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Seeking Explanations, Not Causes

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So much has been written about the shootings of students by students at schools that you’d think there would be nothing left to say. But there has been surprisingly little comment about the location of the shootings: government schools. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. Government schools are nearly sacred to most people. They couldn’t possibly be a — or the — source of the problem. Or could they?

The other explanations offered are lame.

Movies and television: Kids may see many realistic simulations of violence, but it is a big leap from that to the commission of actual violence. My generation grew up watching the Roadrunner and the Three Stooges, but I never knew anyone to drop an anvil on anyone’s head or to poke anyone’s eyes out. I certainly never did that to anybody. The line between reality and fantasy was pretty bright for us. We knew no one was getting hurt on the screen but that someone would get hurt if we tried any of that stuff ourselves.

Today’s simulated violence looks much more real than yesterday’s. But that point can cut both ways. Bloodless fictional violence might give viewers a more casual attitude about it than the gory scenes we see today. In the old days when someone got shot, he fell down. If you saw a trickle of blood, that was a lot. Today you see heads blown off and bodies mutilated. Which is more repulsive? Which is more likely to make violence less attractive, the kind with or without consequences?

An important difference between the fictional violence of today and of old is that today moral distinctions are often absent. In the old days there were good guys and bad guys. The bad would prevail for a while, but in the end you knew they would fall to the good. The use of the minimum violence necessary by the good to subdue the bad was unlikely to harm kids — on the contrary, it instilled a sense of justice. In today’s movies, everyone might be bad.

What that does to kids’ attitudes toward violence, I don’t know. But if we decide that it makes them more apt to harm people, the problem is not violence per se, but the lack of moral guidance. Parents need to offset the immorality of their kids’ entertainment.

Video games: People complain that many kids not only watch simulated violence; they also commit it when they play video games with vivid graphics. Versions of these games are reportedly used to train law enforcement officers and military personnel, specifically, to reduce their inhibitions about shooting people. It’s true that previous generations did not have such games. But we had toy guns of all kinds, and some of them looked awfully real. Children — especially boys — don’t need store-bought guns to play cowboys or soldiers or cops. Any old thing’ll do, a piece of wood or metal, even one’s own hand. We pointed those things at other kids and pretended to shoot. I find it hard to believe that anyone was warped by that experience. As for today’s kids, again, there is a huge leap from shooting “people” in a video game (usually thuggish-looking types) to shooting real fellow students. This is a weak explanation for the horrible acts we’ve seen.

The Internet: Like Alice’s restaurant, you can find anything you want on the World Wide Web. Depictions of sex, violence, and sexual violence are there if you look hard enough. Unsavory literature glorifying Nazism and other hateful views is there also. But exactly how does all that stimulate violence? No one has shown that it does, and I predict no one will ever show it. The people who seek out this material and who go back a second time are already interested in it and may already harbor a wish to harm or kill people. “The Internet made me do it” won’t wash. Advocates of government restrictions on the Internet like to argue that there are well-documented cases in which pornography “caused” someone to commit sexual violence against women. The most-mentioned case is that of Ted Bundy. Bundy attributed his violence to pornography while talking to a minister just before being put to death. He couldn’t help himself, he said. Why should we believe him? Maybe he felt he had something to gain by lying. Perhaps he hoped for a last-minute reprieve, or he wanted people to pity him. Whatever the reason, a person’s claim that he could not stop himself from committing violence because he viewed pictures is just not believable.

Guns: The availability of guns is the excuse that has already prompted new legislation. Congress at this writing was considering new restrictions on the sale of firearms at gun shows and the requirement that a trigger lock be included with every gun. Gun-control advocates see an opening for more ways to deprive peaceful citizens of firearms, and they are heading for it at top muzzle velocity. Some have called for the banning and confiscation of handguns. The theory is that it is too easy for twisted kids to get guns. Make it harder to get guns, they say, and we’ll see fewer mass shootings. That the Littleton killers also made pipe bombs with everyday materials did not prompt a call for the banning of those materials. The fact that shortly after Littleton someone intentionally rammed his car through a schoolyard fence and killed some kids hasn’t led to calls for restrictions on automobiles. Nor did anyone picket the AAA, as they picketed the NRA after Littleton. The cliché is right: guns don’t kill people. But people do use guns to kill people. Does it follow that a different set of guns laws would have stopped the perpetrators of the eight school incidents since 1997? No, it doesn’t. If the perpetrators were bent on going out in a blaze of gunfire, they would have found a way to obtain guns. The Littleton shooters broke 18 laws as it is. People in prisons get or make guns. There is no way to eradicate guns from a wide-open country such as the United States.

Nevertheless, it is true that some gun law might have kept some of these gunmen from getting the firearms they used to shoot their victims. But to stop there is to commit the fallacy Frédéric Bastiat warned of: looking at only the obvious effects of a government policy. Any law that might have kept guns from those students might also have kept guns from some of the more than two million lawful people who each year protect themselves from criminals with guns, usually without having to fire them. (It is shamefully underreported that two of the school incidents were stopped when people used their own guns to subdue the perpetrators.) If we are to rationally judge a policy, we must do a full accounting. Guns are used to take innocent lives. Guns also are used to save innocent lives. We can’t net it out. (If we could, gun control would lose anyway.) Every life is valuable to its holder. A person left defenseless by a gun-control law will feel no comfort, as he is assaulted, at the thought that somewhere someone might not be killed because of that law.

Schools: The schools have gotten some attention, but the wrong kind. It’s been mentioned that schools and classes have too many students. This is the kind of attention that leads people to advocate more money for the government’s schools. The number of students is not the problem. My high-school graduating class alone had 1,100 students. It produced no mass murderers. Nevertheless, we can’t let the government’s schools off the hook. They are impersonal institutions that at best bore students by treating them as interchangeable. Students have no choice but to be there and to do as they are told. That kind of treatment can, given other conditions, prompt a frustrated young man to decide to lash out in a twisted attempt to assert himself. Some kids don’t want to be in school and don’t belong there. They shouldn’t have to go. It’s ironic that a few years before Littleton, a Colorado state legislator tried to abolish compulsory attendance. He failed. Maybe if he had succeeded, the 13 victims and two gunmen would be alive today.

Ultimately, people kill because they decide to kill. As Thomas Szasz points out, behavior has explanations, not causes. People have free will, and most people don’t do what these adolescents did. While there has been a cluster of incidents, the number of students and the number of schools is infinitesimal. New laws won’t prevent such incidents. Good parents and full educational freedom will help.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.