Thursday, December 27, 2012

On prohibition (of guns)

Whenever I come across a politically charged issue like the one on gun control that has sprung up in the wake of the events in Newtown, I tend to take some time to properly synthesize my thoughts, so as to avoid speaking off the cuff and saying something un-careful that adds to the chorus of stupidity that typically surrounds these types of events and issues. Having now taken an appropriate amount of time to have done so, I'll now share my thoughts, hopefully in a manner that is both sensible and organized (rather than a rambling brain-dump).

Obviously (and mostly correctly), the tragedy in Newtown has sparked a significant wave of support for new gun control laws, or at least for a re-introduction of past gun laws that have since lapsed. When I try to assess the likely impact of such proposed laws, I think that it's always best to rely on the predictive power of analogies. In the case of guns, I think it's impossible to talk about any sorts of limitation or prohibition without first considering our nation's experience with the prohibition of alcohol, marijuana, and abortion—all things for which there is/was an intense societal desire, but also a significant social or moral concern. Suffice it to say, the experience of such prohibitions has been mixed at best. Unintended consequences have a tendency to crop up in strange and undesirable ways, much like in the case of bans on texting while driving.

The last thing we need is to institute a counterproductive law that ironically makes our problem worse, not better. History has shown that when people have an intense desire to possess or to do something, they typically will find a way. People and corporations are incredibly resourceful when they need to be, which of course is why we now have corn in our Coca-Cola.

But what concerns me more about the response to the Newtown incident isn't my suspicion that gun control laws would fail, but more that we are focusing on largely the wrong issues. While we can't know entirely what was going through Adam Lanza's head on the day that he decided to become a national pariah, we owe it to ourselves (and to the slain children) to try our best to understand, rather than to simply blame his tools and be done with it.

Ultimately, the laser focus on guns and gun control in the past few weeks has all the traditional markers of scapegoating. We have in front of us a very complex and uncomfortable issue, with many factors potentially playing a hand in ways that we may not fully appreciate. But instead of trying to unpack a large and messy issue, we instead focus on the easiest (or most convenient) explanation, and in doing so we rely on what is an overly simplistic narrative of What Happened That Day In Connecticut.

In the discussion on gun control, there is a serious issue of what is said versus what is left unsaid. What is largely left unsaid is our implicit assumption that a certain subset of Americans will always want to do great harm to other Americans, and that we must therefore act to minimize the damage that they can do. We ask very few questions as far as why those Americans must exist, or why they continue to do things like this at a rate that seems to be increasing by the day.

Is there something ill in our society that causes people to become so hopeless or disillusioned that they think these acts are the only way by which they can obtain any attention or fame? Are we doing a disservice to the mentally ill people in our society, ignoring them to the point that they begin doing desperate and irrational things? Could it even be that the drugs we use to try to treat these people's "symptoms" are doing more harm than good (unintended consequences, revisited)? All of these are relevant and important questions and discussions, and yet they have so far largely been drowned out by a chorus of "MORE GUN CONTROL NOW" demands from all corners of the country.

One of the most compelling ironies that I've come across in the past couple weeks came courtesy of the following tweet:

Indeed, this central irony of media coverage is both poignant and dangerous. If you mention the names "Dylan and Eric", most people in my generation will still know who you're talking about, even a decade and a half after the original incident. That's somewhat sick, and it's definitely part of the problem. For good or for bad, the individuals who shoot up schools become national celebrities, and everyone instantly knows who they are—it took mere minutes for the name "Adam Lanza" (well, Ryan Lanza at first, but I digress) to be known from coast to coast. For kids who feel small or hopeless or depressed, it doesn't take much for that kind of anti-hero worship to become incredibly alluring.

I think it's incredibly dangerous for us to singularly focus on gun control as the remedy to our current problem while ignoring the dynamics that I've (ever so briefly) mentioned in this post. Even if our country had no guns at all, it would still be possible for Timothy McVeigh to blow up a building with fertilizer and diesel fuel, and it would still be possible for the next Adam Lanza to emulate these Chinese men, who terrorized schools not with guns but with knives.

Ultimately, the longer this country goes on ignoring the more difficult and important questions in our society, the harder those issues will become to address in the future. It's basic kick-the-can behavior, which doesn't work any better in cases of mass murder and psychological distress than it does in the case of debt crises.

We often take it for granted that America is the greatest country in the world, but quite frankly, in many ways, it is far from it. In the greatest country in the world, Newtown shouldn't happen. In the greatest country in the world, we take care of all our citizens, BEFORE they get desperate and do crazy things, rather than waiting for a great tragedy to show our support (or condemnation). In the greatest country in the world, we try to rehabilitate the mentally ill, we don't just ostracize them and put them in a padded room. And in the greatest country in the world, we don't sit and stare while our suicide rate stagnates at roughly twice the rate of Spain, Italy, and the U.K.

In the greatest country in the world, we ask the tough questions, and we ask them early. Rather than shying away from uncomfortable discussions, we embrace them and attack them head-on, sensing an opportunity to make a great nation even greater. In the greatest country in the world, we don't ask how we can keep bad people from getting guns, we ask how we can keep from having "bad people" in the first place.

Incidents like the one in Newtown are unacceptable, but simply shrugging our shoulders and pretending that blaming guns is a sufficient response is even more unacceptable. The victims and their families deserve better than that, but we all stand ready to give them short shrift. Unfortunately, that's becoming the American way, and it's an awful, awful trend.

If we all accept on faith that gun control and gun control alone is the proper response to Newtown, then I can give you 100% assurance that there will be another Newtown in our not-too-distant future. And in the greatest country in the world, that's just not okay.

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