Movie Violence

Batman Shooter: Tragedy Shouldn't Make Policy

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We have--and good!--a culture where people have the ways and means to blather about whatever is going on, and plenty of free time to so, and to reach everyone on earth who might care. Why, many of us are even paid to do so. And such blathering--also good!--tries to pretend it's relevant.

Hence the collection (which will grow) that Matt Welch blogged below of wild speculation regarding the horrible murders in Aurora Colorado last night. And as CNN's Piers Morgan is leading the way (with Salman Rushdie following), there will be attempts to use the nightmarish event to plump for stricter laws, of some sort (often unspecified), to restrict people's ability to possess or carry weapons, since it was someone carrying a weapon that committed the crime. 

But turning the (still) very rare criminal and evil uses of guns to indiscriminately harm innocents into a reason for policy change doesn't work that well in America any more, and it shouldn't, and it likely won't now. 

As I wrote after the last big newsmaking American mass shooting, the one by Jared Laughner that wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), and not much has changed:

Americans' attitudes toward gun laws have shifted since the mid-'90s, when Congress passed the now-expired "assault weapon" ban and the Brady Act. Brady instituted federal background checks for every potential gun buyer….At the start of the 1990s, according to Gallup polls, 78 percent of Americans wanted stricter gun control. By 2009 that number had fallen to a historical low of 44 percent. As Americans' attitudes have shifted, even Democrats have mostly avoided trying to expand gun control at the national level….

There is no consistent association between gun crimes and easy access to guns or the right to carry. Crimes such as Loughner's are so bizarre and rare that there is no sense in trying to craft laws aimed at preventing them. Despite constantly expanding gun ownership—the number of new firearms entering American possession averages around 4 million a year—and expanded rights to legally carry weapons, the last two decades have seen a 41 percent decline in violent crime rates. Since the 2004 expiration of the "assault weapon" ban, murder rates are down 15 percent. Many pundits have tried to explain Loughner's crimes by citing Arizona's "loose" gun laws, including the lack of permit requirement for concealed or open carry. It's true that Loughner exercised his right to carry without a permit, but he would doubtless have carried the gun even if he was violating the law doing so…

CBS poll two weeks after the massacre found that 51 percent of Americans still think gun laws should either stay the same or be loosened. That was down from 58 percent in March 2009 but still above 2002 levels, when 56 percent of respondents in another CBS poll supported tighter gun control.

Americans understand that even strange people should be able to own weapons, and not just for deer hunting. The very rare crimes of very unusual Americans should not dictate how everyone's right to self-defense is managed, and even in the wake of tragedy that is fortunately unlikely to change

A concomitant wave of blathering won't be about gun laws, but about motives--finding out exactly what made accused shooter James Holmes do it, so that we can either decry or attempt to squash such influences on other lives, or target gun restrictions somehow on such folk.

Why did Holmes, presuming he is the guilty party, do it? Because he wanted to. Whatever other influences we may discover in his background--his leisure interests, politics, philosophy, family (his mom wasn't surprised at all) don't explain it, as assuredly thousands/millions of other young men will share such interests or rough background. The endless and unmanageable mystery of the individual's power and choice to do evil is what's at play, and there aren't many explanations of that of policy relevance.

What are some of the seemingly policy-relevant aspects of this story? Colorado in general has very liberal (in a pro-Second Amendment sense) concealed carry laws, though the particular spot, a Cinemark Theater, apparently bars non-law enforcement from bringing in guns. Whether Holmes knew this and chose that site for his murders deliberately is something we don't know yet.

Guns are still very, very dangerous. The vast, vast, vast majority of people who have them still use them safely, and in many cases to protect innocent life. They aren't disappearing from the Earth, and evil people's choices to use them can't be meaningfully curtailed.

Trying to "turn tragedy into politics" feels gross, because the deaths and the grief for the living are real and terrible and demand respect--and in reality, except for the news and commentary chatter today, this is unlikely to turn into politics, for reasons stated above. If I weren't a professional writer about the Second Amendment (in my 2008 book Gun Control on Trial) on record as believing in the right to bear arms, I wouldn't dream of weighing in at all. The White House is being circumspect as well, saying the crime is not changing Obama's general attitude about gun possession.

If you want to keep up on a well-curated collection of ongoing links about actual news as it arises regarding the Aurora shooting, Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic is doing a good job of that on Twitter. Zerohedge has a long (but incomplete) list of mass gun murders in the past couple of decades. Bureau of Justice Statistics on gun crime (plummeted enormously since 1993).