Editor’s Note: Katherine Ikeda is an attorney and earned her JD at Georgetown University Law Center. She was a Coro Public Affairs Fellow, and has been published in peer-reviewed legal journals throughout her career. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
In reaction to recent mass shootings at YouTube, in Parkland, Florida; Sutherland Springs, Texas; Las Vegas and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Americans are searching for solutions to effectively prevent, or at the very least lessen, the carnage.
Arming teachers to stop shooters. Prohibiting young adults from buying guns. Increasing mental health funding to identify psychologically imbalanced people. And now, in the wake of the April 3 YouTube shooting, providing police with more power to detain and arrest those who we suspect may engage in gun violence.
Three days before the YouTube shooting, the father of the shooter contacted police and reported that his daughter was missing. At 1:40 a.m. the day of the shooting, police found Nasim Najafi Aghdam sleeping in her car near the YouTube campus and questioned her for 20 minutes. The police likely checked whether she had a criminal record. During their interaction with her, they assessed Aghdam to be calm and cooperative.
In response to police questions, she stated she was not a threat to herself or anyone else. At the end of the encounter, they contacted her father and notified him that they had found Aghdam. (At some point, her father reported to police that his daughter “hated” YouTube and might go to its offices.)
Then, with the knowledge that Aghdam was upset with YouTube and could access the YouTube campus, the police released her. The shooter’s online postings indicated she was disgruntled with YouTube for allegedly censoring, and not paying for, her videos. Police said the family had never conveyed to them that Aghdam was violent, intended to commit an act of violence or had any weapons.
Some have suggested that the police should have done more to prevent the shooting. Some say that if they cannot do more under our current laws, then they should be empowered to.
But will this really solve our country’s current epidemic of gun violence? Or is it a knee-jerk reaction that will not effectively address the problem and only gives us false hope?
Empowering law enforcement to arrest people based on suspicion and accusations does not solve the problem of gun violence, nor is it likely to prevent future shootings. Police cannot arrest a person on beliefs and allegations. Although it may be easy for us to justify more police action based on what we know after the fact, during an investigation police do not know whether someone like Aghdam is violent or is venting a bad experience or is just the victim of a false accusation. All are equally reasonable conclusions.
The question, then, is do we want to alter this standard to allow police to arrest and jail first and investigate later? Undoubtedly, the answer is no. Countless innocent and non-violent people would be imprisoned while waiting for suspicions and allegations to be disproven. This would turn on its head our constitutional right of innocence until proven guilty.
So what is an effective solution to mass gun killings? Is it stripping young adults of their right to bear arms? Arming teachers in classrooms?
Increasing the minimum age to buy guns to 21 solves little. The shooters at YouTube, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas and the Pulse nightclub were over 21. Arming teachers to respond to school shootings also makes little sense. You would need a teacher to be in the vicinity of the shooter, to be armed, and to intervene before the shooter has harmed or killed people.
As we have seen, even people trained to deal with violence on a daily basis end up not confronting and stopping shooters. Also, there is an unintended consequence of arming teachers: more gun violence — as when teachers mishandle their guns and accidentally injure innocent kids in the classroom.
We know that no solution will prevent a begrudged person, like Aghdam, with no reported criminal background or history of violence, from using a handgun to shoot people — whether detained by police or not. But knowing that some gun violence cannot be stopped, we still can adopt at least one sensible solution that greatly decreases mass shootings: Taking away the weapons that are used to perpetrate mass gun violence.
Many gun rights advocates will argue that any form of gun regulation, including prohibiting assault weapons used to injure and kill people in large numbers, is an infringement of their Second Amendment right to bear arms — as if that right is an absolute one. It is not.
Just because an individual right exists does not mean that it cannot be tailored to serve a legitimate or compelling societal interest. Which means that we, as a society, have every right to regulate a person’s right to bear arms if we, as a society, have a legitimate or compelling need to do so.
And the prevention of mass gun violence is surely a legitimate interest. It is compelling. It is as much a national security threat as the assertion that China’s economic trade policies with the US threatens our security or the claim that Hispanic immigrants crossing our southern border endangers our security (both of which the Trump administration claims as national threats).
Americans are dying and being injured en masse. Shootings perpetrated by Americans, on Americans, are occurring at an intolerable rate, with at least four high-profile incidents in just the past seven months.
We should not let ourselves be deceived or misled by political propaganda. No one is calling for the removal of guns that Americans truly need. Instead, it is a call for the restriction of one type of gun: the kind that kills and injures Americans in large numbers quickly. The ability to use a gun that can murder you and all of your friends and family in 10 seconds is not worth the harm it exacts on society.