On the morning of October 1, 1997, 16-year-old Luke Woodham of Pearl, Mississippi slit his mother’s throat, grabbed a rifle, loaded his pockets with ammo, and drove his dead mom’s car to Pearl High School. There he opened fire, killing two kids and injuring seven others. Woodham then got back in the car with the intention of heading to nearby Pearl Junior High, where he planned on becoming his own copycat. But he never got there. Woodham crashed his car when he saw another gun trained on him through the windshield. That gun belonged to Pearl High’s vice principal Joel Myrtle, who had got his Colt .45 out of his truck at the first sound of shots fired. Myrtle managed to subdue Woodham until police showed up.
The similarities between the Pearl High School shooting and Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook are strong. Depraved minds are rarely original. But the central difference between the two tragedies is important. Woodham, unlike Adam Lanza, was stopped mid-rampage by a law-abiding citizen with a gun. We can’t know how many innocent young lives the quick-thinking vice principal saved. While this doesn’t constitute an air-tight case for the availability of guns as defense against gun violence, it does remind us that such a case exists. It is a thoughtful case for saving lives, not ending them. Its defenders can adduce mounds of supporting data. And it is a case grounded in constitutional rights.
None of that means the “pro-gun” argument should prevail. But it should be heard and debated, and its adherents should be shown the same respect as gun-control advocates. Both groups, after all, want to see fewer Sandy Hooks.
And yet that’s not where we are. The current “debate” is mooted by its own terms: guns are the problem and fewer guns the solution. The only matters up for discussion are which guns to ban, how to enforce the ban, and are Second Amendment advocates cruel or just dumb. This is where we’ve been heading for a while. In March 2011, 48 hours after the post-earthquake explosion at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel reneged on extending the life of her country’s nuclear reactors. At the time, I wrote:
Hysteria on the largest scale possible has become the default official response to all crises. A lay public furnished with near-instantaneous media coverage can be counted on to demand immediate and absolute measures so that the crisis can be scrubbed from consciousness, however crudely or illogically. And over-monitored leaders will be sure to comply. Today a politician can lose his job if he doesn’t swiftly change historical precedent to fit the frenzied misinterpretation of a still-breaking news story.
That’s where we are. Reactive, finger-snap solutionism. If a single nuclear plant explodes, immediately move to halt civilian nuclear energy. If a hurricane devastates the East Coast, demand climate-change legislation. If a spree-killer goes on a rampage, get rid of guns.
The problem is that weather is, scientifically speaking, a chaotic system. And so too is human interaction. There is no one solution for keeping the chaos at bay. But, believe it or not, conservatives have thoughtful proposals about mitigating chaos or reducing its negative impact on people. The very night that Hurricane Sandy hit, the New York Times published an editorial explaining that such events demonstrate the need for big government. But many conservatives believe that big government was itself partially to blame for the damage done—without federal flood insurance no one would have developed homes so dangerously close to the water in the first place. Scaling back big government is not a matter of short changing those who have it hard but of sparing them the negative effects of poorly executed government intervention. A similar idea informs pro-Second Amendment arguments. If the government takes guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, only determined law-breakers will be armed in the event of attack.
The fault for not having real debate does not rest exclusively with progressive solutionists. It’s time for conservatives to drop their embattled and antagonistic posture. If they don’t want every crisis to automatically affirm progressive ideas they must acquaint Americans with why their own—sometimes, counterintuitive—ideas actually work for the good of the country.
There is little doubt that the Newtown killings have materially changed the discussion in this country about guns. The shock and horror about the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has created a demand for some sort of action by the government that will assuage the public’s need to believe that another school massacre can somehow be prevented. The result is that President Obama has the opportunity to pursue an assault weapons ban or restrictions on ammunition without having to worry very much about the usually vociferous opposition to such measures from the National Rifle Association and its many supporters.
That such measures are unlikely to prevent mentally unstable persons from obtaining weapons is almost beside the point. Governments cannot legislate the abolition of the sort of evil that led a disturbed individual to kill children in Connecticut last Friday. Nor is it likely or even desirable that Washington seeks to restrict the rights of Hollywood or video game makers that produce the sort of violent entertainment that creates the culture of violence that may also contribute to crime. Sadly, there is little likelihood that any of this will lead to a push to give more funding to the sort of mental health issues that do lead directly to violence.
Yet at a time when the public wants something done, any solution that speaks to the revulsion people feel about the slaughter of 1st-graders will provide a degree of catharsis. With even pro-gun legislators saying they will support gun control and the NRA effectively silenced, the field is open for a game-changing push from the White House. The question is not whether it will happen but whether the president will overreach.
Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, famously said of the 2008 financial meltdown “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” That sort of thinking led to a decision to exploit the situation to push through a liberal wish list in the form of a trillion-dollar stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. The former failed to revive the economy and the latter bogged the administration down in a crippling debate when its political capital might have been better spent on efforts to bring down the unemployment rate. Yet the president’s re-election last month may have convinced him that he was right all along about everything even if the new year may bring worse economic news that the implementation of ObamaCare will only exacerbate.
If the president opts for a quick, limited push on assault weapons that will allow him to say he has responded to Newtown effectively, the result will likely be an easy victory that will enable him to start off his second term on a positive note. However, the temptation to exploit this gun control moment may be overwhelming.
Liberal interest groups see the emotional reaction to Newtown as their chance to roll back gun rights in a way that would have been unimaginable only a week ago. But if Obama listens to them, he could overplay his hand and risk losing the support of the vast majority of Americans who support sensible restrictions on military-style weapons but not anything that smacks of an attack on the Second Amendment. The gun control moment is here, but the president and his supporters need to be wary of misinterpreting the reaction to Newtown with an overreach that could be a crippling mistake.