LAST week's tragedy at Virginia Tech in which a mentally disturbed person gunned down 32 of America's finest - intelligent young people with futures ahead of them - once again puts the phenomenon of an armed society into focus for Americans.
The likely underestimate of how many guns are wandering around America runs at 240 million in a population of about 300 million. What was clear last week is that at least two of those guns were in the wrong hands.
When people talk about doing something about guns in America, it often comes down to this: "How could America disarm even if it wanted to? There are so many guns out there."
Because I have little or no power to influence the "if" part of the issue, I will stick with the "how." And before anyone starts to hyperventilate and think I'm a crazed liberal zealot wanting to take his gun from his cold, dead hands, let me share my experience of guns.
As a child I played cowboys and Indians with cap guns. I had a Daisy Red Ryder B-B gun. My father had in his bedside table drawer an old pistol which I examined surreptitiously from time to time. When assigned to the American embassy in Beirut during the war in Lebanon, I sometimes carried a .357 Magnum, which I could fire accurately. I also learned to handle and fire a variety of weapons while I was there, including Uzis and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
I don't have any problem with hunting, although blowing away animals with high-powered weapons seems a pointless, no-contest affair to me. I suppose I would enjoy the fellowship of the experience with other friends who are hunters.
Now, how would one disarm the American population? First of all, federal or state laws would need to make it a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine and one year in prison per weapon to possess a firearm. The population would then be given three months to turn in their guns, without penalty.
Hunters would be able to deposit their hunting weapons in a centrally located arsenal, heavily guarded, from which they would be able to withdraw them each hunting season upon presentation of a valid hunting license. The weapons would be required to be redeposited at the end of the season on pain of arrest. When hunters submit a request for their weapons, federal, state, and local checks would be made to establish that they had not been convicted of a violent crime since the last time they withdrew their weapons. In the process, arsenal staff would take at least a quick look at each hunter to try to affirm that he was not obviously unhinged.
It would have to be the case that the term "hunting weapon" did not include anti-tank ordnance, assault weapons, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, or other weapons of war.
All antique or interesting non-hunting weapons would be required to be delivered to a local or regional museum, also to be under strict 24-hour-a-day guard. There they would be on display, if the owner desired, as part of an interesting exhibit of antique American weapons, as family heirlooms from proud wars past or as part of collections.
Gun dealers could continue their work, selling hunting and antique firearms. They would be required to maintain very tight inventories. Any gun sold would be delivered immediately by the dealer to the nearest arsenal or the museum, not to the buyer.
The disarmament process would begin after the initial three-month amnesty. Special squads of police would be formed and trained to carry out the work. Then, on a random basis to permit no advance warning, city blocks and stretches of suburban and rural areas would be cordoned off and searches carried out in every business, dwelling, and empty building. All firearms would be seized. The owners of weapons found in the searches would be prosecuted: $1,000 and one year in prison for each firearm.
Clearly, since such sweeps could not take place all across the country at the same time. But fairly quickly there would begin to be gun-swept, gun-free areas where there should be no firearms. If there were, those carrying them would be subject to quick confiscation and prosecution. On the streets it would be a question of stop-and-search of anyone, even grandma with her walker, with the same penalties for "carrying."
The "gun lobby" would no doubt try to head off in the courts the new laws and the actions to implement them. They might succeed in doing so, although the new approach would undoubtedly prompt new, vigorous debate on the subject. In any case, some jurisdictions would undoubtedly take the opportunity of the chronic slowness of the courts to begin implementing the new approach.
America's long land and sea borders present another kind of problem. It is easy to imagine mega-gun dealerships installing themselves in Mexico, and perhaps in more remote parts of the Canadian border area, to funnel guns into the United States. That would constitute a problem for American immigration authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard, but not an insurmountable one over time.
There could conceivably also be a rash of score-settling during hunting season as people drew out their weapons, ostensibly to shoot squirrels and deer, and began eliminating various of their perceived two-footed enemies. Given the general nature of hunting weapons and the fact that such killings are frequently time-sensitive, that seems a lesser sort of issue.
That is my idea of how it could be done. The desire to do so on the part of the American people is another question altogether, but one clearly raised again by the Blacksburg tragedy.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.