Making sense of tragic events

The first few shots fired by a young man to kill his mother–who owned the gun–would not have broken through the orchestrated silence on gun control.  The movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado didn’t, nor did a pointed question at the presidential debates.  The horrific school shooting in Newtown, and the deaths of twenty first graders might.

It depends on how well prepared advocates for gun control are, and how much work they’ve done over the past four years to build support for reform.

Here, I fear I’ll end up reiterating the basic points I made after a lone gunman attacked Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, killing six people, severely wounding others.  That was not quite two years ago, and other mass shootings have taken place since.

But here’s the story:

Attention is limited.  Always.

Although widespread gun ownership in America is constant, as is the eruptions of murders and mass killings with guns, mainstream politicians have mostly stayed away from engaging a political fight that usually looks unwinnable.  When sudden events put the consequences of our policies in high relief, that political fight can look more urgent or more promising.

We want to believe that we can control our lives–or at least protect our children.  We want to believe that tragedies are avoidable.  Crisis lets us haul out our favorite understanding of the world to offer remedies.  Activists and advocates try to fill the discussion with their own answers.

Mass shootings are rare events in the United States–and much rarer elsewhere, resulting from idiosyncratic mixes of weapons, young white men, and mental illness.  Advocates can run all sorts of explanations and remedies through the moment.

The easy availability of highly lethal weapons is an obvious culprit.  Gun control advocates have been waging an uphill struggle over the past decade plus, and Newtown allows them to revisit the arguments they’ve been making forever, perhaps with a newly responsive audience.  Representative Carolyn McCarthy (Democrat, New York) entered politics after her husband and son were shot in a mass killing on the Long Island Railroad nearly 20 years ago.  She’s been making the case for stricter controls since, and has promised to embarrass President Obama if he doesn’t exercise leadership on the issue.

This last shooting seems to have broken the ranks of those opposed to any efforts at regulating weapon ownership.  Mark DeMoss, formerly an adviser to Governor Mitt Romney, has urged Republicans to defect from the absolutists in their party, and work for sensible regulations.  Senator Joe Manchin (Democrat, West Virginia), who has enjoyed stellar rankings from the National Rifle Association (NRA), has called for the organization to negotiate reasonable restrictions that might prevent future tragedies.  Senator Manchin had run campaign ads featuring himself shooting.  There will be others.

The NRA itself has tried to stay out of the moment, implementing a silence on its website and social media platforms.

But the NRA isn’t the only organized group at work here.

Gun Owners of America, a group that originated out of frustration with the NRA’s willingness to compromise on fundamental issues, quickly issued a statement declaring that gun control advocates had “blood on their hands” for preventing access to arms that would have stopped the Newtown killer.  They continued, “we must also insist that these criminal friendly elected officials not even try to blame gun owners and our ‘gun culture’ for what a criminal did.  Had a few of us been available with guns at the Newton school, most of the victims might still be alive.”

Congressman Louie Gohmert (Republican, Texas) was troubled by the absence of weaponry, particularly in the principal’s office.  In a televised interview, he lamented,  “I wish to God she had had an M4 in her office locked up so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands, when she takes him out, takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids.”

(Confession: I adore the principal of my daughter’s grammar school.  She has a hard job and too much to do.  I don’t want to add weapons training to her burdens.)

Or maybe it’s just the moral decline of the United States?  Townhall.com columnist Rachel Alexander claims that rampage killings have become more frequent and more severe as church attendance has declined.  (Is it easier to get a troubled young man to open his heart to prayer or to prevent him from getting a lethal weapon? )

Opponents of gun control advance alternative explanations for this horrific event to stall unwanted reforms.  They’ll note that no policy can protect us–or our children–completely, pointing to the massacre of 69 people by a mad gunman in Norway–only last year.

But can we do better?  Shouldn’t we try?

Here, social science should help.  You can see how the rate of gun ownership in the United States compares to that of the rest of the world, particularly other rich countries.  (We own the most guns, and the most lethal weapons.)  You can see how the rate of mass shootings in the United States, and the rate of homicide, compares to that of the rest of the world.

Freedom costs.  We tolerate lunatic ranting, obscenity, and hate in our discourse to protect free speech.  Should we tolerate our children’s vulnerability to protect easy access to semi-automatic weapons?

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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