On Not Thinking about Newtown
Liberals take leave of the liberal virtues.


Daniel Foster

Instead, in a conversation ostensibly about preventing moral monsters from defeating school security and murdering children, we hear lamentations over the expiration of the federal “assault weapons” ban, which, as Jacob Sullum puts it in Reason, would not have prevented Newtown, because it did not prevent Newtown:

The rifle he used, a .223-caliber Bushmaster M4 carbine, was legal under Connecticut’s “assault weapon” ban, which is similar to the federal law that expired in 2004. Both laws, in addition to listing specifically prohibited models, cover semiautomatic rifles that accept detachable magazines and have at least two out of five features: 1) a folding or telescoping stock, 2) a pistol grip, 3) a bayonet mount, 4) a grenade launcher, and 5) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor. The configuration of the rifle used by Lanza, which his mother legally purchased and possessed in Connecticut, evidently was not covered by that definition.

Indeed, the federal assault-weapons ban was allowed to expire in 2004 in part because it didn’t accomplish the goal the anti-gun lobby  was pursuing, which — and I put this only slightly uncharitably — was to ban the sale of scary-looking guns. Despite the fact that rifles simpliciter were used in only 3 percent of homicides last year, not only did the law take the bizarre tack of banning specific model names such as the “Mac 10” — the equivalent of making marijuana illegal only if it’s referred to as “sweet Ganja” — but, in addition, many of the features such laws ban do not straightforwardly increase lethality. Many writers have noted that even high-capacity magazines are a mixed bag for would-be mass murderers. They make reloading less frequently necessary, but they are also more likely to jam — as James Holmes’s did in the theater in Aurora.


The fixation on the expiration of the ban as the source of our ills fits into the broader pathology with which liberals talk about gun control — namely, as if there weren’t any of it. Connecticut has robust gun-control laws, as does, for instance, Chicago, whose recent rash of gun murders must have Al Capone resting peacefully in his grave. Constructing new restrictions that would (a) have prevented Newtown and (b) be consistent with the Second Amendment is not nearly as easy as many on the left seem to assume. Indeed, few seem to understand, or admit, that the kind of gun-control legislation that could put a serious dent in gun violence would look a lot like the Volstead Act. How’d that work out?

Of course, it isn’t just the assault-weapons talk that catches liberals in leave of the facts. You’ll have also seen non sequiturs about the “gun-show loophole” or the scourge of handguns used in violent crimes, or ignorance of or elision of the meaning of words like “semi-automatic” and “machine gun,” none of which are straightforwardly related to the facts as we know them in Newtown. Which brings us to the third liberal virtue the current debate is wanting.

Often, before making an argument, conservatives must first establish that we bleed if pricked. This puts us at a chronic disadvantage. Liberals, by contrast, often pride themselves on the empathy endemic to their worldview. Conservatives are scolded (and, on occasion, not without justice) for failing to take into account the people whose lives our favored policies will affect. But surely this is true in spades for some liberals in the gun-control debate, whose fantasy policies would retroactively turn millions of Americans into felons. There is something deep and disturbing afoot when liberals talk condescendingly of who “needs” which guns and why, a “bitter clingers” lens through which they fail to understand the lives lived by not just many Republicans but, per the numbers above, many Democrats as well. Never mind rights endowed by our Creator, they don’t get why hunting, or self-defense, or recreation is a compelling reason to own a firearm, and they don’t feel any particular need to try.

Being familiar with guns, and the sort of folks who own them, is not a prerequisite for having opinions about gun control, of course. But it might make those opinions better informed — by the facts and by empathy.

Newtown might lead to some dramatic realignment of the gun-rights consensus in America, or it might — more probably — not. But if this tragedy is truly to be a “teachable moment,” it will require clear and sober thinking from Left and Right alike. And if we can’t expect liberals to adopt our worldview on such matters, we can at least ask them to live up to their own.

— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.