Barack Obama, Jon Stewart, Sandy Hook, and "Common Sense" Gun Control

The impulse to control weapons more is understandable, even if it's misplaced.


Click above to watch Reason TV's "5 Facts about Guns, Schools, and Violence," originally released on January 10, 2013.

Last Monday's episode of The Daily Show (watch it here), Jon Stewart opened with a long, heartfelt, and sardonically witty segment that showcased the stupidity of some well-known gun-rights advocates. In many ways, that segment perfectly captures the desire for what President Obama has called "common-sense" gun control laws that will prevent horrific tragedies like December's Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

It's worth thinking about where Stewart is coming from, and not simply because he hosts a TV show that has supposedly replaced network news as the main source of information and analysis for most of America. Stewart makes a lot of good points, or at least points worth thinking about. In the end, though, he comes up well short of proposing meaningful reforms. In that failure, too, he's capturing the anti-gun zeitgeist.

In The Daily Show bit, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre was shown namechecking 20-year-old movies such as Natural Born Killers and equally ancient video games such as Mortal Kombat as the proximate cause for the Sandy Hook school shooting. LaPierre even called for a national database of lunatics, though the loud-mouthed hysteric declined the chance to be the first entry.

"Technology has democratized carnage," said a hoarse Stewart (he was getting over a cold), who was put out by Second Amendment defenders who point out the fact that the amendment is part of the Bill of Rights. Riffing on the flesh-shredding capabilities of current weapons, Stewart said, "When that constitution was written, people had muskets."

Showing a clip reel of characters ranging from homeless-man impersonator and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura to Fox News' amiable Steve Doocy saying not particularly smart things about guns and history, Stewart acknowledged that mass shootings are complex phenomena that almost surely have more than a single or simple cause. Then he asked,

Why is it that there's no other issue in this country with as dire public safety consequences as this that we are unable to take even the most basic steps toward putting together a complex plan of action just to slow this epidemic spread?

Cue more nutjobs and numbskulls—such as conspiracy-monger Alex Jones—talking about how guns are the last line of defense against tyranny. Stewart concluded that folks who worry about the government taking their guns are the reason we can't talk about common-sense measures to reduce the likelihood of another Sandy Hook shooting. Why not shrink magazine capacities, asked Stewart. Or keep assault weapons only at shooting ranges? We can't even discuss such ideas, he averred, because of freakazoids such as Jones and Ventura and Steve Doocy (!) wetting their pants about the second coming of Stalin or Pol Pot.

Their paranoid fear of a possible dystopic future prevents us from addressing our actual dystopic presence. We can't even begin to address 30,000 gun deaths that are actually in reality happening in this country every year because a few of us must remain vigilant against the rise of imaginary Hitler.

That 30,000 number stood out to me because it seemed very high. According to the FBI, in 2011, there was a total of 8,583 firearm homicides in the U.S. That may well be 8,583 gun murders too many, but it's nowhere near 30,000 (the total number of murders by all methods came to 12,664). The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) uses a different method and found about 11,000 gun-related murders in 2011 and the total number of homicides to be around 16,000 (see table 2). So How did Stewart get to 30,000? By adding the number of gun-related suicides to the number of homicides. When you add those figures in, you get up toward the 30,000 figure.

As with the total number of homicides in a given year, it's easy (and arguably right) to say that any number of suicides is too high. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among people 10 years and older, according to the CDC, and guns are involved in a majority of male suicides and a smaller percentage of female suicides. More than is commonly thought, suicide is an impulsive act, not the product of long-term, rational deliberation (though it is that sometimes, and is certainly as basic a right as there could possibly be). The impulsivity of many, maybe even most, suicides is an argument for keeping guns away from people. It's harder to kill yourself on the spur of the moment, I assume, with a rope than with a pistol.

But overall trends in suicide are pretty flat over the past 20 years. A basically flat trend (with some upticks depending on the age group) isn't as good as the falling declines in violent crime and gun-related homicide, but it suggests that there's no cause for urgent action. More to the point, very few people seem to be calling for gun control as a way to stem suicide. In fact, Stewart didn't even mention that the majority of gun deaths in his 30,000 number are actually self-inflicted. To do so would undermine his case that the reason to ban guns—or at least limit who can legally possess them—is to prevent school shootings and a more broadly invoked "epidemic" of gun-related violence that shows up everywhere except crime data.

So, should we be pursuing new, "common-sense" restrictions on the buying, selling, owning, and operating of guns? I am not a gun person—I've gone shooting exactly twice in my life and didn't enjoy either experience—and I find many of the arguments of gun-rights advocates unconvincing or uninteresting. The notion that a rag-tag band of regular folks armed with semi-automatic weapons and the odd shotgun are a serious hedge against tyranny strikes me as a stretch (and I even saw the remake of Red Dawn!). Hitler and the Nazis didn't take away everyone's guns, as is commonly argued. They expanded gun rights for many groups (though not the Jews). When the whole mutha starts to come down, if the choice is between Jesse Ventura or Janet Napolitano, I'm not sure where to turn. 

And yet the idea of armed self-defense is a totally different matter and I also realize that many people live out in the sticks or even in urban neighborhoods where the police aren't a realistic option when trouble comes a-calling. I know people for whom owning a shotgun is no different than owning a tennis racket and hunting is a family affair more revered than holiday dinners. I don't see any reason why law-abiding people should have to explain to anyone why they want a semi-automatic gun or a magazine that holds 10 bullets instead of seven. 

Once you strip away the raw emotionalism of the carnage at Sandy Hook, or the Aurora theater, or Columbine, or Luby's, or whatever, you're left with a series of inconvenient truths for gun-control advocates: Over the past 20 years or so, more guns are in circulation and violent crime is down. So is violent crime that uses guns. Murders are down, too, even as video games and movies and music and everything else are filled with more fantasy violence than ever. For god's sake, even mass shootings are not becoming more common. If ever there was a case to stand pat in terms of public policy, the state of gun control provides it (and that's without even delving into the fact that Supreme Court has recently validated a personal right to own guns in two landmark cases). It's probably always been the case but certainly since the start of 21st century, it seems like we legislate only by crisis-mongering and the results have not been good: The PATRIOT Act, the Iraq War, TARP, fiscal cliff deals, you name it. Would that cooler heads prevailed then and now.

And when you get to the specific cause of Jon Stewart's and the nation's ragged voice and broken heart—when you get to non-cynical attempts to use a mass shooting to effect some good in the world—you come up just as emptyhanded. Walk back from the Sandy Hook shooting and try to figure out a way to prevent Adam Lanza from doing what he did. Are you going to start making "strange" kids go to more psychological clinics at earlier ages? Lock up more psychos (and define that term more broadly) and/or take them away from parents? Institute a house-by-house search for insane people in proximity to guns? Ban or limit video games that generate billions of dollars in sales and essentially zero in copycat crimes?

Stewart is right to be anguished by what happened in December. So is the country. And the urge to do something—even something that will inevitably be put into action by opportunistic politicians—is fully understandable. But that doesn't mean it will accomplish anything. It won't make us safer (current policy seems to already be doing that) and it won't even make us feel better. Because at the end of the day, there's still 26 people—kids mostly, which is just awful—who had no connection to the gunman who shot them down. And taking a couple of bullets out of clip or sending more kids to doctors or turning schools slightly more into prison environments isn't going to bring them back. Or worse yet, prevent the next one from happening.