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As Gun Safety Debate Heats Up, Danger in Trying to Solve Wrong Problem

NRA Protesters Newtown

Gun violence protesters march on NRA lobbying offices in Washington DC

The President has asked his cabinet for proposals on how to curb gun violence, suggesting that there’s no actual set of off-the-shelf ideas available to the Administration. They didn’t want to deal with this in a second term. They weren’t about to stick out their neck on the gun debate unprompted. But the tragedy in Newtown has, at least thus far, catalyzed the debate, among the country, which now supports various stricter gun laws, and certainly within the Democratic Party, where pro-gun NRA-backed types like Joe Manchin (WV), Mark Warner (VA) and Harry Reid (NV) all expressed support for Congressional action. Not but eight years ago, the Democrats’ Presidential candidate had to go on a photo-op of a hunting trip during the election. Now there seems to be a constituency for action.

“We need to accept the reality that we’re not doing enough to protect our citizens,” Reid, the Senate majority leader, said after a moment of silence on the chamber’s floor. “In the coming days and weeks, we’ll engage in a meaningful conversation and proper debate about how to change laws and culture that allow this violence to continue to grow. .?.?. And every idea should be on the table.”

But it’s a one-sided constituency, of course. No major Republican has come out and said that gun laws need to be looked at. Even in Newtown, Connecticut, gun owners expressed opposition to restrictions. So I don’t necessarily see consensus so much as the usual polarization, with swing-opinion types moving into the pro-gun safety camp.

Before this fight gets waged, however, there has to be some understanding of what problem needs to be solved. I completely agree with Mark Kleiman that asking “how do we stop the type of shootings we saw in Newtown” risks solving the wrong problem. The gun safety debate should not just focus on protecting children, and it may not be accurate to tailor policies toward preventing mass shootings. There are certainly things we can do to curtail the 9,000-odd homicides with guns used each year, but they may not be applicable to the case of the young, mostly white, often mentally disturbed individuals who commit mass murder, often out of a need for attention, which is then lavished upon them by the news media.

We also should point out that, were it not for medical advances that prevent more gun deaths than gunshots, we would have an even bigger problem on our hands. The rate of deaths by gun violence isn’t really an indicator of the nature of the problem.

Paul Barrett lists some possible things we can do. Almost none of them are applicable to the particular Newtown case. We can ensure everyone who purchases a gun receives a criminal background check (Adam Lanza didn’t purchase the guns and his mother, who did, purchased them legally; reportedly Lanza tried to purchase a rifle and wouldn’t submit to the background check, so he got his guns through other means). We can ban assault weapons and extended magazine clips (Lanza’s guns would be grandfathered in, and with the market for such weapons likely to be flooded before a ban takes effect, such items would be readily available). Guns should be locked up and those who have them should have the responsibility to do so (I don’t know exactly how you legislate that other than penalties after the fact. Nancy Lanza is in no position to receive such penalties). We need a far better regime to treat the mentally ill (we know Lanza probably had Asperger’s, but it’s unclear that he lacked mental illness treatment, and you wouldn’t want to take the logical step of assuming that everyone with a certain illness is a danger).

These are difficult debates to have, because the shadow of the last tragedy always looms so large. We have a gun violence problem, not a Sandy Hook Elementary School problem, and we need to figure out how to combat the former.

Photo by jaymallinphotos under Creative Commons license

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David Dayen

David Dayen