Politics & Policy

On Not Thinking about Newtown

Liberals take leave of the liberal virtues.

We’re often told that there are no words to describe the grief of losing a young child. But I — like, I suspect, a lot of people — spent the first 48 hours or so after Newtown trying, often involuntarily, to find them. The grief, as I imagined it whenever there was nothing to distract me, was twofold. There was the sudden end of the joyful process of the unfolding of a little human being. Not just first steps and baby teeth, but the day that reasoning from cause to effect kicks in, the day they first “get” a joke or make one, the mastery of thumbs, the first verbalization of why peas are so awful, all the million little benchmarks these creatures hit on the road to adulthood. This is the selfless grief of seeing something beloved and unique and good-for-its-own-sake extinguished from the world.

But concomitant with that grief is a more selfish mourning — the mourning of the author, of the creator, of the parent. To see the most important thing you will ever make, to see the years of uphill struggle to be sure your child is healthy and safe and as well equipped as possible for the cosmically improbable survival and flourishing of human life, evaporate in the face of entropy or insanity or evil, must be . . . 

Well, maybe there aren’t any words, after all.

I start with this brief catalogue of despair because its singularity explains why, when it’s children, when it’s 20 dead kids in a small town, it just feels different. And that might help explain why the on-cue calls for “a frank conversation about gun control” feel different this time as well — different, even, from the calls after Tucson and Aurora. It might explain why even nominal moderate Republicans such as Joe Scarborough are talking loosely about putting our children above the “deadly dogmas” of gun rights, or why NRA-endorsed Democrats such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — who literally shot a copy of a cap-and-trade bill with a rifle in a political ad — is saying “everything should be on the table” in terms of new laws in the wake of the tragedy. Or why liberals everywhere seem to think they’ve finally found the unwastable crisis in the gun-control debate.

But while the tenor of the debate feels different, if you sniff around the Internet for a while or flip past MSNBC, you’ll notice that the arguments that the near and far Left are advancing in favor of “doing something” are much the same as they’ve always been. And like the umpteen iterations that followed the last umpteen prominent gun crimes, these arguments are lacking. Not just in their failure to pay due respect to traditionally conservative virtues (devotion to personal freedom, the Constitution, the right to self-defense — take your pick), but in their failure to apply traditionally liberal virtues — virtues such as pragmatism, empiricism, and empathy.

Pragmatism

We’re regularly told that the mainstream American Left is largely concerned with “what works” and uniquely in tune with the practice of politics as “the art of the possible,” where “the perfect” is never “the enemy of the good.” This set of skills and the clichés that describe them are typically grouped under the banner of pragmatism. Of course, National Review editors have been known to write entire books problematizing this understanding of pragmatism and its relation to liberalism, but let’s leave such Goldbergian ruminations to one side and accept the conventional use. There is what can only be described as a breathtaking lack of pragmatism in the early post-Newtown gun-control debate.

Consider the numbers. There are 300 million guns in America. According to recent surveys, 47 percent of adults live in homes with at least one firearm. Fifty-five percent of Republican-leaners and — shock — 40 percent of Democratic-leaners own guns. With the exception of certain largely coastal, largely urban enclaves, the vast geographic expanse of the country is gun-friendly. And discounting post-tragedy perturbations, the enduring public-opinion trend over the last 20 years is that we have too much, or just the right amount, of gun control.

And consider the legislative environment. In the National Rifle Association’s latest lifetime ratings on gun issues, there are 267 elected officials who receive ratings of 50 percent or better and 222 who receive ratings of 92 percent or better, compared with just 171 who receive 50 percent or worse and 143 who receive a 0 percent rating. And these ratings come from 2006, before significant net Republican gains, particularly in the House and state governorships, and a significant net conservative shift in the Republican congressional caucus as a whole. Meanwhile, the Roberts Court has in a pair of decisions unambiguously rolled back the restrictive 1939 interpretation of the Second Amendment as a collective right, constraining even solidly liberal localities from enacting onerous restrictions on gun ownership.

Liberals are of course free to engage in all of the advocacy and lobbying they like in an effort to change hearts and minds, but to push major new restrictions on gun rights in such an environment would be thoroughly unpragmatic.

Empiricism

Hand in hand with the cherished liberal virtue of pragmatism is the virtue of empiricism, of “going where the facts lead you” and not letting ideology crowd out efficacy. When it comes to governing, two noncontroversial, logical corollaries of this commitment are that government should attempt to solve only problems that actually exist, and that proposed solutions should solve the problems they were proposed to solve, and not other, different problems. Would that these were cleaved to in the post-Newtown discussion.

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.

Empathy

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.

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