The Complexities of Tragedy and Good Governance
A closer look at America’s national discourse in the wake of mass murder.
There is no succinct way to capture fully the horror of the mass shootings which took place in Buffalo and Uvalde last May. Each was an event of undiluted evil, in which two twisted losers sought a small measure of significance by unleashing firestorms of death. The victims were robbed of their sacred right to life, and their friends and families must forever bear an unimaginable burden. The unique passions, talents, and kindnesses of those 31 New Yorkers and Texans cannot be duplicated or replaced.
In this moment of national pain, a deeper, more considered look at certain aspects our national gun debate is warranted.
Against the “Something, Anything” Caucus
The two shootings — just 10 days apart — sparked outrage, grief, and even panic as the nation attempted to process their significance and horror. And as can be expected after such episodes, a certain number of distraught gun controllers beseeched the federal government to do something, anything. Congress obliged, and President Biden signed a bipartisan “gun-safety” package into law last week.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) was pushed as a grand, historic compromise, but in reality it is a timid law, unlikely to substantially lower rates of gun violence. Among other measures, it subsidizes state “red flag” laws, designates billions of dollars for mental health and school safety programs, tightens the background-check process for 18 to 21-year-olds, and introduces new gun-buying restrictions on domestic abusers. Throwing money at complex societal problems rarely solves them, and the notion that this federal funding package will be the first to be perfectly implemented and perfectly effective is questionable at best. Moreover, while the law’s new restrictions on who can buy a gun may or may not be marginally useful, it fails to address any of the root causes of gun violence. Indeed, after the next mass shooting, the political discourse will be once again saturated with calls for Congress to do “something, anything” as if the BSCA never existed.
The assumption that “something, anything” is better than nothing must be countered. Governing is a delicate task, and blind flailing is not an effective legislative tactic; the law of unintended consequences is as sure as death and taxes. Even a cursory study of history demonstrates that action for its own sake leads to neither prosperity nor public contentment — just ask FDR — and, more fundamentally, it usually fails to achieve its own stated goals as well.
The cult of action is especially toxic when it is rooted in intense emotion. Anger and grief are healthy reactions to horrific events, but they cloud judgment. As Jonah Goldberg notes, when was the last time you make a great decision when you were blindingly angry?
Furthermore, the stakes are considerably higher when the government is curtailing a fundamental right. Ill-considered industrial subsidies or tariff regimes are bad enough, but America’s new gun law substantially limits many citizens’ constitutional right to self-defense. It is fair to argue that these new measures will save enough lives to justify their incursions on liberty, but that contention is unrelated to the notion that “something, anything” simply must be done.
Three Quiet Truths that Distort the Gun Debate
The first quiet truth that gun control advocates refuse to acknowledge is that no one actually knows the full answer to our nation’s gun-violence question. The knee-jerk preference of many gun-control advocates — a full ban on “assault weapons” — would be politically and practically impossible. And just as important to those of us who care about the Constitution, such extreme restrictions are illegal and an affront to natural law. What’s more, the 1994–2004 federal “assault weapons” ban did nothing to lessen gun deaths because criminals overwhelmingly prefer handguns and because the category of “assault weapon” is largely a social construct (forgive the zeitgeist-y term of art). Also worth noting are the historically diverging trend lines of gun sales and violent crime rates — the former climbs even as the latter plummets.
That two mass murderers did their odious work with similar ease in New York and Texas — mascot states for the polar extremes of the gun debate — further suggests that no one knows how to prevent mass shootings. Moving forward, this ignorance should be accepted. Instead of running straight to the federal government as so many “something, anything” folks are wont to do, the several states should be encouraged to experiment with various measures in order to find the correct balance between order and liberty. Finding this balance will take time, but it is nonetheless more likely to be arrived at through the collective efforts of 50 laboratories of democracy than those of a single centralized power. (Note: Opting to subsidize state “red flag” laws instead of establishing a uniform federal standard is one of the BSCA’s few virtues. To avoid question begging, however, note that many argue that such laws are conceptually flawed, no matter who is writing and administering them.)
The second quiet truth is that America has not one, but three distinct gun crises: mass murder, general crime, suicide. Although the mass murderers of Buffalo and Uvalde are a uniquely evil breed of killer, when the numbers are totaled, America’s common criminals and suicidal depressives are far more deadly. In 2020, for example, suicides were responsible for over half of total gun deaths, while what the FBI terms “active shooter incidents” resulted in less than 0.2% of gun-involved murders. What’s more, mass school shootings have claimed the lives of 146 people over 13 separate incidents since 1966. For reference, a total of 1,384,171 Americans were killed by firearms between 1968 and 2011. 146 is much too high a body count, but it is nonetheless far lower than one would assume when scrolling through Twitter.
To cite such statistics is not to say that the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde are unimportant — it is rather to recognize realty. A seasoned gangbanger and an 18-year-old psychopath bent on mass murder have wildly different motivations and behavioral patterns, and both killers are quite unlike a tragically depressed suicide. Preventative measures must target each type of killer individually rather than all three collectively.
The final quiet truth is that no law, existing or proposed, does any good if not properly enforced — and our nation’s gun laws certainly aren’t. Federal, state, and local reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is notoriously shoddy, resulting in numerous unfit persons legally obtaining firearms. “Straw buyers” who help criminals dodge background checks often go unpunished. And Kevin D. Williamson explains the leniency usually granted to those who do fail their background checks:
In 2017, the year the [Government Accountability Office] audited, there were 112,000 attempts by prohibited persons to buy a firearm that were stopped by the background-check system — that’s 112,000 federal gun crimes in which the perpetrator signed his name on the form and thereby provided all the evidence needed to convict him. Shockingly, the federal government simply ignored about 100,000 of those cases, investigating only 12,700. To be clear, this isn’t a mere paperwork crime we are talking about: According to the GAO, 36 percent of those 112,000 denied firearms were convicted felons, 30 percent were subjects of protective orders, and 16 percent had been convicted of disqualifying domestic-violence misdemeanors. These are the very people who should be our top priorities when it comes to fighting gun crime; in fact, the Department of Justice reports that about 30 percent of those who fail a background check are arrested on another criminal charge within five years.
Here’s the really bad part: Out of those 12,700 cases that were taken up for investigation, there were only twelve prosecutions.
In the end, however, the overwhelming majority of criminals get their grubby paws on firearms from a source other than a licensed gun store or a gun show. And after criminals obtain their hardware, America’s biggest cities — including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Houston — aren’t consistently arresting, convicting, or jailing them for the gun crimes they commit.
The crisis of enforcement is particularly striking when examining the circumstances that allowed the Uvalde shooter 77 minutes of free access to his victims. In a direct contravention of their training, school police stayed idle outside the classroom in which the slaughter was occurring. It was left to a heroic Border Patrol unit to drive 40 miles and gun down the murderer. In the interim, wounded students bled to death, separated from the idle officers by only a few feet and an unlocked door. The school police expended more effort arresting concerned parents who tried to enter the school than they did attempting to stop the shooter.
To make matters worse, authorities have spent the ensuing weeks dissembling, shifting the details of the official account like the metal filings in a “Wooly Willy” toy. Critical parents have been targeted, and records requests have been squashed. There is hope for justice, however, as a state-level investigation has been launched. Thus far, Uvalde school police chief Pete Arredondo is on administrative leave and has resigned from the City Council in disgrace, but further accountability is yet to materialize.
The Way Forward: An Incomplete Set of Solutions for the Future
The complex reality is that in order to substantially reduce gun violence in this country, many institutions and individuals must step up. The “something, anything” faction’s inability to appreciate this nuance is one of its greatest failures. By turning its single-focused gaze towards Washington and calling for a legislative panacea, it removes responsibility from all other institutions of government and civil society.
Indeed, enforcement of all gun laws — new and existing — must be strengthened at all levels of government. Federal and state agencies must tighten up their background-check protocols and rigorously impose penalties on fraudulent applicants. Local police forces must prosecute and jail criminals who commit gun crimes and the “straw buyers” who help the baddies obtain weapons in the first place. Democrat officials must put aside their ideological squeamishness and prosecute criminals who deserve it — regardless of skin color or socioeconomic background. And once shots are fired, police must do their moral duty to protect those to whom they are sworn.
Private actors must become more involved in softening America’s violent streak as well. Although contempt is often held for the notion that solutions lie in institutions of civil society, any serious, longterm cultural response to gun violence of all types must begin and end in the most basic units of American culture: the religious community and the family. Even many non-believers (including this author) have long argued that organized religion, for all its factual errors, provides otherwise atomized individuals with a sense of community and a moral code — treasures altogether unknown to America’s mass shooters. The career criminals who commit the bulk of American murders don’t go to church much, either.
Furthermore, parents must love their children enough to get them the help they need, no matter how uncomfortable the process may be. And fathers must love their children enough to stay in the home. Former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer has stated that he forcefully cracked down on the homeless people sleeping on his streets because he cared about them too much to leave them out to die. A similar approach must be taken with at-risk youth who display violent tendencies or signs of suicidal depression. The Uvalde shooter, for instance, self-harmed, fired BB guns at passersby, tortured animals, and made threats to murder and rape, but was never met with a meaningful response from his family or society at large.
Demanding “something, anything” of the federal government isn’t good enough. America must think more deeply about the root causes of all types of gun violence and take the many necessary to address each one. The institutions of our nation — federal and local, legislative and executive, public and private — must take responsibility for their own shortcomings instead of assuming that someone else will sort it all out.
A Thought on Independence Day
Yesterday was July 4th, a day on which we celebrate the values embedded in our nation’s genetic code. Almost a century ago, Calvin Coolidge stated,
It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern.
Coolidge rejects these claims, stating that the moral and political assertions in the Declaration of Independence are “final.” The New Englander was right, of course, and we must remember that we, the People, are tasked in every generation with the creation of an ever-more-perfect union, a union which will be freer, safer, and more prosperous for the next generation than it was for our own — a union that will better reflect the true meaning of its creed.
This “news”letter has dwelt on a dark subplot of the glorious American story. America has historically thrived by honoring the rule of law and by allowing individuals and communities the latitude to self-govern and flourish. What’s more, optimism and the pursuit of our own imperfectly-realized ideals are eternal fixtures in the American spirit. Let us look to this heritage in our current moment of crisis.
Author’s Note: Given the recency of yesterday’s shooting in Highland Park, this “news”letter forwent analysis of it. Suffice it to say that the facts of that case as currently known vindicate the arguments advanced above.
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