The latest attempt to prevent mass murder is the adoption of “red flag” laws, whereby persons whose behavior or statements suggest that they might be a threat to others may be disarmed and prohibited from acquiring firearms. You might think that’s logical. Crazy people do often give plenty of warning that something running in the hamster cage isn’t a hamster at all.
There are several problems with this solution: First is that mass murder is not just done with guns. I am currently writing a history of mass murder in America. I have identified 333 mass murders (3 or more dead or wounded in a 24 hour period) with 5,940 dead since 1657. I am still working through newspapers of 1876-1890 and filling in the post-1990 incidents. In the 19th century, mass murder was often done with axes or hatchets (every home had one for firewood). Throughout our history, non-firearms mass murders exceeded firearms mass murders. Even today, non-firearms mass murders are given little coverage. USA Today counted all mass murders in the U.S. 2006-2010, “76% of mass killings involve a gun.” That leaves 24% that did not.
Many mass murders are with weapons that “red flag” laws have no hope of controlling. Just three big recent examples:
- $1 of gasoline (87 dead, Happyland Social Club, New York City, 1990)
- Can of cigarette lighter fluid (33 dead, UpStairs Lounge, New Orleans, 1973)
- Bottle of camp stove fuel (97 dead, DuPont Plaza Hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1986)
Only one of these was planned. The first two were spur-of-the-moment actions. “Red flag” laws may take away a gun from someone crazy, but this hardly disarms someone intent on mass murder.
The other problem with “red flag” laws is that they are an inadequate attempt to recreate a far more effective type of law common in my youth. In 1960, many of the recent mass murderers (Navy Yard shooter, Newtown shooter, Aurora theater shooter, Rep. Giffords’ shooter in Arizona), would have been involuntarily committed before anyone had to draw chalk marks around bodies. While some of the state laws on this were defective from a due process standpoint, the net effect was that people who gave good reason to believe that they were mentally ill and likely a hazard to self or others, would be in a facility where they had no access to guns, gasoline, knives, or cigarette lighter fluid.
Will you be surprised to find that the rate of mental illness caused mass murder deaths per 100,000 population took a noticeable rise after the ACLU completed its mission in the 1970s of destroying the state mental hospital system?
There was also some hope of treatment and recovery. Instead many of those who, in 1960, would have been in a hospital, can now be found living on steam grates, on park benches, in homeless shelters, in the psychiatric wards of jails and prisons, or as CNN’s headline of the day, week, or month.
Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His ninth book, Lock, Stock, and Barrel was published earlier this year. Click Here to buy a copy on Amazon.