What to do following Newtown?

Ross Douthat is distressed by the lack of sophistication in the discussion over how to respond to the issues presented by the Newtown shootings, as exemplified by the comments of Mayor Bloomberg from the left and NRA executive vice president Wayne LePierre from the right. Douthat characterizes those comments as “the hubris of Bloomberg versus the humbug of LaPierre.”

I find Douthat’s assessment too harsh. Bloomberg is justifiably concerned about the ease with which disturbed individuals can obtain guns. LaPierre is concerned about this too. The NRA supports adding the mentally ill to the data base used to screen those applying for a firearms permit. But LaPierre has also talked about other dimensions of the problem that are relevant to the shootings, especially the lack of adequate school security.

The problem is that neither Bloomberg nor LaPierre addresses the issues arising from Newtown in sufficient depth. Bloomberg doesn’t bother to demonstrate the efficacy of soft gun control proposals or the constitutionality of draconian ones. LaPierre’s proposal for a federally-mandated armed cop in every school ignores issues of federalism and addresses only shootings in schools.

Let’s start with LaPierre’s proposal. The question of whether to employ armed security staff in schools should be decided at the local level. If a jurisdiction believes this is a worthwhile use of its funds, it should use those funds for that purpose. If a state or locality wants to make funds for this purpose available to schools experiencing financial hardship, they should do so. But the federal government should not be dictating on this issue. If anything, it possesses less of the knowledge relevant to making this decision in a particular locality than state and local decisionmakers.

We should also recognize that enhanced school security would address only assaults that occur in schools. We cannot provide protection at every venue in which mass shootings might occur, at least not without becoming a police state.

Accordingly, other solutions should be on the table. New gun control laws purport to be such a solution, and I assume the Senate will take up such legislation. Perhaps it will consist of reinstating the assault weapons ban, possibly in the form Sen. Feinstein outlined after the Newtown shootings.

Whatever the specifics, it will be up to the proponents to present evidence that the legislation at issue is likely to save lives without unduly limiting personal freedom (including the ability of people to protect themselves from crime) and, of course, without violating the Second Amendment.

If that demonstration is made, the legislation should be passed. However, it will be insufficient merely to argue that “we have to do something,” especially if that “something” has already been tried, as with the assault weapons ban and various other permutations that various states have enacted. The issue must be decided based on solid evidence including evidence as to the efficacy of various bans on assault weapons.

I haven’t seen solid evidence that the old assault weapons ban likely saved lives and I’m not sure I understand why Feinstein’s proposal would likely do so either. But then, I haven’t studied the issue in detail. My mind is open on the matter, and I think that’s the appropriate stance for anyone who hasn’t already studied it in great depth.

Next, I agree with those like E. Fuller Torrey and Doris Fuller who say we should think seriously about changing laws that make it extremely difficult to commit the mentally ill. Here too, we must guard against unreasonable limitations on personal freedom. But in my view, the pendulum has swung much too far against monitoring, and when necessary confining, the mentally ill.

Finally, in the spirit of putting everything on the table, we should talk about the cultural dimension of the problem. In my opinion, our culture signals in various ways that life is cheap. The entertainment industry, for example, signals this through its movies, television programs, and video games. And public policy arguably signals this by permitting partial birth abortions.

Bringing culture into the discussion isn’t likely to help solve anything. But at least when periodic mass killings occur, in spite of whatever efforts we end up undertaking to stop them, we may have a better understanding of why.

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