Preventing Future Massacres

After each horror like the one at Virginia Tech, we wonder how we might prevent the next one. Even as we do so, though, we know at some level how hard it is to prevent a person like Seung Cho from killing. He bought guns and ammo at a store. We could make that transaction more difficult — today, in fact, the NY Times has reported that federal law should have made it impossible for Cho to obtain those guns — but every time we make it harder to purchase guns we increase the burden on many thousands of unthreatening gun buyers and dealers, without measurably reducing the threat posed by men like Seung Cho.

According to a NY Times column this week, there are 200 million guns floating around the U.S.; he would have been able to get guns somewhere.

Meanwhile, all the university and the police knew about him was that Cho had been accused of stalking, and had written two bad plays that relied on profanity and violence as their theme. While stalking is reprehensible, most stalkers do not go on to massacre people, and our society have decided not to regard stalking as an offense worthy of years of imprisonment. Nor would imprisonment necessarily protect us, if we used it; it could easily embitter a man like Cho further, while enhancing his criminal skills, making him all the more dangerous by the time he left.

So we are faced with bad choices: Imprison all those we deem ‘scary,’ commit them to psychiatric hospitals for indefinite periods, or do nothing. A glance around most major metropolises would reveal a number of people who seem ‘scary’; locking all of them up would be as immoral as it would be impractical.

And yet, as attorney Marcel Florrestal and I were just discussing, technology gives us an option. We could do something that is both practical and moral — something that would protect innocent victims without locking up those who have committed no crime.

Here’s how it could work:

Each new gun could be equipped with a chip that would awaken only in the very near proximity of an electronic bracelet/RFID tag. When awakened, the chip would prevent the gun from firing.

For everyone who wasn’t wearing such a bracelet, the gun would work just fine.

Thus, young children could wear such bracelets, preventing them from firing their parents’ guns.

Parolees could wear them, until such time as they had proven themselves capable of acting in self-defense only.

Such a system would also give us a way to reduce the likelihood of massacres like the one at Blacksburg. It would not prevent them all, but it would surely prevent some.

Today, if you suspect that someone is dangerous, there’s very little you can do. You can notify someone of your fear, and the police or a psychiatrist may talk with them. But unless the person is deemed to be an imminent threat, the state is not permitted to lock them up. And in many cases, even the most suspicious person is not ready to ask that a ‘scary’ person be locked up. We just want to know that he or she, but usually he, is not allowed to harm us. As of today we have no way of reducing that threat without infringing on civil liberties.

Here’s what we could do instead: If an institution, whether a university or a place of employment like a post office, decided that someone might be dangerous, it could ask that person to submit to an evaluation by two trained professionals. If the professionals agreed that the person was a threat, the bracelet could be put on, with the force of law.

The suspect would be otherwise free to conduct his or her, but usually his, business. The bracelet could be made sufficiently unobtrusive so that there would be no social stigma. Its removal, however, would signal the police department to respond immediately. And as long as he wore the bracelet, the suspect would be unable to fire any new weapon.

Retrofitting old weapons would be expensive — perhaps too expensive for the law to require it. Such a system would still allow some killers to kill; no system can prevent murder. But it would make it harder, while preserving the rights of law-abiding, non-threatening citizens to bear and use arms.

To reduce the likelihood that such a decision would be influenced by racial bias, at least one of the two professionals would have to share the same race as the suspect.

Some may take an odd comfort in the notion that there’s nothing we can do to keep scary people away from weapons. But advances in technology have made it possible for us to do more than we were able to do before. It’s worth a shot.

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