The massacre of school children in Connecticut has been followed by the same irrational reactions and useless prescriptions that attend every mass shooting. The usual suspects have already been rounded up, most predictably the availability of weapons in America, especially what many misleadingly call “assault weapons.” President Obama has established a commission and promised, “This time the words need to lead to action. I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”
Of course these “efforts” will include new gun control laws that will serve liberal political ends, but will do nothing to prevent the next massacre.
One of the biggest culprits in this process is the media. Their incessant coverage of the crime and its aftermath, especially the suffering of the victims’ families, turns the tragedy into a sentimentalized commodity. Morbid curiosity becomes a kind of voyeurism, the same impulse that makes people slow down for car wrecks. Another effect of the media is the platform it gives to the psychotic or evil killer eager for global attention and fame. Like Hierostratus, who burned down the temple of Artemis in Ephesus just to become famous, the lunatic loner seeks power and validation through his crimes. The 24⁄7 coverage of killings on cable television and the Internet assures the wannabe killer that he will get the obsessive attention to his life and deeds he craves. He may have been an anonymous loser in life, but now he is a celebrity.
All this intense coverage does nothing, of course, for the grieving families and survivors. But these irrational feelings create emotional momentum that can be politically exploited to further extend big government’s control over our lives. Witness the calls to restrict First Amendment rights by censoring violent video games, as West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller has done, despite the absence of any demonstrable causal link between such games and mass shootings. This outsized media attention and its lurid drama also obscure the more rational context necessary for creating public policy: risk evaluation. From that perspective, hysteria over gun deaths is disproportionate. Dying at the hands of a stranger is a remote contingency for most people outside of inner city areas. Getting shot to death didn’t make the top 15 causes of death in 2011. Deaths by alcohol (26,256), car accidents (34,677), and drugs (37,485; about 15,000 from prescription painkillers) all exceeded homicides by firearms (11,101), with gun deaths at the hands of strangers representing less than a fifth of those killings.
But all this everyday loss of life does not create the obsessive drama of mass shootings, or a fraction of the demands for new regulations and restrictions that always follow gun deaths. Of course, the deaths of children like those in Newtown affect us more powerfully. But every year thousands of children and teens die from legal drugs and drunk drivers. Aren’t those lives as valuable and worthy of our concern as the victims of mass shootings? Why don’t we demand more intrusive regulation and restrictions on alcohol and painkillers as vehemently and persistently as we call for gun restrictions that cannot be shown to lower the risk of getting killed by a gun? Why do we accept the risk of death that attends driving, drinking alcohol, and using prescription drugs yet demand that ownership of guns be absolutely risk-free?
The answer can be found in the way many liberals have made a fetish out of the gun. They are the anti-gun nuts, attributing mystic powers of destruction to a tool that like cars or drugs can be misused by the careless, lunatic, or evil. Thus they demand gun-control laws that are effective only for limiting the rights of the law-abiding and sane. Take the ban on “assault” weapons. The 1994 ban, which expired in 2004, had no demonstrable effect on reducing gun-deaths, according to a University of Pennsylvania study commissioned by the Justice Department. Yet new legislation is being proposed by Senator Diane Feinstein to bring the ban back, with the same exceptions and the same focus on cosmetics of the earlier legislation.
Once again, the irrational and superficial drives policy: if a weapon just looks like a fully automatic military assault rifle because it has a bayonet mount or a folding stock, then we will restrict it, even though a few simple modifications of a legal rifle can turn it back into a banned one. And what do we do about the 200 million guns currently in circulation? Or how do we stop people from getting guns illegally? We’ve spent $1 trillion over the last 40 years on the “war on drugs,” and today any motivated teenager can get illegal drugs in a few hours. Finally, there is no historical correlation between availability of guns and homicide rates. Murders increased after the 1968 Gun Control Act, and later declined after the 1994 assault weapon ban expired––down 50% over the last 30 years. Of all the contributors to the increase in mass shootings over the last decade––greater media coverage that incites copycat killers, or the deinstitutionalizing of the mentally ill––the existence of semiautomatic weapons that merely resemble military assault rifles is way down on the list.
But media-stoked irrational hysteria about gun violence isn’t the only reason we are hearing calls for more gun control. Politics is a factor as well. According to the New York Times, while 60% of Republicans have a gun in the house, only 25% of Democrats do. “Whether someone owns a gun,” Nate Silver writes, “is a more powerful predictor of a person’s political party than her gender, whether she identifies as gay or lesbian, whether she is Hispanic, whether she lives in the South or a number of other demographic characteristics.” That’s why Obama used the Newtown killings to bully the Republicans into caving on his demands for higher taxes. Like class warfare, gun control is a reliable issue for Democrats to exploit for political gain no matter how ineffective the resulting policies. Just as the soak-the-rich policies dominating the Democrats’ solutions to the “fiscal cliff” will do nothing to reduce the deficit and control spending, so too more gun control will not stop tragedies like the Newtown massacre.
Gun control laws, then, represent yet another instance of the progressive ideology that distrusts the average person to control his own life, and so demands ever greater regulatory intrusion into private life that necessarily expands the scope and power of the government. Restrictions on guns assume that most people, especially those conservative “bitter clingers to guns and religion,” as Obama called them, are too untrustworthy or incapable or stupid to own and carry a weapon. Such laws are written by elite snobs who think they know how to run your life better than you do, just as progressive economic policy is predicated on the belief that the federal government has a right to confiscate your money because it knows how to spend it more efficiently or justly.
In the end, the progressive point is not to solve problems that history shows big government is usually incapable of doing without extracting prohibitive costs. The point is to expand the leviathan state at the expense of individual freedom and autonomy, based on a contempt for ordinary people whom progressives at heart believe are not as worthy of freedom as they are. The emotional excesses that surround a tragedy like the Newtown massacre are merely the camouflage for advancing this assault on freedom.
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