On Friday there was much argument about the appropriateness of immediately “politicizing” the abomination at Sandy Hook Elementary. Most of it missed the mark. The truth is that the horror of Newtown, Conn, is neither “political” nor “apolitical,” but pre-political. How else to conceptualize the instinctual wrenching of the gut, at such great remove, by so many Americans? What human imperative is more basic than the imperative to protect our families? What need is more prerequisite to the very advent of civilization than the need to vouchsafe the future for our children?
What happened in Newtown is not an occasion for a national political “conversation.” It is an occasion to reflect on why we have political conversations at all.
Four hundred–plus years of political theory in the Western tradition relies on the premise that citizens are at some basic level rational beings — differently endowed in virtues, and all capable, to be sure, of great foolishness and mischief and even evil — but in fundamental ways predictably human, and by extension answerable to reason and morality. The murder of 27 innocents by a moral monster reminds us that the great challenges to the practicability of this theory are the young and the mad — those who cannot yet fully answer to reason and morality, and those who never will. By consensus, we agree that children and madmen lack certain liberties the rest of us enjoy, and that we have toward them correlate paternalistic duties that we don’t toward each other. As ever, the devil — the politics — lies in the details.
It is easy, and in moments of despair such as Friday quite understandable, to scream “more” to gun control, “more” to the morass of airport-style security that is spreading its way across our institutions, “more” to the diagnosis and institutionalization of the mentally ill. But it is much harder to write the laws that would have guaranteed Adam Lanza could never find a gun, or enter a school by force, or go without what diagnosis, treatment, and supervision he might have needed. And hardest of all to write them in such a way that the republic we’d be left with would still look like America in the ways we value most.
This is not so say such laws cannot or should not be written — in the field of mental health, in particular, we think there are commonsense reforms that might make tragedies such as Newtown less likely — but merely to caution humility and care in their crafting.
The need for humility is especially acute in the case of gun control. The irreducible challenge the Second Amendment poses to gun restrictionists is that it does not bestow upon the people a right they previously lacked. It proscribes the government from infringing upon a right the people already have. It is not that the people are allowed to arm. It is that the government is disallowed to disarm them.
The practical consequence of living for nearly two and a half centuries under the almost universally benevolent protection of the Second Amendment is a society in which there are hundreds of millions of guns, in which 47 percent of families — and nearly as many Democrats as Republicans — own guns, and in which the dissent over the sacrosanctity of gun rights is heard largely because of the overrepresentation in the media of the coastal, urban Left. Those upset with the order of things are welcome to try, and doomed to fail, to repeal the Second Amendment via the constitutional process. But the guns of America aren’t going anywhere any time soon, and generic calls to “do something” — even insofar as doing something is desirable — must reckon with this fact.
On Friday, the president promised “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” We doubt that something like this is possible, in a way consistent with the principle and the fact of the Second Amendment. If the possibility of terrors like Newtown is a reminder of why we need politics, their reality is a reminder that politics can do only so much.