The tragedy at Virginia Tech, with a mentally disturbed person gunning down 32 of America's finest -- intelligent working people with futures ahead of them -- puts once again into focus for Americans the phenomenon of an armed society.
The likely underestimate of how many guns are wandering around America runs at 240 million in a population of about 300 million. What was clear at Virginia Tech is that at least two of those guns were in the wrong hands.
When people talk about doing something about guns in America, one of the points that comes to the fore is, "How could America disarm even if it wanted to? There are so many guns out there." Today I want to address the question of "how" -- if we decided to. Since I have little or no power to influence the "if" part of the issue, I will stick with "how."
Before anyone starts to hyperventilate about me as a crazed liberal zealot wanting to take the gun from his cold, dead hands, let me say what my experience is of guns.
As a child I played cowboys and Indians with cap guns. I had a Daisy Red Ryder B-B gun. My father had in his bedside table drawer an old pistol which I examined surreptitiously from time to time. When assigned to the American embassy in Beirut during the war in Lebanon, I sometimes carried a .357 Magnum, which I could fire accurately. I also learned there to handle and fire a variety of weapons, including Uzis and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
I don't have any problem with hunting, although blowing away animals with high-powered weapons seems a pointless, no-contest affair to me. I suppose I would enjoy the fellowship of friends who are hunters.
Now, how would one disarm the American population? First of all, federal or state laws would need to make it a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine and one year in prison per weapon to possess a firearm. The population would then be given three months to turn in their guns, without penalty.
Hunters would be able to deposit their hunting weapons in a centrally located arsenal, heavily guarded, from which they would be able to withdraw them each hunting season upon presentation of a valid hunting license. The weapons would be required to be redeposited at the end of the season on pain of arrest. When hunters submitted their request for their weapons, federal, state and local checks would be made to establish that they had not been convicted of a violent crime since the last time they withdrew their weapons. In the process, arsenal staff would take at least a quick look at each hunter to try to affirm that he was not obviously unhinged.
It would have to be the case that the term "hunting weapon" did not include anti-tank ordnance, assault weapons, rocket-propelled grenade launchers or other weapons of war.
All antique or interesting nonhunting weapons would be required to be delivered to a local or regional museum, also to be under strict 24-hour-a-day guard. There they would be on display, if the owner desired, as part of an interesting exhibit of antique American weapons, as family heirlooms from proud wars past or as part of collections.
Gun dealers could continue their work, selling hunting and antique firearms. Dealers would be required to maintain very tight inventories. Any gun sold would be delivered immediately by the dealer to the nearest arsenal or the museum, not to the buyer.
The disarmament process would begin after the initial three-month amnesty. Special squads of police would be formed and trained to carry out the work. Then, on a random basis to permit no advance warning, city blocks and stretches of suburban and rural areas would be cordoned off and searches carried out in every business, dwelling and empty building. Thoroughness would be at the level of the sort of search that is carried out in Crime Scene Investigations. All firearms would be seized. The owners of weapons found in the searches would be prosecuted: $1,000 and one year in prison for each firearm.
Clearly, since such sweeps could not take place all across a city, county, state or the country at the same time, guns would move. But fairly quickly there would begin to be gun-swept, gun-free areas where there should be no firearms. If there were, those carrying them would be subject to quick confiscation and prosecution. On the streets it would be a question of stopping and searching anyone, even Grandma with her walker, with the same penalties for "carrying."
The "gun lobby" would no doubt try to head off in the courts such new laws and the actions to implement them. They might succeed in doing so, although the new approach would undoubtedly prompt new, vigorous debate on the subject. The Virginia Tech affair has already stimulated renewed discussion of the issue, although members of Congress so far seem to be staying under their desks on the subject. Some jurisdictions would undoubtedly take the opportunity of the chronic slowness of the courts to begin implementing the new approach in any case.
America's long land and sea borders present another kind of problem. It is easy to imagine mega-gun dealerships installing themselves in Mexico and perhaps in more remote parts of the Canadian border area to funnel guns into the United States. That would constitute a problem for American immigration authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard, but not an insurmountable one over time.
There also could conceivably be a rash of score-settling during hunting season as people drew out their weapons, ostensibly to shoot squirrels and deer, and began eliminating their perceived two-footed enemies. Given the general nature of hunting weapons and the fact that such killings are frequently time-sensitive, that seems a lesser sort of issue.
In any case, that is my idea of how it could be done. The desire to do so on the part of the American people is another question altogether, but one clearly raised again by the Blacksburg tragedy.