(The Root) — If Wayne LaPierre's claim that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" were true, Master Trooper Junius A. Walker of the Virginia State Police would be alive and well today. Instead, the 40-year veteran officer known for his gentle demeanor — a "good guy with a gun," by all descriptions — is dead. He was honored on Tuesday at a funeral attended by nearly 3,000.
A second "good guy with a gun"— the trooper who arrived at the scene in time to trade gunfire with the "bad guy with a gun" who was in the process of shooting Walker to death — was unable to prevent the tragedy. The suspect ran away, unharmed, into the woods and was captured a half hour later.
That violent incident, which took place near Petersburg, Va., last week, is the latest proof that putting more firearms in the hands of the good guys, as LaPierre's National Rifle Association suggests, is no solution to our national plague of gun violence. As was the case with the nine civilians wounded by New York City cops firing at a suspected killer near the Empire State Building last year, good guys with guns don't always hit what they're aiming at. The idea that, say, a kindergarten teacher armed with a handgun could do any better than a highly trained law-enforcement officer in such as emergency is preposterous on its face.
Unfortunately, most of the ideas put forth by gun control advocates won't work any better than LaPierre's ridiculous suggestion. Universal background checks of prospective gun buyers, a ban on assault rifles and limits on the size of magazines are all good ideas, and they should be adopted. But even if all of them became law tomorrow, they would have at best a marginal impact on the real roots of the problem: the horrendous number of deadly weapons already in circulation and the mindset of many who pack them.
No one really knows how many guns are in the hands of our fellow citizens. Estimates vary from 250 million to 350 million — so that if not a single new firearm were sold in the U.S., there would still be roughly one for every man, woman and child in the country. Eliminating every shotgun and rifle from the mix would leave at least 114 million handguns in the arsenal — and these are the weapons associated with most of the carnage.
Of the 8,583 murders by firearms in 2011, 6,220 were committed with handguns, 356 with shotguns and a mere 323 with rifles, including assault rifles. (The type of firearm used in the remainder was unspecified.) That's fewer than the number committed with knives (1,694); hands, fists and feet (728); and blunt weapons such as clubs and hammers (496). Restricting assault rifles and other long guns without regulating pistols isn't even a half measure. It's the sort of idea that makes us feel as though we are addressing a serious problem without accomplishing much. Banning assault rifles and background checks won't take a single handgun off the streets.
The sad truth is that we're not really going to be able to reduce the number of handguns, because of the mindset of all those law-abiding citizens who have convinced themselves that packing a gun makes them safer. I had dinner with one of them just the other day, a diminutive lawyer who carries a piece in her purse. She claims that she has become so proficient in its use that she could defend herself from a mugger. I think it's more likely that in the heat of the moment, she would panic and shoot herself in the foot.
Ironically, the lawyer and I were part of a group on our way to hear a presentation by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (who was severely wounded in a 2011 shooting incident that left six others dead) and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly.
Kelly — a gun owner who recently bought an assault rifle and a Sig Sauer pistol — and Giffords have become proponents of universal background checks. Kelly says that he "certainly would have wanted" to be there with a gun when Giffords was shot outside a grocery store in Tucson during a meeting with constituents. But he concedes that even if he had been, he would not have been able to stop the massacre because it happened so quickly. The idea of putting more guns in the hands of good guys to stop crimes, he says, "just doesn't work."
This is another case where, for many, irrational faith trumps evidence and common sense. But even more than the false idea that packing a gun makes us safer, our devotion to the right to bear arms is bound up with deeply embedded notions about freedom, our definition of what it means to be an American. I would say that we are gun-crazy. How else to explain why, for example, it is legal in my town of Richmond, Va., to carry a pistol to a meeting of the City Council, but not a bag of popcorn or a soda?
Unlike Australia, where the government bought back and destroyed hundreds of thousands of guns in the wake of a 1996 mass shooting, neither President Barack Obama nor any leader in Congress is contemplating a plan for taking massive numbers of handguns out of circulation.
Pardon the pun, but until we're ready to take that step, we're just firing blanks.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor for The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.