I can truly understand the cries of those calling for greater gun control after the horrific elementary school shooting last week. Faced with so much pain, there is a natural desire to do something to ensure that such an incident can never happen again.
The impulse is a good one; unfortunately, on a large scale, emotional reactions aren’t well suited to being effective. The clarion call, “Do something” frequently leads to implementation of policies whose consequence are quite different from what was intended. Other times it leads to a vast waste of resources that are now no longer available for other important purposes. (For an example of this phenomenon, see New York Times columnist, Nicholas D. Kristof’s article revealing how some expensive programs meant to help poor children are instead harming them.)
How can we know if politicians who call for more gun control are reacting emotionally or, worse, exploiting a tragedy? How can we know if instead they are acting both wisely and in good conscience? My own litmus test is whether gun control is the sole item on the agenda. If the administration and Congress want to exploit this tragedy, gun control will be the only issue targeted via legislation even if others are addressed with verbal platitudes. Politicians who truly seek to make America safer will need to put aside political considerations and personal proclivities. Clearly, it is too simplistic to believe that if only there was sweeping gun control legislation mass murder in America would end. Is the goal to lessen violence (stopping all violence is impossible and anyone who promises that it is possible is lying) or to get rid of guns? These two goals are not automatically linked. Are we ready to have a mature conversation where all of us admit that the results might not fit our cherished pre-conceived notions?
There are dozens of potential areas to troubleshoot. We need to start with the question of whether there is an actual increase in horrific incidents such as school shootings or if we only think there is because of today’s instantaneous and constant media. Among other things we must question what, if any, role various factors play, including media coverage, violent movies, books and games, the breakdown of the traditional family, changes in the way we deal with mental illness and the secularization of society where we may no longer teach that every human being is created in God’s image. And yes, we need to discuss the place of guns in society. I would put anything and everything remotely connected in the initial mix.
Should there be a call for newspapers and news providers not to publicize the pictures and names of mass murderers? Should there be a law against doing so? If that makes you cringe because newspapers are protected under the first amendment, then you should cringe at tampering with the second amendment as well.
Should going to a violent movie become the equivalent of drunk driving or of lighting up a cigarette on an asthma ward in the hospital? Should buying a violent video game for your children or allowing them to buy it themselves place you on the social B list? Should the directors of and actors in violent movies pay a draconian tax to provide services for victims of violence? I am not suggesting these things, but any truly open-minded discussion of making major changes in our culture has to consider them. It also has to consider, as my friend Diane Medved writes, whether we simply cannot control the actions of random, unhinged individuals, no matter how impotent that makes us feel.
How will I decide if a politician is exploiting the Connecticut children’s deaths or trying to lessen the chance of a repeat incident? Will he or she acknowledge the lives saved by guns? Will he or she talk about potential mass shootings that were averted by armed citizens? Will he or she speak of the women not raped, the elderly not beaten and the schoolrooms not shot up, only because of the presence of guns and citizens willing and able to use them? Will he or she admit how in many locations the police sadly admit that they only arrive after a victim is hurt or dead?
Is there an attempt to demonize the NRA and its members or recognition that millions of Americans, both for and against gun control, are loving mothers, fathers, and neighbors? Does this become a “we good people vs. you evil people” debate—the kind of debate to which this administration is prone? Do we only hear from biased individuals whose ideas are cast in concrete or is there an honest and open discussion based on independent research? The answers to these questions will tell me if I am seeing a government power grab or a real inquiry into whether the ways society has changed necessitates changing our laws as well.
There is so much that needs honest evaluation. I believe that most citizens who are signing petitions and urging gun control laws are well motivated. I also believe that most citizens who oppose gun control measures are well motivated. Unfortunately, I can’t give the same benefit of the doubt to most politicians. This is a time for the populace to be very much on guard.