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The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting has understandably already energized the debate over gun control. During his first term in office, President Obama was widely understood to be in favor of tighter federal gun ownership laws but made no real moves toward that end. As Craig R. Whitney, the author of Living with Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment, told me in a recent interview (the video will run next week), the two actions that Obama took actually expanded gun rights: The president allowed for individuals to carry loaded guns into national parks and to check guns as luggage on Amtrak trains. These actions - along with Obama's failure to push for a renewal of the ban on "assault weapons" - caused the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence to give Obama an F for his first year in office.
At the start of a second term and facing a terrible economic situation (much of it due to his own policies) and an equally awful foreign-policy situation, it's plausible that Obama will turn to gun control as a way reconnecting with his liberal base and as an attempt to soothe the nation. At a press conference about the shooting, the president said, "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
And his spokesman Jay Carney has also said that the president will fight to reinstate the ban on so-called assault weapons (an imprecise category of guns that typically targets semi-automatic weapons festooned with military-style detailing).
None of that will be easy, for a number of reasons. Over the past several decades, virtually every state in the country has liberalized its gun control laws. In 2008 (in the Heller decision) and 2010 (McDonald), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an individual right to bear arms. Despite a number of high-profile gun-violence cases - including this year's mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater and 2011's shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords - the past 20 years has seen a sharp and continuing decrease in violent crime.
In 1992, for instance, the violent crime rate per 100,000 residents was 758. In 2012, it was 386. Between 2000 and 2009 (the latest year for which I could easily find data) use of firearms in violent crime had decreased from a rate of 2.4 per 1,000 to 1.4 per 1,000.
So gun violence overall is down significantly from where it was about 20 or more. At the same time, comfort with guns, which are present in about 45 percent of households, has been increasing. Gallup reports that in January of this year, only 25 percent of Americans wanted to see gun laws be made more strict. Two-thirds either wanted laws to stay the same or be less strict, while 8 percent had no opinion. It's likely that those percentages will shift somewhat over the coming weeks or even months, but the long-term trend lines - that include the years of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and other gun-related massacres - will make it difficult for gun control proponents to gain large majorities.
Beyond all questions of politics is a more basic question of efficacy. What exactly might be done to prevent mass shootings, especially at locations such as schools? In the wake of the Giffords shooting by Jared Lee Loughner, there were many calls for institutionalizing more people who seemed mentally unhinged and potentially violent. The same thing is happening now, for obvious reasons (by various accounts, none of which has been fully substantiated yet, presumed gunman Adam Lanza was unhinged). As Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote regarding Loughner, even the most vociferous propopents of locking up potential killers grant that maybe 10 percent of schizophrenics become violent. Academic studies of presumptive detention of the mentally ill suggest that mental health professionals do about as well, and sometimes worse, than regular people in figuring out who exactly is going to go postal. Such results should temper any and all calls to start rounding up more people in the name of protecting innocents.
The general decline in gun-related violence and the inability even of mental health professionals to identify future mass killers should be the essential starting points of any serious policy discussion generated by the absolutely horrific slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We should also add a third starting point: Few good policies come from rapid responses to deeply felt injuries. Many of the same people who are now calling for immediate action with regard to gun control recognize that The Patriot Act, rushed through Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, was a terrible piece of legislation that ultimately did nothing to protect Americans even as it vastly expanded the state's ability to surveil law-abiding citizens. There's no reason to think that federal, state, or local gun control laws promulgated now would result in anything different.
If hard cases make bad laws, it's even more true that rare crimes make terrible public policy. In a piece for Quartz, journalist Lenore Skenazy recalls that the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history took place in Michigan in 1927, when a disgruntled school-board official blew up 38 people, including himself. She writes that the real difference between now and then is the immediacy of the media, which shrinks the distance between victims and the rest of us. Even as that allows us to have more empathy for the grieving, it creates the conditions for an overreaction that will ultimately be little more than symbolic:
I expect we will now demand precautions on top of precautions. More guards. More security cameras. More supervision. We will fear more for our kids and let go of them even more reluctantly. Every time we wonder if they can be safe beyond our arms, these shootings will swim into focus.
Will this new layer of fear and security make our children any safer? Probably not, but for a reassuring reason: A tragedy like this is so rare, our kids are already safe. Not perfectly safe. No one ever is. But safe.
That’s a truth the folks in 1928 America understood. We just don’t feel that way now.
Acknowledging the horror of what happened and mourning for innocent lives snuffed out and families destroyed by the incomprehensible act of a madman is precisely what the country should be doing right now. If it seems as if that is a passive non-reaction, that's because too many people understand what mourning entails. After that can come a policy battle that can be fought with passion but not with emotionalism and ignorance of relevant, basic facts standing in for rational analysis and honest debate.