle that claimed the lives of five innocent victims, plus the 40-year-old gunman by his own hand, sent shock waves through the city. And the fact that this latest episode followed on the heels of an apparent short-term spike in homicide by gunfire has intensified the levels of anger, fear and concern among the residents of Seattle.

Understandably, politicians and pundits alike are calling for stiffer gun-control measures, particularly at the state level. As City Councilmember Nick Licata put it, "The problem isn't in Seattle, but in Olympia." Actually, the problem is far greater than what the Washington state Legislature can address, and the solution far broader than any Band-Aid gun-control measures.

While violence, and gun violence in particular, is sadly all too common on the streets of Seattle, as it is elsewhere, mass murder remains a rare and unpredictable event. In fact, the only predictable thing about mass murder is that it will generate a surge of anti-gun rhetoric that will dissipate as soon as residents, politicians and the media inevitably turn their attention to other matters.

Since the mid-1970s and up until this recent incident, Seattle has endured five episodes of mass murder, cases in which at least four victims were killed (not counting the assailant). One incident involved a disgruntled family member, but the remainder implicated acquaintances or strangers. All involved firearms, as it is difficult though not impossible to slaughter large numbers of people by means of stabbing, bludgeoning, beating or strangling.

The kinds of proposals being advanced in the press and over the airwaves — closing the gun-show loophole, enhancing background checks, aggressively prosecuting gun crimes — may be reasonable and well-meaning; but when it comes to preventing mass murder, they are meaningless.

Would Kyle Huff, who in 2006 killed six and wounded two others at a Capitol Hill address just before committing suicide, have been deterred by state restrictions on gun purchasing when his shotgun was brought from his hunting-rich home state of Montana?

Would the three assailants — Kwan Fai Mak, Wai-Chiu Ng and Benjamin Ng — in the 1983 Wah Mee Club massacre have needed to find a gun show to secure the weapons they used to rob and murder 13 people?

Would Ian Stawicki, implicated in the latest mass murder, have been concerned about violating laws that punish gun crimes when he was apparently prepared to end his own life rather than be captured by the police? And would Stawicki, known for being belligerent and quick to anger, have been disqualified from gun ownership no matter how restrictive the qualifications?

The answers to these questions are strikingly similar, all ranging from probably not to definitely not.

Gun-control measures that work to reduce single-victim homicide would be ineffective against mass murder.

Gang members who are now restricted from legally purchasing a firearm tend instead to carry illegal weapons acquired from the secondary gun market; by contrast, mass killers typically have no criminal convictions or official psychiatric history and can legitimately purchase an arsenal of weapons for "hunting" or "self-defense."

Gang members have a preference for small-caliber handguns that can be easily concealed from view; mass killers usually carry large-chambered firearms capable of taking numerous lives. Stawicki, for example, employed two semi-automatic guns that he had bought legally.

Hopefully, civic leaders will not make the common mistake of seeing mass murder as just another form of homicide, but with many victims. The difference is actually both quantitative and qualitative.

Single-victim homicide is typically spontaneous; the killer engages in an argument that escalates into a deadly physical confrontation. Mass killers, in sharp contrast, are determined, deliberate and dead-set on murder. They plan methodically to execute their victims, finding the means no matter what laws or other impediments the state attempts to place in their way. To them, the will to kill cannot be denied.

Unfortunately, laws are too often modified and strengthened based on high-profile tragedies that are entirely unrepresentative of violence generally. To stem the tide of shootings that plague the city daily, law and public policy should be aimed at getting weapons out of the hands of impoverished young people and providing them with hope for the future.

Strengthening gun-control regulations may have many benefits, but preventing the most extreme form of homicide — mass murder — is not one of them. If the latest episode becomes the impetus for change, then at best, it is the right thing to do but for the wrong reason.

James Alan Fox and Jack Levin are professors at Northeastern University in Boston and co-authors of the blue-ribbon panel report on the Capitol Hill shootings and the book "Extreme Killing."