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On Newtown and Gun Control: The Difficult Response



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After a man walked into a British elementary school in 1996 and killed 17 people, the British government summarily banned handguns. After yesterday’s massacre at Newtown, some in America would that Congress did the same here. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote yesterday afternoon that “gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.” He concluded with a general call for something to be done and the execrable charge that those who oppose “gun control” were complicit in the crime. This, sadly, is a predictable response. 

Arguments over the merits of gun control are made all the more difficult to navigate by the Left’s stubborn denial that we are already having a debate on the issue. Gun-control propositions are by no means new, and nor is there a lack of a “national conversation on the subject.” Instead, the national conversation is ongoing, and the Left is losing it badly. Gun-control advocates may talk of national soul searching and dialogue, but in truth that already exists; what they mean is that they’d like to win for a change.

The Gopniks of the world don’t tend to win, however, because their arguments are weak and because their thinking is shallow. It is quite literally unfathomable to almost every human being that a man could shoot his mother dead. It is perhaps doubly unfathomable that someone could shoot a group of little children. To have done both on the same day is nothing short of astonishing. Herein lies the essential problem for those who would radically change our constitutional order: Americans know that they could never do such things whether they had no guns or 200 guns at their disposal. The mind of a man so ill or depraved that he is capable of an atrocity such as we saw at Newtown is not one that can be constrained by law. Nobody refrains from shooting up a school because it is illegal.

There are at least 200 million privately owned guns in America, and Connecticut regulates access to them more strictly than most states. To believe that yesterday’s crime could have been prevented, you have to presume either that a man willing to go to such grievous lengths could have been deterred from doing so by stronger laws, or that those stronger laws could rid America of privately available guns completely — thus making the killer’s task an impossible one. I believe neither thing. To pass a law is not to achieve its aims, and one suspects that any attempt at gun control in America — which outlaws and the deranged will naturally ignore — would be destined to be filed next to Prohibition and the War on Drugs in the annals of man’s folly.

American liberties, including the right to bear arms, pre-exist the federal government, and are defined and protected in the same document from which the state derives its authority and its structure. In a free republic, the people cannot be disarmed by the government, for they are its employers, and they did not give up their individual rights when they consented to its creation. There is no clause in our charters of liberty that allows for the people to be deprived of their freedom if and when a few individuals abuse theirs. Moreover, contrary to the rhetoric of many, America is not in the middle of a crime epidemic. As laws have been liberalized over the last 40 years, crime has dropped significantly. The partial incorporation of the Second Amendment by the Supreme Court, along with the decline in public support for gun control and the passage of state-level concealed-carry laws has done nothing to check this trend.

Contrarily, school shootings, such as the nauseating and heartbreaking spectacle we saw yesterday, are seemingly on the rise — as are other mass shootings, such as that which afflicted Aurora, Colo., earlier in the year. As Ezra Klein has observed, “of the 12 deadliest shootings in U.S. history, six have taken place since 2007.” This is a separate problem. What is causing this is not yet known and probably underinvestigated, but it is certainly not guns. The American republic stood for almost 200 years before the first school shooting occurred. Something is awry, to be sure; to blame guns is a mistake.

It is often glibly asserted that mine is the “easy” response. On the contrary, it is the difficult response. To shout “do something” or “ban guns” is the facile suggestion, and nonchalantly to content oneself that laws passed in a faraway city will fix society’s problems is the comforting conviction. My judgment, by contrast, is the terrifying one: to realize that there is very little than one could have done to stop yesterday’s abomination is to understand that we are sometimes powerless in the face of evil, however much we shout about it.



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