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Gun control is a fantasy. Start a realistic conversation about preventing school massacres

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Hundreds of Americans have taken to the streets to campaign for stricter gun laws over the past week after a deadly school shooting in Florida took 17 lives. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

The shooter who perpetrated the recent massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., succeeded in killing 17 people. He also got Americans talking about gun control again.

Once again, too, there were those whose contribution to debate was to sneer at people who offered prayers for the victims and their families, instead of advocating or promising gun control. Even if you set aside the sneers, there is a problem with their attitude, no matter how good their intentions are otherwise. Prayer might actually help. Gun control, on the other hand, doesn't work and can't work in the U.S. and is a fantasy now just as it ever was.

By "fantasy," we mean to express several important facts that are ignored in this debate. It is fantasy as policy because stricter gun control, within the limits of what is considered reasonable today (i.e., anything short of a total ban on sales or even gun confiscation), does not guarantee or even statistically correlate with lower gun homicide rates in any given state. This fact merits your time for some research, but to give just one prominent example from the FBI data, Texas and California have comparable gun homicide rates each year (they were actually tied in 2015). If gun control were effective, that is not what you'd expect in the nation's two most populous states with two of the most different gun policies. And that is by no means the only observation of its kind that you'll take away from the FBI's annual numbers.

Gun control is a political fantasy because the Second Amendment and various states' constitutions protect the right to bear arms. This will not be changed, full stop. You don't need to support or even like the Bill of Rights to see that gun control is an administrative fantasy as well. In a country where private citizens own more than 300 million firearms, no effective form of gun control can be practical, and no practical form can be effective. Even an obviously unconstitutional ban on all new sales would take a century to make its effects felt. Universal confiscation of hundreds of millions of firearms would be several orders of magnitude more difficult than deporting every illegal immigrant in the U.S.

Gun control advocates seem frustrated that this country is not and cannot ever be Luxembourg. But the sooner they accept that reality, the closer everyone will be to starting a productive conversation about how to prevent the next Parkland.

This conversation ought to begin with the question of why the nation's existing background check system and law enforcement agencies are so woefully ineffective in preventing known threats, like that from the Parkland shooter, whose irregular and threatening behavior was no secret, from becoming school shooters.

Why is the government so bad at keeping guns out of the hands not only of people who arguably shouldn't have them, but even of people who by law are already not allowed to have them? The Charleston church shooter was a felon who should not have been permitted to buy his gun, but for an FBI error during the background check process. The Parkland shooter, like the Pulse Nightclub terrorist and the Boston Marathon bombers before him, had been flagged for FBI attention long before his crimes. In each case, the bureau shrugged.

Is the government incapable of safeguarding citizens' rights and safety? Could it do so with more resources, or with more authority? Congress should at least consider granting money to the states to pay for the personnel and computer resources required to make the background check database work as intended. Meanwhile, it should also consider creating a universally accessible, voluntary background check system, as we have recommended in the past, to replace or supplement the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

The next step will likely fall to state governments, which may want to consider new ideas such as temporary gun violence restraining orders. They probably ought also to be reconsidering procedures for officially identifying and legally recognizing mental illness in people who are suspected threats to themselves and others.

There is also an entire universe of discussion that hasn't been had in decades, about whether we as a society are inappropriately neglecting to prescribe and perhaps heavily subsidize assisted living arrangements and even partial physical confinement for certain disturbed individuals. In today's technological context, many of these might benefit and even become productive members of society, without posing a threat.

These ideas should be at the center of this debate. Once we're talking about them instead of trying to drink from the dry well of gun control, we'll actually be making some progress.