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Opportunity and tragedy

For too many at Virginia Tech, life will never return to normal.

As classes resume, though, the rest of us should begin to discuss the implications of this horrific event.

While the murderer alone bears ultimate responsibility for the violence he wrought, thoughtful people should ask what, if anything, we can do as a society to make similar events less, rather than more, likely.

Is it possible that some factors in the environment, outside the damaged minds of suicidal individuals, make a difference in whether they act on their impulses? Experience in Britain suggests the answer is yes.

During the 1950s, about half the people who committed suicide in the U.K. did so by putting their heads in the oven, poisoning themselves with the carbon monoxide contained in household gas. During the 1960s, changes in manufacturing processes reduced and then eliminated carbon monoxide from the gas, rendering it relatively benign when inhaled.

As a result of these changes in the composition of household gas, a substantial number of people who might otherwise have committed suicide did not. Suicides in the U.K. declined by nearly 30 percent, at a time when suicide rates elsewhere in Europe were increasing.

Without treating the mental illness that leads some to suicide, without changing society or culture, the number of suicides was reduced — simply by making it a little bit more difficult, a little bit less pleasant, to take one’s own life.

Certainly, individuals and their psychoses are to blame for mass murders like the one at Virginia Tech. However, is it possible that making it somewhat harder to obtain the instruments of mass murder — guns with high-capacity magazines — could reduce the likelihood of a repeat?

A comparison between Seattle and nearby Vancouver, Canada, again suggests the answer is yes. While the two cities had similar rates of assault and other violent crimes, the risk of being murdered in Seattle was substantially higher, mostly because an individual was almost five times more likely to be murdered with a handgun in Seattle, where gun laws were much less strict. While far from perfect, the evidence is suggestive.

If federal law had been followed, and the Virginia Tech murderer been refused the right to purchase a gun because of his mental impairment, might he have found another way to kill 32 people? Certainly, but the massacre would have been less likely. If the assault-weapons ban had still been in force and the murderer unable to buy a high-capacity magazine for his handgun, might he have killed fewer? Likely.

The public does not seem to appreciate the importance of “mere opportunity” in creating such tragedies. Only 18 percent of Americans see the “availability of guns” as a primary cause of violence.  

However, since most of us believe every life has infinite value, even the possibility that lives could be saved warrants action. That is why, contrary to conventional wisdom, Americans of all stripes, urban, suburban and rural, support common-sense gun laws that would make it harder for the wrong people to get guns and therefore less likely for them to kill others. Sixty-seven percent favor an assault-weapons ban, 61 percent support tighter gun laws generally, and 55 percent support a ban on semi-automatic handguns.

Liberals incur the enmity of gun owners not by supporting such laws, but by acting as though the nearly half of the electorate that own guns are either freaks or murderers-in-waiting. Jettison the bad attitude — not the laws that could save lives.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.