December 18, 2012

The urge to do something, or at least say something, after an abomination like the massacre of school children in Newtown is understandable. We all like to think we can prevent bad things from happening, and the discussion of efforts to do so provide a therapeutic value to those who would otherwise succumb to hopelessness, fear and depression. But the urge to do or say something should not be confused with doing something helpful.


President and Michelle Obama observe a moment of silence for Tucson shooting victims in 2011 (Jewel Samad / AFP/ Getty Images)

In the past few days, we’ve seen various attempts to address the Newtown catastrophe, some of which seem more designed to protect the commenter or elevate him rather than solve the problem. Hot Air’s Allahpundit remarks of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “Think the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican nomination is going to get crosswise with the NRA by voting for new gun regs? Me neither. The challenge for Rubio’s communications team: Craft a statement that screams ‘reasonable!’ for the benefit of national swing voters while committing to nothing beyond respectful consideration.” Mission accomplished: “So to sum up, he’s against criminals and lunatics possessing weapons and wants to do more to prevent lethal rampages. Reasonable!” If a pol really doesn’t want to say anything, then, you know, don’t say anything.

There are also those who want to reinstitute the assault weapons ban, which was a documented failure. Clayton E. Cramer reminds us:

 In 1999, the National Institute of Justice published a study by criminologists Jeffrey Roth and Christopher Koper, “Impacts of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban: 1994–96.” It examined the effects of the federal assault-weapons ban in its first two years of operation and found no statistically significant reduction in murder rates. “The ban did not produce declines in the average number of victims per incident of gun murder or gun murder victims with multiple wounds.” The study also was unable to find any clear evidence that it reduced murders of police officers. The reason was simple: So-called assault weapons were never commonly used for murders before the ban, and more conventional-appearing weapons were effective substitutes for criminal misuse. Any assault-weapons ban that does not ban firearms that are equally lethal (such as those many Americans already own) is ineffective.

Moreover, with the number of weapons already out there, how do advocates of this tactic think we’re going to get the guns away from people?

There is a another tack, which does not lapse into double-talk and which is actually productive. It begins by looking at what does work, such as a study documenting  that “states where involuntary commitment was easy had roughly a third less murders than states where it was very hard to civilly commit a mentally ill person.” That is huge.

In this vein, David Kopel writes that the uptick in mass killings doesn’t correlate with the prevalence of weapons or the availability of high-capacity magazines: “Since gun controls today are far stricter than at the time when ‘active shooters’ were rare, what can account for the increase in these shootings? One plausible answer is the media . . . .A second explanation is the deinstitutionalization of the violently mentally ill. A 2000 New York Times study of 100 rampage murderers found that 47 were mentally ill.” He adds, “Finally, it must be acknowledged that many of these attacks today unfortunately take place in pretend “gun-free zones,” such as schools, movie theaters and shopping malls.”

Some of these factors can be addressed by legislative solutions. Others (e.g. media coverage) require a rare commodity these days: self-restraint. Couple that with what columnist Ruthie Blum calls the need for “rebuilding of the cracked pillars on which a liberal society rests” and the uptick in unmarried people and you have a society in which there are more troubled, isolated males living outside the confines of an intact, watchful family.

No one piece of the puzzle is sufficient. And I personally find no Second Amendment problem with regulating high-capacity magazines (which may, if nothing else, slow down some shooting sprees). But let’s be smart about this; the opportunity to get something meaningful done may be fleeting. Making ourselves feel better by doing something, anything fast is not desirable and in fact diminishes the ability to achieve a comprehensive, thoughtful approach to this horrible problem.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.