We are at risk of allowing what happened in Parkland, Florida, to drive us into a fit of moral panic. As an example of this tendency, consider the piece by Laurence Steinberg that is currently featured on the front page of the New York Times.
“We should lower the voting age to 16,” Steinberg argues. Why? Primarily, it seems, so that we can get more gun control. Having anticipated a few objections to the idea of lowering the voting age per se, Steinberg buttons his argument with a rather remarkable comparison:
The last time the United States lowered the federal voting age was in 1971, when it went from 21 to 18. In that instance, the main motivating force was outrage over the fact that 18-year-olds could be sent to fight in Vietnam but could not vote.
The proposal to lower the voting age to 16 is motivated by today’s outrage that those most vulnerable to school shootings have no say in how such atrocities are best prevented. Let’s give those young people more than just their voices to make a change.
One does not need to be indifferent to what happened two weeks ago in Florida to find this analogy startling. Changing the voting age, remember, requires amending the Constitution — a notoriously difficult thing to do. The attempt was successful in 1971 because most voters were not only aware of what was happening in Vietnam, but also remembered what had happened in Korea, and during the two World Wars: Namely, that millions of men had fought and died for their country, but been unable to vote in its elections. Per the Department of Veterans Affairs, four million Americans fought in World War One, 116,516 were killed, and 204,002 were wounded. In World War Two, those numbers were sixteen million, 405,399, and 670,846. In Korea, 1,789,000 served, 54,246 were killed, and 103,284 were wounded. And in Vietnam, 3,403,000 served, 90,220 were killed, and 103,284. In all of these wars, 18-year-olds were drafted (in WW1 the age was lowered to 18 in August 1918; in WW2, the draft age was lowered almost immediately after America entered the fray; during Korea, the draft age was lowered to 18-and-a-half in 1951; and the age was 18 throughout the Vietnam War). That so many were required to fight but also denied the vote was, eventually, seen as an injustice.
As disgusting as they are, school shootings do not in any way rise to this level. The United States is presently more peaceful than it has been for half a century — and possibly more. Over the last three decades, violent crime has plummeted, as has violence committed with firearms. Moreover, school shootings in fact seem to be down, even as mass attacks of all sorts seem to be up a little in general. Whatever impression we might get from the media — and from the president — we are not currently living through a “crisis” or an “epidemic” of violence. Rather, we have a narrow and extremely complex problem with copycat shooting attacks. We should, of course, address this problem, not ignore it. But there is addressing a problem and then there is panicking about a problem, and amending the Constitution so that 16- and 17-year-olds can vote on this topic would sit more in the latter category than the former.
There is always a risk of over-attending to spectacular attacks, and we are beginning to do that here. By the time the clock strikes midnight, an average of 21 Americans will have been killed by drivers aged between 16 and 20. Tomorrow, on average, eleven teenagers will die because they were texting while driving. This year, around 70 people will be killed by lawnmowers. These incidents will not prompt calls for profound constitutional change on the front of the New York Times, and nor should they. Some perspective is called for.