As I’m sure you wish you hadn’t heard, there was another school shooting in Connecticut on Friday, one that was hellishly awful even by the standards of such things. The Internet, of course, instantly exploded with the depressingly predictable standard response. And it’s hard to put into words just how depressing it is that there’s a standard response to this– The Onion pretty well nailed it back in July, but amazingly, they managed to do it again this time.
I shut social media down for most of the day– and, anyway, I was home with a sick SteelyKid– but the usual flamewar was still in full swing when I came back. On the one hand, you have people of a left-ish persuasion loudly arguing that this proves once again that we need more gun control laws, while those who lean right either double down on their belief that guns fix everything and suggest the arming of teachers they otherwise deride as union thugs, or get huffy about how this isn’t an appropriate time to talk about politics.
I’m a little torn on this– on the one hand, I would be perfectly happy to see much tighter gun control than we have, but at the same time, it feels awfully tacky to be yelling “See! I told you so!” on Twitter while there are parents who still don’t know if their kids are alive. The fact that the kids in this case were of an age to be SteelyKid’s playmates tends to push me even more in that direction, hence the total social media shutdown on Friday. While I recognize that it’s often merely a diversionary tactic, I still think there’s something to be said for waiting a decent interval before trying to score political points on the corpses of children.
The usual response to this, offered with varying degrees of indignation, is that we have to talk about the politics immediately, because if we don’t, the general public will lose interest. We need to strike while the iron is hot, or at least while the blood is still warm, lest we miss the window of opportunity afforded by the mayfly-like attention span of the average American. I’m not hugely impressed by this line, in part because I think we ought to demand better of our political culture. A big reason why we have such a short attention span as a nation is that our political elites either cater or capitulate to the perception that we have a short attention span.
And, to be honest, I would find this line a lot more convincing if more of the people using it showed any inclination to press the subject for more than a few attention half-lives. Sincere concern about the welfare of the nation might be a good reason to talk about policy in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like this, but when that concern only extends to talking about it for about as long as the average CNN viewer is interested in the story, well…
This is the critical point that I think is lost in this particular kabuki dance. If Friday was the time to talk about gun control in the wake of this latest massacre, then so is Monday. And Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, next Friday, a month from now, a year from now, as long as it takes.
That’s what it takes, because that’s what it took to get us here. We don’t have lax gun laws because a bunch of right-wing Republicans gave angry speeches in the twenty-four hours after some past tragedy. We have lax gun laws because of a systematic effort lasting decades, by people who talked about guns, and wouldn’t shut up. They had their weird constitutional interpretations, their macho posturing, their scaremongering about nonexistent crime waves, their odd conspiracy theories, their methodologically dubious social-science studies, the whole package. It took years of effort and millions if not billions of dollars to make the whole idea of gun control so toxic that no politician wants to be associated with it, even as the bodies from senseless mass shootings pile up.
If you really want tougher gun laws, you need to become That Guy. The one who bangs on about the issue non-stop. Who writes blog posts about the subject even when nobody’s been shot for weeks. Who writes angry letters to the media and politicians at the slightest provocation (even imaginary provocation). Who gives money to lobbying groups year in and year out. Who forwards on every last bit of hackwork from the think tank of the week. Who clogs your Facebook timeline with re-shared political images slapping stock slogans over splashy photographs. Who keeps going on and on until everyone says “Fine, here, have some legislation, just shut the hell up, already.”
That’s what it took to get us here, and that’s what it will take to get us out. So, fine, by all means, score your political points on Friday. But don’t stop scoring them on Monday, because the pro-gun folks sure as hell won’t. They might be a little bit quieter for a little while, but a week from now, or a month from now, they’ll still be pushing their political allies, when most of the people yelling for stricter gun laws on Twitter will have lost interest and moved on to something else.
(And, more or less on cue, there’s this story in the New York Times about the gun culture around Newtown…)
I have a problem with this whole business on another level as well, which is that I can’t help thinking that the gun debate is something of a sideshow to he real problem, namely that it seems to be distressingly easy for troubled individuals to make the leap to thinking that killing a whole bunch of total strangers is a great plan. And while the ready availability of guns unquestionably makes that leap somewhat easier, and should absolutely be addressed, a lot of these killers put a good deal of time and effort into amassing an arsenal. I suspect a similar investment could probably be used to make explosives that could potentially kill a lot more people.
Now, there’s some evidence from other countries to suggest that guns really do make the problem dramatically worse, for some reason. Maybe blowing people up with a bomb isn’t as psychologically appealing to those prone to breaking in this fashion, or maybe the technical know-how needed to make bombs is enough of a filter to keep this from being a major problem because would-be bombers are more likely to blow themselves up.
At the same time, though, I can’t help thinking that guns wouldn’t be an issue if we knew how to stop people from making that leap. If we could stop being the sort of society where people with major problems are distressingly likely to think “Hey, I could go kill a whole bunch of people!” then it wouldn’t matter how many guns we have rattling around. The US is on the high side even for crimes without firearms, statistically, which might be an indication that mass shootings are really a particularly horrific manifestation of a much deeper problem. Everybody keeps bringing up that Chinese guy who attacked a school with a knife, to highlight the difference in lethality. But there’s another angle to that, which is that you just don’t hear about all that many people in China randomly attacking schools (or malls, or movie theaters…) with knives. Maybe it’s just that those stories don’t get out, but if weaponry were the whole story, you’d expect more than we seem to get. It feels like we have more people in the US deciding to go on killing sprees than elsewhere in the world.
If those people got help, or at least got noticed before it got to the point of bloodshed, we would all be much better off, more or less by definition. Thus, I’m inclined to find posts like this and this (despite the blowback it’s generated), and this from a while back more important than another round of pounding on the NRA. (Though looking for root causes has its own pitfalls, as the pleas to not pin this on Asperger’s demonstrate.)
Of course, that’s a really Hard Problem. Stricter gun laws are politically implausible, but at least we know how to get that done– see above. Moving the whole world to a better place… I don’t have any idea how to do that. It might not even be possible. And, of course, this is another valid point that is somewhat poisoned by its use as a diversionary tactic by especially cynical gun enthusiasts.) But it’s probably something that deserves a bit of thought, and maybe even some discussion. Preferably before the next round of senseless killings.
President Obama gave a great speech Sunday night, and at least for the moment, Democrats are promising action. I hope they follow through, and I hope they succeed, not just on the gun side, but the whole package. But more than that, I hope the people who indignantly insisted on the importance of talking politics last Friday while the horror was still unspooling are still talking about it this coming Friday, and the Friday after that, and for as many Fridays as it takes to move the country in a better direction.