In the wake of the most recent school shooting (link not given lest it changes by the time I finish writing this), the comment I've read most often is a condemnation of gun-free school zones. That's long been a common refrain, but for some reason I've seen it more in the past couple of days.
The criticism is that, by labeling something a gun-free zone, we're advertising to would-be shooters that the people there are sitting ducks. I can point to multiple reasons why this is a wrongheaded line of thought, not the least of which are that most shooters kill themselves anyway, and that gun-free zones probably don't factor into the diseased thought process that is a criminal's target selection.
But my pressing objection is this: what exactly is the alternative to a gun-free zone?
Well, to begin with, what is the purpose of a gun-free zone? My guess is that it's not to invite in lunatics, but to maximize safety in institutional settings such as schools. It means that unauthorized carrying of firearms carries a greater penalty because of the greater risk brought by their presence. It's a determination that multiple weapons among 100 adults and 600 children pose a greater everyday risk than any lone sociopath who might be countered by a good guy with a gun.
As distressingly common as these incidents are becoming, however, they're still statistically remote. And even if they were common, self-defense is far more complex, dangerous and skill-heavy than the pro-gun crowd likes to admit. Not to mention that the presence of guns skyrockets the odds of preventable accidents at best, escalated confrontations at worst.
But all we remember anymore is the shooter. So much so that we're collectively starting to think too much like the shooter. It's important to understand the thought processes of a would-be murderer, but it's also important to remember why we have things like gun-free zones (and, indeed, any law) in the first place. Criminals will break laws, but we still need laws to ensure safety and mitigate fear as much as human nature allows.
So, again, what is the alternative to a gun-free zone? Most campuses have armed officers now, so is it faculty and staff carrying? Even older students packing? I can't think of any school I've been to where I would have felt safer with guns around. I can think of many times when the opposite was true.
The movement against gun-free zones, however well-intentioned, is a case of rational people trying to out-crazy the irrational ones. They want potential shooters to think we're all equally ready to be crazy, making them too afraid to act on their impulses. (This attitude also infects foreign-policy debates.) But that does nothing to address or diminish those impulses. It also means that normal, innocent people are constantly cowering in fear. That's no way to live.
The problem isn't gun-free zones. It's that we're so free with guns. Address that first.