We've got to ban assault weapons! they cry. But no "assault weapons" were used in this massacre. Well, we've got to do SOMETHING, and this is a good first step! No, it's an irrelevant, useless step that will not stop any tragedies and only infringe on the rights of people who are not otherwise involved. But it's something!
In the Middle Ages, they'd have called for a pilgrimage, or a round of self-flagellation, or maybe a pogrom against the Jews. Reformers are always the same. They can't face the tragedy as it is, because they feel helpless, so they start some hare and chase that. It makes them feel better, but it does nothing for the victims and their families, nor anything to prevent future evil acts.
Mobs are the same, too. Just look at the people who riot in the Islamic world every time the rumor of some silly video goes round. Are they doing any good, are they even getting at the root of their outrage? No. They're just rioting. We are baffled by such behavior, but we do it here, too. We don't break windows and beat up foreigners, but just follow the outrage on social media: the instinct is the same in many people. There are many calls for extreme measures against gun owners, or against mentally ill people and their guardians, against "Big Pharma," against Republicans, or whoever we see as even tangentially connected to our outrage.
Then there are the activists, nasty people who say, "never let a crisis go to waste." Quick, put your money (or your rights) in my Evil-Be-Gone™ Box! Oh, they are so smooth, so articulate. They use the pain of others to enrich themselves or to push a cause. And so many of them are clergy. I look back on the history of reform movements and my skin crawls. And I am one of them! Good Lord, have I been guilty of the same? If I have, I confess it now and ask to be cleansed of this self-righteous use of others' pain.
So, what is to be done? What could stop evil acts like these school shootings? Well, very little. What makes a person contemplate this kind of thing is a mystery, especially why this person will act upon their ideas and others won't. But one fact shows up again and again, and I cite it reluctantly; I don't really want to deal with it, because I fear where it would bring me. But I have to be honest.
The one thing that we know deters gun violence is the likelihood that someone primed to commit a crime of violence will be met by an armed response. Now, gun violence occurs in gun-owning cultures, but the statistics show that the more guns in use -- especially where concealed carry permits are common -- the less violent crime occurs. In an environment where any victim might be armed (even if few are), criminals are more cautious. They prefer environments where they can be sure nobody is armed. And schools full of children are the ultimate target-rich environment where nobody is armed.
Schools are not usually the victims of robbery by gun use, of course; there is little there to steal from the children. The psychology of school shooters is different from that of ordinary criminals in significant ways. But the fact remains that there is little to deter a whacko from killing lots of people in a school, since the school offers only passive barriers, easily overcome, to the entry of people who don't belong there.
Not that I'm suggesting that teachers should be armed. But, you know, an armed police officer on the site might be enough to deter a terrorist-style attack. Even if the officer isn't there all the time -- but if he's there every day at some time, that adds a factor to be considered by a potential shooter. It might deter some. And it might stop others, even by the use of deadly force.
But there it is: if you want to stop this kind of violence, you have to change the playing field as it appears in the mind of the crazy person. These kinds of killers are acting out a personal psychodrama on an interior stage we don't see. They purge their urge in an orgy of killing, and they kill themselves at the conclusion of their "performance." I'll show them. I'll do it all, and they won't be able to stop me, and I'll take my own way out at the end. That'll show them how impotent they are.
The fact that he will be dead and unable to appreciate his performance does not rob the killer of his satisfaction in carrying it out. But if he is likely to be stopped or killed before getting to enact his personal Ragnarök, then he might think twice before setting out. Getting killed too early -- by someone else -- would just spoil the whole thing.
Anyway, that's my take on it. It's the killer's mind that we've got to address ourselves to, not his choice of weapon. In China this week (where guns are prohibited), someone stabbed 22 children in a school. And it's all too easy to make a bomb out of ordinary materials. You can't make people safe by putting everybody in padded rooms with plastic utensils. Nor can you make people safe by forbidding the sale of anything that stabs, shoots, or blows up. You can only deter violence by preparing to meet it with very focused, highly effective violence in return.