Bearing Arms and Bearing Harms
It’s been a bit of a lame-duck session around here, hasn’t it? Reacting has its limits, and I find myself increasingly disinterested in attempting to explain things to people who will never change their minds. Of course, I don’t think anyone reading this blog is unwilling to be persuaded, but I don’t think I’m alone in having had some argument fatigue after the national survey of just how crazy/apathetic/stubborn/shielded/devout some people are. But then you see things like elementary school shootings, you really see how crazy some people are, and all you want to do is fight with people who disagree with you.
I’m not going to recapitulate any of the heartbreaking stories because they are, and that’s not my job. Nor am I going to reprint the name of the killer. The mainstream media seems to have those bases pretty well covered without my two cents.
However, I will say that I am supportive of the “have-the-public-policy-debate now”/”If-not-now-when” approach, largely because national public conversations and debates rarely happen on any particular issue. Usually, national issues are debated by the smallest and narrowest interests with the most incentives to lobby vociferously, and it’s often a question of which interest has the most at stake, and are therefore willing to pony up the bucks to “convince” the congress (and sometimes, even their constituents, if that approach behooves them). Of course, that is just democracy at work. One cannot simply complain that the NRA spends too much money on lobbyists or political donations; it’s the threat of mobilizing their frothing-at-the-mouth member base that gives the NRA power in Washington. But all that makes the prospect of having a national conversation–one that involves a broader spectrum of people who are potentially affected by an issue, and not just those with the strongest biases–more likely to produce a socially desirable (or at least desired) result.
The downside of a public debate, of course, is the fact that unsophisticated voters generally commit a range of pervasive errors that are only multiplied when sabers are rattled. After all, the debate can only center on whether or not to change the law, not whether or not to change reality, although both sides will believe that they are doing the latter. And as a result, both sides will feel cheated when the world doesn’t return the results they believe should follow a victory.
In the words of the great Megan McArdle, this is where the conflicted zeitgeist is at:
Since we can’t understand it, we can’t change it. And since we can’t change it, our best hope is to box it in. Gun control opponents are angry that liberals immediately started talking about gun control, but this seems like a natural instinct to me. It’s not the best way to get good policy, mind you; hard cases make bad laws, and rules passed in the wake of tragedies tend to be over-specific, and under-careful about unintended consequences. But it’s not somehow indelicate to want to talk about this now; if thirty children had been killed in a landslide, I hope that we’d be talking about whether there might be some way to keep that from happening in the future.
So, if you are engaged in a debate about public policy (though that may apply to precious few of you outside the beltway), keep a few duly skeptical principles in mind, but don’t let them stop you from doing something:
- The Newtown shooting was perpetrated with weapons that were purchased legally.
- A similar shooting could have been perpetrated by someone who obtained some lower-grade weapons legally, although the scale might be slightly smaller depending on the determination of the perpetrator.
- The Newtown shooter had been flagged as someone who might have some mental problems, and he had access to mental health care resources.
- Machine guns have been illegal in the United States since 1934, and since the 1980s, it has been illegal to manufacture and sell any automatic weapon.
- It is illegal for the mentally ill to buy or have guns, and that’s what background checks are aimed at preventing.
- Guns do not create homicidal intent.
- Guns do make people with homicidal intent more lethal.
- Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people (including 19 children) with fertilizer, racing fuel, and trucks, and no guns.
- No policy will be implemented perfectly.
- Not even the most stringent governmental controls or bans will eliminate cheaters.
- Black markets increase both the costs and the rewards for those willing to cheat.
- The premise that more guns equal more safety does not apply to those who are irrational actors.
- Everyone plays video games, not just killers. The same correlation argument about culture consumption could be used to implicate the Beatles.
- Not even universal health care will eliminate mental illness.
- Children can always be raised poorly.
- Systems will always allow failure at the margins.
- Complicated phenomena have more than one input.
- American culture cannot be changed by fiat.
- American culture is not the same culture as any of the other exemplar countries that might be brought into the discussion.
- Neither America nor any other country should be referred to in unitary terms, as though one caricature of its population could be used to refer to the entirety of the country.
- No legislation will operate in a vacuum.
- Unintended consequences are just that.
The big pitfall is that inserting these valid points into a serious conversation about “what to do” is likely to make one appear callous, as though they are merely ironic deflections of earnest positions rather than a serious and engaged response to whatever proposal is advanced. For the record, I personally prefer some kind of gun control, but just think our expectations should be duly tempered. One core assumption of the structure of our deliberative democracy is that the process is supposed to temper extremism and unpalatable utopianism into something more consensus-driven, functional and pragmatic.
After all, are we really going to delude ourselves into believing that we can convince enough people to come to a consensus about a new gun control law? (I mean, if the NRA goes and does something totally emo like deleting their Facebook page and giving Twitter the silent treatment, do we really think they’ll come to the table like civic-minded Americans?) Whether our democracy is even capable of a deliberative and delicate policy discussion in this age remains to be seen. But maybe the fear of victimized children is the key rationale to ramming through policy, as it has been when it comes to regulation of speech and the Internet generally.
So these questions remain: will the passionate, factious temper that works up enough of a lather to generate any new legislation allow for dispassionate assessment of the actual possibilities? Or are we going to end up just shooting from the hip?