Masks, vaccines and critical race theory don't harm children — guns do

Parents have been showing up in droves at school board meetings across the country to protest mask mandates, vaccine requirements and critical race theory. If only they would get as worked up over what really harms their children: guns.

Last week Americans faced the horror of yet another school shooting. In Oxford, Mich., 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley killed four students and injured six others as well as a teacher at his high school. The young man had exhibited disturbing behavior prior to the shooting, including searching for ammunition online during one of his classes. 

Digital and physical records suggest he planned the attack, but his motive is unclear, and he seems to have chosen his victims at random. He used a Sig Sauer 9mm semi-automatic pistol that allowed him to fire 30 rounds in a matter of minutes. His father purchased the gun days before the shooting and left it where the teenager could get it. Evidence that both parents facilitated their son’s access to the weapon and ignored warnings from school officials about his behavior led Oakland County Prosecutor Karen MacDonald to charge each of them with four counts of involuntary manslaughter. 

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"It's your responsibility, it's your duty to make sure that you don't give access to this deadly weapon to somebody that you have reason to believe is going to harm someone," MacDonald told reporters. 

Unfortunately, gun ownership and responsibility are not always linked. Second Amendment advocates tout their “right to bear arms” with little understanding of what the phrase originally meant or appreciation of the historical context in which it was written. 

The standard weapon for soldiers and civilians in the late 18th century was a smoothbore musket, like the British Brown Bess I use for Revolutionary War reenacting. It takes 30-60 seconds to load, is accurate to 50 yards, and misfires about 20 percent of the time. With a length of more than four feet and a weight of 10 pounds, it is impossible to conceal. No individual ever committed mass murder with a musket. Ownership rights designed for that weapon can hardly be applied to modern firearms without modification.

Second Amendment advocates also forget that the “right to bear arms” was inextricably linked to the obligation to serve in a “well-regulated militia.” The framers of the constitution feared a standing army, so they relied on state militias to defend the country. Citizens had an obligation to serve, so of course, they had to be armed. Colonial and state militias were the predecessors of the modern national guard. The second amendment does not sanction the creation of anti-government groups like the Oath Keepers or Three Percenters nor does it empower sovereign citizens to arm themselves so that they can defy laws with which they disagree.

Opponents of gun regulation will probably argue that Ethan Crumbley is disturbed and may even acknowledge that his parents were irresponsible, but they will insist that an isolated incident does not justify compromising their Second Amendment rights. They made the same argument about Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland and a host of other mass murders. There have been 87 school shootings since 2018 and 29 this year alone. Oxford High School was not an isolated incident but part of a disturbing pattern of violence. Canada has troubled young people but rarely experiences school shootings. It also has much stricter gun laws than the United States.

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Students have adjusted to what has become the new normal. Most schools conduct active shooter drills. That preparation probably saved lives at Oxford High School. Preparedness, however, comes at a price. A recent study revealed that active shooter drills correlated with a 39 percent increase in depression and a 42 percent increase in anxiety among students. Those sobering statistics leave administrators with a difficult choice: leave students unprepared for a serious threat or compromise their mental health. Either way, vulnerable children must pay for the behavior of irresponsible adults.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has treated school shootings as a public relations problem to be managed rather than a crisis to be resolved. National Public Radio (NPR) recently aired a report on the NRA’s response to Columbine and subsequent incidents. The organization has taken a two-pronged approach. It dismisses calls for gun control as exploiting tragedy for political gain and argues for armed security personnel in schools. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” NRA CEO Wayne Lapierre said in response to Sandy Hook, “is a good guy with a gun.” 

The 2018 shooting at the high school in Santa Fe, Texas proved that argument wrong. Two, armed security guards patrolling the halls could not stop the gunman from killing 10 people. When President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy  Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE called for arming teachers, two former marines who became educators objected vociferously. In an article for the Atlantic, Tyler Bonin explained that teachers could not be trained adequately to engage an active shooter: “There is a difference between firearms training. . . and the ability to engage a threat while under fire.” One study revealed that even highly trained police officers do not fire accurately in a crisis and notes that teachers would be even less likely to do so. Anthony Swofford, another former-Marine-turned-teacher, was equally emphatic: “I would never bring a weapon into a classroom. The presence of a firearm is always an invitation to violence.” If a gun is accessible for a teacher to use in a crisis, it can be stolen by a student. The answer to gun violence is not more guns.

A free, democratic society will always struggle to balance individual rights with collective wellbeing. In the United States, we have tipped that balance too far in the direction of the individual at the expense of what used to be called the common good. Nothing illustrates that imbalance more than opposition to responsible gun laws. 

We needn’t ban all firearms, but we must regulate them and limit who has access to them. That includes holding parents accountable for keeping guns out of the hands of their children.

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and author of Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”