Two men died in my city of Reading, PA on Monday, November 4th. They were shot to death by a citizen after they robbed a convenience store. To quote a local gun merchant, “He who lives by the sword shall perish by it,” a paraphrasing of Matthew 26:52 from the Bible.
I’ve been thinking about this tragic incident often in the past two days, and to my mind it is a perfect summary of the gun control debate that has raged in America for decades.
There are those here in the US who think anybody should be able to buy a gun with little restriction, arguing that by owning guns, one is safer.
The flip-side of the debate runs that if guns were heavily restricted, there would be fewer of them, and thus fewer deaths.
There is data to support both sides of the debate to some extent, and it’s very difficult to know which side has any advantage in the court of public opinion. The Gun Rights people, however, certainly have some political clout. They have the 2nd amendment of the US constitution to lean on for starters. They also have 230+ years of history and precedent to back them up. And they have the NRA, the National Rifle Association, which is one of the most politically robust lobby groups in this country.
The Gun Control groups, however, have some strength of their own, with growing demographic and study data showing that an increase in guns (legal or otherwise) in an area increases the amount of gun-related deaths. This is especially true in homes, with many studies showing more gun deaths of children in homes with guns.
And that brings me back to the two men who lay dead on the sidewalk on Monday.
Those who support Gun Rights will argue this is a perfect example of why gun ownership makes our streets safer. The man who killed the robbers – and there is no question they were criminals since several witnesses can verify they had just held up the store – was a concerned citizen and a friend of the store owner. He had approached the store, witnessed the robbery, and waited until the robbers exited the building. Indications are he challenged the two young men, who then drew guns on him. He, a licensed gun owner with a permit to carry a firearm, then pulled his own weapon and shot both men dead. The Berks County District Attorney, John Adams, has affirmed that he will not press charges against the shooter since he acted within the law. This, the gun lobby will argue, is exactly their point in preventing heavy restrictions on gun ownership, and it is a very strong argument.
The inverse argument by supporters of Gun Control would run something like this: Three guns were involved and two men killed. How many men would have been killed if there were zero guns at the scene? It is unknown at this time whether the guns the robbers pulled were legally owned or not, but all bets are that they were unregistered or otherwise illegal. If gun sales were strictly controlled, there would be fewer guns available for criminals to use, so logically less gun violence and less need for citizens to walk around armed. This also is a strong argument. Both sides have valid points.
So where does that leave us? Two men are dead, and that can’t be changed. They were both young, 18 and 24 respectively, and who knows what they might have accomplished in the years to come. But even their family members have admitted they were headed down a dark path. They were moving the direction of so many other young men trapped in decaying urban environments. Perhaps they were dealing or using drugs. Perhaps they just wanted fast cash. It may never be known, and it’s not truly important right now. They are both dead.
There is little doubt that other young men who might be considering robbing a store here in Reading will think twice about it, at least for a little while. If I were a local shopkeeper, I would breathe easy for a few weeks.
But the bottom line is this: Nothing will change because of this violent exchange. The underlying conditions that cause so many of our young people to resort to crime aren’t going away anytime soon. There is no political will to fix our broken system, and we are awash in guns, both legal and illegal. Unless we reduce the number of guns on the street and/or reduce the conditions that drive crime, this situation will stay the same and more young men will die.
When will America choose to put her house in order, however that may look? How many of our young people need to die before we will act as a country unified and fix our problems? How long before we shout with one voice, “Enough!”