Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In The Midst Of Life

Yesterday's horrific shooting in Viriginia reminds us of the preciousness of life and of the inherent vulnerability of a free society. Pretty much anywhere, anytime, a deranged person could open fire and kill whoever happened to be around.

I work in a university setting where security is very much an issue. When I started, our security was basically nonexistent. Since then, things have improved a little -- we now have card-key entry locks on our doors. But the doors are unlocked most of the day, and there is no guard to challenge anyone who enters. At other urban law schools I have visited (U. Penn. and NYU, for example), those entering must click through a turnstile with school ID or be challenged by a security guard.

We could upgrade our security to that level, but it wouldn't prevent shootings by students [update -- as the Virginia shooting is now thought to be], or by faculty or staff. And in the end, it's hard to see how incidents like Virginia's could really be prevented in society at large. We could set things up so that, before going to school, getting on a subway car, buying a cup of coffee, seeing a movie, entering a store, or generally going from anywhere to anywhere else, you would have to show ID, sign in, and walk through a metal detector. But life would become unbearable.

Of course, we could ban guns. Incidents like yesterday's would be much more difficult to pull off without easy access to guns. But this question is not as simple as it seems. I've never studied the question closely, but people whose opinions I respect -- most notably Eugene Volokh -- say that the statistics show that guns save more lives than they cost (not in the particular post linked here, but elsewhere). The NRA had the good taste to offer nothing but its condolences for now, but you can be sure it will be defending the right to own guns in the wake of the tragedy. The right answer on this point is not clear.

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