Sunday, November 23, 2014

Shooting at Florida State University

On Thursday morning, I woke up groggy in a hotel room in Atlanta, after my phone buzzed for the third time. It was 6am, and I was at the AIChE annual meeting.

In a few minutes, I found out about the shooting at Strozier Library on campus.

Shortly after midnight, a gunman, later identified as Myron May, had opened fire and injured three unsuspecting students, whose only fault was that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The library had been unusually packed, due to exams and project deadlines that mark a semester rolling to its end.

Obviously, this one struck really close. I stroll past Strozier library and Landis Green almost daily, because it is one of the most beautiful parts of the campus.

Even as the University is struggling to make peace with this senseless random act, a cloud of confusion envelops me.

Personally, I am firmly anti-gun. There are a few things, I am absolutely clear about: (i) assault style rifles have no place in a civilized society, (ii) some background checks/licensing are absolutely needed to prevent criminals and psychotics from picking up a gun from the nearest Walmart.

An outright national ban on guns would probably please me, but it is politically difficult. I also haven't sorted out this issue in my mind completely, and a number of discussions I've had with friends and colleagues have left me with a lot of nuance.

For example, I recently heard the argument that gun laws should be local: the rules in downtown New York City need not be the same as the rules in a rural Minnesota village, where hunting is woven into the fabric of the society. At face value, this certainly seems to be a reasonable proposition. Furthermore, banning firearms from a jurisdiction is probably not going to deter a criminal, who is bent on breaking the law in any case. Background checks can help, but someone could buy a weapon when they are sane, and retain the weapon, unless gun licenses are renewed annually.

But perhaps, the issue gnawing at me most uncomfortably is whether all this talk about banning guns lets us avoid looking at the issue of serious mental illness. In all of the recent school and campus shootings, guns and mental illness have co-conspired to create a deadly cocktail. Guns seem like an issue that can be divided into a neat binary position - you have them or you don't.

Mental illness, on the other hand, is a much more complicated. It is already stigmatized, and a part of me worries that when the spotlight is turned towards the issue, people will say "put all these loonies away", or "snatch away their guns", rather than having a honest discussion of how to restructure community and safety nets so that mentally ill people can get the help they deserve.

In summary, there are a few things I feel certain about. I would rather see "passionate incrementalism" (a phrase I learned recently and have grown to love) to move the issue forward in little steps, rather than attempting impossibly large leaps that circle us back to the beginning.

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