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.