Special Report

NIU Nightmare

Its lessons are unavailing, but that didn't stop the Brady Campaign president from saying something truly stupid.

By 2.20.08

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It didn't take long for comparisons to pop up between last week's Northern Illinois University shooting and the massacre at Virginia Tech last year. Neither school managed to stop a single senseless murder, the gunmen having killed themselves before campus cops arrived.

Both incidents, of course, drive home the lesson -- pro- and anti-gunners agree -- that this country needs to do a better job of mandating mental-health information be put into background-check databases. The first shooter had been forced into outpatient treatment, the second put in a center by his parents. Both passed checks.

NIU does deserve a good deal of credit for learning from what came before; police arrived promptly, notifications went out to students with utmost efficiency, classes were cancelled. But there are few policy lessons beyond the obvious ones.

What about all those laws the left expects to keep guns out of criminals' hands? Longer waiting periods? Even if you prevented his February 9 trip to the gun store, Steven Kazmierczak had bought two of his guns months before. The assault weapons ban that the evil Republicans let expire? It wouldn't have affected any of the four weapons. Closing the gun show "loophole"? He didn't buy his guns at one, and even if he had, he'd have passed any background check, just as he did at a normal gun shop.

Even the Brady Campaign's statement and accompanying petition called for more gun control without naming any specific policies.

When Brady Campaign president Paul Helmke made the news-show rounds, he wasn't able to add much. He mainly stuck to the line that the background-check system leaves out too many of the "dangerously mentally ill." On ABC, he called out Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for not advocating more for gun control.

In a rare attempt to say something substantive -- on Fox News, debating an advocate of allowing students to carry guns on campus -- Helmke informed us, "there are stories every day where someone with a concealed carry permit is doing a shooting."

For something that will happen at least 732 times in 2008 (he said "stories," plural, and it's a leap year), it's left quite a scant paper trial. John Lott once compiled evidence from numerous states with concealed carry and found virtually no cases where licensees committed serious crimes.

Studies normally find permit holders to be several times less likely than non-permit holders to engage in various forms of criminal behavior. Permit holders typically have to prove they're law-abiding, and their licenses are revoked for offenses that fall far short of "doing a shooting."

IN FACT, ONCE the deranged student had the gun, it seems the only way to prevent the NIU shooting would have been to have an armed student or faculty member in the room at the time. The entire ordeal, 54 gunshots in all, passed in moments.

But while such liberalized gun-carrying laws make for a great pro-gun talking point, they have no political chance in a state where the biggest city and several of its suburbs have handgun bans. What's more, current Illinois law categorically disallows all concealed carry, not just on campus.

Even ignoring all that, the prospect of an armed victim alone might have deterred the shooter, if he had any rational faculties at all, but the odds of a given classroom having a gun are low even where it's legal.

In most states, perhaps 3 to 5 percent of people get permits, not all of them carry all the time (it's inconvenient, uncomfortable, and off-putting to friends who don't like guns), and college students are almost certainly less-than-proportionally represented. The class had about 160 registered students, but four of the five students killed were younger than 21, the minimum age in most states. The final fatal victim was 32.

This wasn't Virginia Tech, with the two-hour gap between two shooting sprees, the first in a dormitory, the second lasting 11 minutes in several classrooms on the second floor of Norris Hall. Nineteen of the 32 victims were 21 or older. In Norris Hall, the police had to work around the doors Seung-Hui Cho had chained shut, and they heard the shooting from the fourth floor when they managed to break in. There were reasonable odds that a concealed-carry licensee could have been present and able to save some lives.

The NIU shooting was a "rapid-fire assault" by a man willing, or rather wanting, to die to kill just five others, and there's little anyone could have done about it. Miniscule chances are better than the no chance the NIU students had, of course, but the facts of this case offer no panacea.

WITH AN ELECTION coming up in which a Democratic president is likely and a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate is conceivable, all this does force Second Amendment supporters to look ahead.

The Supreme Court will rule on Washington, DC's handgun ban before then, but there's no doubt the court will leave the door open to many forms of gun control. The gun-rights faithful may very well have to compromise.

At issue here is the fact that both Kazmierczak and Cho used high-capacity magazines (coincidentally, Kazmierczak ordered his magazine from the same Internet dealer from which Cho ordered one of his handguns), and if liberals force guns-rights supporters' hands, this might be a good place to give a little.

Of course, bans on such magazines -- one was in effect for a decade under the assault-weapons ban -- are rather stupid: It's no real effort for a shooter to switch magazines. As far as a Kazmierczak or a Cho is concerned, a 30-round magazine adds only a little convenience to three 10-round magazines. A little convenience is why most people buy them.

However, the very reason they're stupid is the reason they're not a great threat to people's ability to defend themselves. There are some situations where a homeowner might benefit from a high-cap magazine against an invader (he might not think to stuff extra magazines in his boxers when he grabs his gun from his nightstand, and a recent study showed that even police miss suspects within six feet more than half the time), but home invasions with 10 or more shots fired are rare.

At the very least, Second Amendment types could agree to require high-cap magazines be shipped to licensed dealers and subject to instant background checks -- the rule currently applied to firearms but not accessories. This wouldn't have stopped either shooter, but again, it's a minimal infringement on the law-abiding and it makes lefties feel good.

It is truly sad that, while Virginia Tech prompted an increase in mental-health reporting, its reach did not extend deep enough to ensure a truly comprehensive system. The biggest gun-control lesson of NIU is a redundant one, and one we ought to learn this time, quickly and without distraction.

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About the Author
Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor at National Review. You can follow his writing here.