On December 14, Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary and gunned down twenty-six people—including twenty children. Across America, onlookers reacted viscerally, their horror growing as the major television networks morbidly updated the body count with regularity. Anger, sadness, empathy for the parents, confusion, and shock bubbled up in equal parts across the country. Most notably, cries rang out for change.
Kneejerk reactions from across the policy spectrum followed. Well-reasoned policy proposals and realism were ignored in favor of decisive action and agenda pushing. Many liberals championed an assault weapons ban. This vanguard for gun control ignored—or, more likely, was unaware—of the extreme difficulty in defining what an assault weapon is and constructing a loophole-free law. Most of the initial liberal reactions willfully ignored the 300 million guns in circulation today: public policy cannot reverse our nation’s gun inundation.
The political right was, incredibly, even more out of touch with reality. Most disingenuously, many Republicans decried efforts to politicize the tragedy or discuss gun control. Such unabashed self-righteousness insidiously politicizes the tragedy in favor of the broken status quo. The National Rifle Association cagily and confidently employs this strategy in response to such tragedies. NRA head Wayne LaPierre cynically waited a week before responding. His response ranged from the surprisingly sensible (condemning the media coverage that makes the Adam Lanza’s of the world infamous) to the empirically false (blaming such violence on video games and movies). He proposed a national database of the mentally ill—conveniently not mentioning that 38 states already have such databases. Security guards at every school, he suggested, could prevent such tragedies from occurring; conveniently ignoring the inconclusive evidence supporting this claim, the enormous price tag, or the large number of schools already possessing such security. Columbine, after all, had an armed guard.
LaPierre managed to unwittingly sum up the entire national debate at the end of his remarks. “There’s going to be a lot of time for talk,” he said, “…and debate later…We can’t wait for the next unspeakable crime to happen before we act. We can’t lose precious time debating legislation that won’t work. We mustn’t allow politics or personal prejudice to divide us. We must act now for the sake of every child in America.” Although expressed by a far right gun enthusiast, this sentiment—or versions of it—was universal across America in the wake of the tragedy. Act now, many demanded. Rise above the partisan bickering, others pleaded. Take control, Mr. President, the nation groaned. Such nationally visible tragedies frequently inspire demands for executive power that simply doesn’t exist. Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan glibly dubbed such reactions as the “Green Lantern” view of the presidency: in this fantasy world, the president’s willpower—not very real institutional constraints—presage legislative success. Obama’s recent gun proposals largely prove Nyhan’s point: he caved to public pressure and proposed the most sweeping gun reforms in decades. Executives order aside, this vast effort will be met with great resistance in Congress (remember, even Harry Reid has an NRA A rating). And Obama will take the blame for its failure.
LaPierre’s final remarks shed light on a second, and more important, myopia plaguing the American electorate. Such tragedies frequently inspire demand for change in areas where large public policy problems already existed and were routinely ignored. As such, the kneejerk policy response often addresses symptoms of the real problem while spawning nasty side effects. Take Len Bias’ 1986 cocaine overdose, which helped propel Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act through Congress. Nearly two decades later, our drug problem continues unabated. The Act’s sentencing reforms, meanwhile, created the world’s largest prison population while ignominiously locking up minorities at disproportionate rates.
Sandy Hook proved no different. In 1986, policymakers and the media missed the forest for the trees by zeroing in on crack cocaine. This time around, the tragedy heightened fears that mass shootings were on the rise nationally. Tragedies typically spike media attention in an issue—like gun control—for a week or so, followed by a gradual decline in media interest. Only prolonged policymaking effort can disrupt this cycle. Sandy Hook followed the pattern closely. The week after the tragedy saw an outpouring of think pieces and policy articles in response. Mother Jones typified the response in a piece claiming mass shootings were on the rise since 1982.
The Mother Jones statistics grimly sum up the state of the gun control debate. James Allan Fox, a Northeastern criminologist, undertook a rigorous study finding that no increase in mass gun violence has occurred since 1982. Fox defined mass shootings as all killings with four or more victims; Mother Jones restricted the data further by excluding armed robbery and gang violence. Such violence, they seemed to imply, is the norm.
Public policy analyst Mark Kleiman spoke to a class of mine this fall; in his remarks, he bemoaned the classic public policy impulse to solve the wrong problem (he was referring to alcohol’s frequently ignored public health effects). In a blog post just after the crisis, he leveled the same critique at the impulse to curb mass shootings. This impulse is linked to what’s called the availability heuristic: humans have an unfortunate tendency to regard especially frightening outcomes as much more likely than they actually are. Our bloated terrorism budget relative to the actual risk of terrorism is an excellent example.
The real problem, Kleiman wrote, is gun homicide. 12,000 die annually in gun homicide and more than 15,000 kill themselves annually with a gun, according to the Brady Campaign. Handguns—ignored in the response to Sandy Hook—account for the majority of those deaths. Those numbers will likely continue to climb, as handgun sales just accelerated past the halfway point of total U.S. gun sales. Most crimes, writes Kleiman, involve newly purchased handguns. An easy public policy fix would address the so-called gun show loophole, which currently makes it all too easy for your average member of the Bloods to stock up on handguns outside the city.
That’s not how our media cycle works, though. Handgun homicide—disproportionately afflicting urban minority communities—has become part of the status quo. Chicago is a chilling example: young black men die of gun homicide at a clip eight times that of young white men. African-Americans represent just thirty three percent of Chicago’s population, but seventy percent of its murder victims. Our second amendment right to bear arms ought not evoke a valiant militia but, as David Cole points out “[the image of] of a young black man gunned down in his prime in a dark alley.” Nonetheless, this type of endemic gun violence seems to escape the media (and policy maker’s) attention until an act of random gun violence strikes an affluent white community.
Sandy Hook was a horrible tragedy. The greater tragedy, though, is that it took such senseless death to wake our nation up to the omnipresent plague of gun violence in America—and for all that, we might be looking for a solution in the wrong place.