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Commentary: Which came first: violence or law?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 4, 2011 - The story goes that a young man was dumped by his girlfriend. He was devastated by the rejection and adjourned to the corner bar to drown his sorrows.

Sitting off to himself, he ordered a Budweiser. He drained the bottle in two draughts and ordered another. The jilted lover proceeded to pound down 12 Buds in morose silence before standing up and shouting to no one in particular, "I can't believe she left me," then ran head-first into the wall, knocking himself unconscious. Concerned patrons subsequently carried him home. He repeated this ritual every night for a week, after which he disappeared.

Two weeks later, the failed Romeo returned to the tavern. Appearing relaxed and composed, he calmly ordered a Miller-Lite. The puzzled bartender remarked that he usually drank Budweiser and the young man replied, "I did but I had to give it up -- that Bud gives me a terrible headache."

This apocryphal tale demonstrates the fallacy of invalid reasoning -- confusing cause with effect or mistaking correlation with causation. Just because two phenomena occur in tandem, it does not necessarily follow that one causes the other.

Gun advocates frequently err in this regard when they argue that places with few gun laws -- like Vermont -- tend to have a lower incidence of gun violence than places with strict gun laws -- like Chicago. Ergo, they conclude that gun laws promote violence by disarming the law-abiding, thus robbing them of their ability to defend themselves.

Though guns are admittedly well suited for self defense, this line of reasoning conveniently overlooks the fact that laws are passed in response to a perceived need for them. Localities where gun violence is a persistent problem are far more likely to enact gun legislation than are those where such violence is virtually unheard of.

That observation explains why there are so many boating regulations at the Lake of the Ozarks and so few in the Mojave Desert. Even though more boating accidents happen on the lake than in the desert, it does not follow that the laws cause the mishaps to occur.

To see the reverse of this problem -- where needed laws simply do not exist -- one need look no farther than Norway. There, a nation that prides itself on its civility failed its citizenry miserably by being utterly unprepared to provide for public safety in time of crisis.

As the reader is no doubt aware, a home-grown Norwegian psycho killed eight people by detonating a bomb in front of a government building last month, then proceeded to a summer youth camp on a nearby island to shoot and kill 69 more.

One of the killer's first victims on the island was a police officer. It is unknown whether he tried to intervene but it really doesn't matter because -- get this -- cops in Norway don't have guns. Under normal circumstances, only selected patrol officers have access to firearms and these hapless centurions must keep their weapons unloaded and locked in a car safe unless specifically authorized by their chief to deploy them.

As the tragedy unfolded, law enforcement's response became increasingly ridiculous. The helicopter crew that could have flown the SWAT team to the island was on holiday. News copters thus filmed the carnage while the cops looked for a boat. The first one they found began taking water and nearly sank. It had to be abandoned. While this comedy of errors unfolded, unarmed kids were being shot down on the island.

Once the murderer was finally stopped, he was taken into custody unharmed. Presently charged with "terrorist activities," he faces a maximum total sentence of 21 years in prison -- a somewhat feckless societal response to blowing up an occupied office building and the methodical slaughter of a youth camp.

Should a Norwegian court deem the confessed killer to be eligible for the more serious charge of "crimes against humanity," he could get up to 30 years. In either instance, he would be eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of his sentence. As the suspect is 32, he should be out in plenty of time for a repeat performance unless he's judged to pose a continuing threat to society at the end of his sentence, in which case he could be held for an additional five years.

These developments have spurred hand-wringing introspection in certain quarters. Norwegian Police Union spokeswoman Gry Jorunn Holmon advises, "Criminals are now carrying weapons, so some people now think that police officers should have weapons as well." Not wishing to rush to judgment, the Norwegians have convened a commission to study the issue.

Should the commission decide on the cops' behalf, its decision will not be universally popular. Johannes Knutsson, a professor of police research at the Norwegian Police University, prefers that they remain unarmed. "It (unarmed police) is a very forceful and symbolic sign to the citizens that this is a peaceful society," he says.

Before you jump to the rather obvious conclusion that Professor Knutsson is a blithering idiot, consider that he, too, has confounded cause and effect. Unarmed police do not make society peaceful; peaceful societies allow the police to work unarmed.

What the bloodbath in sleepy Norway really demonstrates is the hazard of assuming that because something has yet to happen, it can never happen. As Vegetius cautioned his fellow Romans, "If you want peace, prepare for war."

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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