When I heard about the mass shooting at the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church, I didn’t need a map or Google Earth to locate it.
The community is hardly big enough to call a town. It is about a half hour drive south of where I went to college and a half hour east of where I was married. I haven’t been there in years, but I can almost taste peanuts and watermelons they raise and sell along roads that become streets in town. I didn’t know any of those killed that day, but they are my people.
On television, I watched Texas Rangers string yellow tape around a treasured church. The crime scene included cars and pickups of people lying dead inside a house of worship. There were probably rifles and shotguns in many of those vehicles. Deer, turkey, duck and goose season opened there the day before the mass murder. Javelina and quail season had been open since September. Feral hogs can be shot on sight year round. There were undoubtedly hand guns in some vehicles, but I doubt there was a single firearm owned to kill people.
Sutherland Springs is not like Las Vegas or Sandy Hook. It is a small rural community of hard-working, God-fearing folk not unlike those of farming towns throughout our nation. In our three largest mass killings, the things in common were an assault weapon in the hands of an unstable human being.
Dangerous people and military weapons can be controlled without infringing on the Second Amendment or any constitutional right. The shooter at Sutherland Springs committed crimes while in the military that should have barred him from owning a gun. The Air Force messed up and did not put his name on lists that would have prohibited him from legally owning a gun.
We could treat firearms the way we do our automobiles. We license cars and require periodic inspection of vehicles. We test the driver on rules of the road and then license him. To operate a motor vehicle on highways, a driver has to have a sound body and mind, demonstrate his ability to drive and know the rules of the road. Every five years the driver’s competence is re-examined. Anyone may own a car or a truck, but he cannot operate it without periodically demonstrating the vehicle is safe and that he can operate it safely.
Steven Gunn wrote, in Sunday’s Salt Lake Tribune, that we must deprive mass murderers of their weapons of choice — automatic and semi-automatic weapons which are fed by high-capacity magazines. That is a worthwhile goal, but it could take years, maybe decades, and cost millions of dollars in buy-back programs.
In the meantime, we should keep dangerous people away from guns, require gun owners to have their weapons inspected periodically and demand that guns and ammunition are properly maintained and stored.
On April 28, 1996, a 28-year-old Australian man entered a cafe, removed a semi-automatic rifle from his bag, killed 35 people and wounded 23 others. Prime Minister John Howard immediately began working with states, which control gun laws down under, to get a national a system of gun licensing and ownership controls. Their system works well.
In 2013 I visited a station (ranch) in central Australia. The ranch utes (pickups) had racks with rifles like Texas in my youth. City friends owned pistols and long guns for recreational use. Automatic guns are banned. Every gun is registered and the owner is legally responsible for its use.
That year Australia had 0.93 gun deaths per 100,000 people; we had 10.54.
We can do better, and we must.
Thad Box is professor emeritus in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University, serving as dean of the college from 1970 to 1990.