The Lesson of Newtown

As a resident of Connecticut, I have followed the events surrounding the Newtown shooting with great interest and sadness. By way of full disclosure, I am a hunter. When I was a child in Wisconsin, my father took his sons to gun safety classes taught in the basement of the local police department. Both of my sons went through hunter training courses before they joined me hunting pheasants (neither really liked hunting, but at least I knew that they understood to respect firearms, use them safely, and lock them up when not in use). I have never hunted with a semiautomatic weapon. I find it unsportsmanlike.

I am sympathetic to the claim that some may want firearms for home protection (although as a friend of mine—a Marine sharpshooter and Connecticut state trooper—notes, the best weapon for home defense is a shotgun, not a semiautomatic pistol or an assault rife. Unless one is trained for combat, one loses fine motor skills under stress and is likely incapable of using these weapons effectively or accurately).

With these disclosures in mind, what to make of Newtown?

John Kingdon’s classic work Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies made the case quite persuasively that in the world of public policy, there are many solutions waiting for a problem to happen.  Crises can open a window of opportunity for policy change. In Kingdon’s words:

“When a window opens, advocates of proposals sense their opportunity and rush to take advantage of it.”

Often, this occurs immediately. Policy advocates know that windows of opportunity open, but they can close rather quickly.

The tragic shooting in Newtown most certainly created a window of opportunity for policy change. One could have anticipated the political response ex ante, although there were a few surprises along the way.  On Sunday’s Meet the Press, for example, one commentator noted that the shooting should give anyone pause who wants to cut Medicare and Medicaid entitlements, given the funding they provide for mental health issues (the fact that the shooter was 20 from an affluent family seemed immaterial).

It is difficult to discern what lessons one should draw from the Newtown shooting. Those who want to use the shooting to make the case for more demanding gun regulations face the problem that Connecticut already has some of the most stringent gun controls in the country and the guns were purchased legally. Those who want to restrict interstate sales and the loopholes for gun shows face similar difficulties given that neither would have prevented the tragedy. Those who want to make the argument for greater public funding for mental health treatment face the problem that the shooter was from an affluent family; the lack of public funding was not an issue.

Advocates of an assault weapon ban (similar to that created under the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994) may stand on firmer ground, given that the shooter used an assault rifle (a Bushmaster .223).  But the 1994 law did not ban semiautomatic rifles (automatic rifles are already illegal for all intents and purposes) nor did it ban the .223 Remington cartridge. It did ban the manufacturing of magazines that were capable of holding 10 or more rounds of ammunition (by comparison, semiautomatic big game rifles—unaffected by the assault rife ban—have clips that hold 5 cartridges). One wonders how great a barrier such a restriction would have posed, given that the shooter was armed with two semiautomatic pistols (legal under the assault rifle ban) and smaller clips could be ejected and replaced in a matter of seconds.

In my mind, the chief lesson of Newtown is a difficult one: even when you have strict gun laws (as Connecticut clearly has) and citizens abide by those laws (the owner of the guns reportedly purchased all guns legally), tragedies can nonetheless occur.

There is little question that gun violence is a problem in the US. Although violent crime has been in long-term decline in the US, the FBI reports there were 68,720 murders between 2007-2011. Of that number, 46,313  (67.4 percent) were committed with a firearm. But of this number, 1,874 murders were committed with rifles (in contrast, 2,945 were committed with blunt objects like clubs or hammers). Handguns were the weapons of choice. With respect to handguns, most were likely acquired illegally (my guess. I am not certain that the FBI publishes that data).

Some readers of Pileus may want to make the argument that any regulation of firearms is an infringement of our Second Amendment rights. Let the comments fly. When I used to take my sons hunting, I took some comfort in knowing that anyone we encountered in the field had undergone some training on the safe use of a firearm.

If President Obama and the Congress turn to gun control in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, one can only hope that they ground policy in a broader understanding of gun violence rather than searching the events of last week for lessons that may not exist.

9 thoughts on “The Lesson of Newtown

  1. Only in America could someone make an absurd claim that Connecticut had strict gun laws. I’m a gun owner, but I think there should be limits on how many guns and ammo a person should be allowed to own. Second of all, I can play devil’s advocate for a second and say that just maybe Americans have lost complete touch with the rest of the world and are completely clueless at how destructive our gun culture is. From Lexington blog at the Economist:

    “Here is my small thought. It is quite possible, perhaps probable, that stricter gun laws of the sort that Mr Obama may or may not be planning, would not have stopped the horrible killings of this morning. But that is a separate question from whether it is a good idea to allow private individuals to own guns. And that, really, is what I think I understand by gun control. Once you have guns in circulation, in significant numbers, I suspect that specific controls on things like automatic weapons or large magazines can have only marginal effects. Once lots of other people have guns, it becomes rational for you to want your own too.

    The first time that I was posted to Washington, DC some years ago, the capital and suburbs endured a frightening few days at the hands of a pair of snipers, who took to killing people at random from a shooting position they had established in the boot of a car. I remember meeting a couple of White House correspondents from American papers, and hearing one say: but the strange thing is that Maryland (where most of the killings were taking place) has really strict gun laws. And I remember thinking: from the British perspective, those aren’t strict gun laws. Strict laws involve having no guns.”

    More here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/lexington/2012/12/gun-control

    1. Shaun – Let me play the devil’s advocate here with some other rights. I think America has lost complete touch with how the rest of the world views libel laws, where the truth isn’t necessarily a defense. And when someone switches from one religion to another, and the government doesn’t prosecute them, I think they need to take a long hard look at how out of touch they are with the rest of the world. Also, when a group of people get together to protest some government action, and they aren’t all summarily knee-caped and dragged away, someone should really come around and let them know how out of touch they are are with the rest of the world.

      Tell me, what is the critical mass of people denied their rights at which point you would have me give up mine as well?

      “Once lots of other people have guns, it becomes rational for you to want your own too.”
      Also, once a person is in such a physical condition that they can be physically overcome by common examples of “lots of other people,” it becomes rational for that person to want a gun a well.

  2. Hi Shaun. Of course, I meant that CT has strict gun laws by US standards (and indeed, it is usually ranked in the top five).

  3. I know that’s what you were getting at. My point is that what we consider strict is lax by almost any other developed world countries criteria. So they are not really strict at all. Are views are skewed by the fact that we live in an alternate universe compared with the rest of the world on the issue of guns.

    We have chosen easy gun laws as a culture and it shows in our violent crime statistics. Stuff like what happened in CT will only continue as long as we refuse to come to terms with that fact.

  4. I’m not exactly sure what the exercise is here, but DC has/had the strictest gun control laws in the country, comparable to some European “social democrat” states, and has also enjoyed horrific crime rates. Not sure “gun culture” can be blamed for that.

    I’m also curious how people justify limits on guns or ammo with respect to the fact that there is an enumerated Constitutional right protecting it. We don’t “limit” First Amendment rights for individual by restriicting people Internet access, or mediums of expression generally.

    1. I’m curious how people justify limits on guns or ammo with respect to logic. A single person with a single gun and one range trip worth of ammunition has everything they need for a mass shooting. What effect are these restrictions supposed to have?

  5. Excellent post by Eisner. It’s futile to talk about eliminating guns in the US. You’d have to take draconian measures, like house to house searches, and that isn’t going to happen. On a personal note, my husband and I are old and we live in an isolated place. It would take many more than 20 minutes for the police to get here. Old people are frequently targeted by drug users because it is thought they have drugs (not true in our case) and we feel it prudent to keep a shotgun for self defense.

    I also saw this morning somewhere that of the top 5 mass shootings, only one was in the US – Virginia Tech. I really don’t think it’s the guns themselves, I think it’s our atomized society and that will only get worse.

  6. I’m 70 years old and have been an advocate for liberty all my life. Over the years, I have watched the incremental dismantlement of our Constitutional Republic and the substitution of that Republic by a mobocracy Democracy with all 10 Planks to the Communist Manifesto being implemented,albeit in modified form. Today, America has become a Welfare/Warfare Fascist State that has not only bankrupted our once prosperous nation but has made debt and tax serfs out of most of our productive people. Not only for today’s generation but future generations to come. A voting majority of Americans have thrown away their birthright of liberty for the illusion of security. The scary part of this is that behind the scenes there are powerful men who have rode in on the coattails of the Progressives(Socialists)who not only hate our Constitution but look down at the vast majority of Americans as nothing more then sheep to be fleeced and then discarded. This globalist,elitist plan for world government has been unfolding for decades. Soon,within the next few years there will be an economic collapse. When this collapse occurs whats left of our Constitutional Rights will be discarded. And when that happens the American people will be totally defenseless except,maybe for their firearms. This is why all the hysteria over guns and the role of gun seizure is in the plans of the elitists. This is nothing new in history. The Armenians,Jews,Ukrainian Kulaks,Chinese,Cambodians and countless others were disarmed before they were slaughtered or enslaved. The only chance is for the American people,who still believe in liberty,to be able to defend themselves. For the sake of whats left of American liberty don’t let them take your weapons. Its not about protection from criminals but protection from the criminal Political Class. In the end,if every Jew met every Nazi at the front gate with an assault rifle maybe,just maybe,there would have been no holocaust. Think about it.

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