(This is not an easy read. It’s long and it’s emotional. I won’t be offended if people don’t read it. If you do, you might want to skip over the italicized parts, which are excerpted from the WSJ’s portraits of the victims. I can’t even get through one of them without my eyes watering. I’ve included them because I think we need to keep our eyes focused on the real story: the unspeakable tragedy that happened on Friday and those who lost their lives. But I’m hoping this is a bit cathartic and will lay out where I think we are and where I think we’re going as a nation.)
Dawn Hochsprung gave everything to the 500 families she counted as part of the Sandy Hook Elementary School community – including, in the end, her own life.
As school principal, she arrived early, stayed late and knew every name of the nearly 700 students at the school. She frequented the Sandy Hook Diner for early-morning meals before the school day began, sometimes holding meetings at the restaurant, recalled co-owner Ellie Lewis.
There are simply no words to convey the horror of what happened in a small Connecticut town on Friday. We’ve had mass shootings in this country before. We’ve had worse ones. But we’ve never had one that was so horrible, so pointless, so devastating: not in the era of mass media where it was brought into our homes so viscerally. It’s one thing to kill an adult. It’s one thing to kill someone over money or love or hate or by accident. But the mindset behind killing 20 innocent children and six of their teachers for no apparent reason is something incomprehensible to us. There is a deep-seated horror at the idea of children who should be running in the sunshine lying still in a classroom.
Nothing I could write and nothing we can do as a nation is capable of bearing the awful reality. And that’s for those of us who are at a distance, who are thousands of miles away, who don’t even know these people. I had held it together pretty well until I saw pictures of the makeshift memorial with toys and teddy bears. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the people there.
(Some people are drawing comparisons to drone strikes or bombings in the Middle East. That strikes me as an overreach. Children killed by accident in a war is a horrible thing. We can and should be appalled by it. Children killed on purpose during peace? That’s not even in the same ballpark.)
I can’t bring myself to claim that the immediate retreat of people into ideological holes — anti-gun and pro-gun especially — was disgusting or exploitative. That’s simply human nature. We can’t deal with the images and words coming out of Sandy Hook so we fall back on something easy to persuade ourselves that we can make it unhappen. If only we’d had gun control; if only the teachers had been harmed; if only someone had helped that kid …
I am hoping that this will eventually coalesce into something positive: a well-thought out way to make these tragedies less likely while still acknowledging that we can not prevent them entirely. That’s my hope, at least. My fear is that we will do something hasty and panicky and useless without thinking too much about it. That our desperate and deep need to “do something” about this awful shooting will drive us to do something stupid, useless and destructive to our freedom. We’ve been down that road before. I would prefer we not go down it again.
Below, I’ll address various suggestions for action. But let’s keep in mind: nothing can undo what has happened. Nothing can prevent it utterly. Despite our still raw emotions, we have to think in terms of the cold equations: weighing how each step will make these events less likely.
The Gun Thing. Again:
To neighbor Karen Dryer, Madeleine Hsu was Maddy, the little girl who always wore bright, flowery dresses and shared a ride to school with her 5-year-old son, Logan.
Ms. Dryer said Madeleine was “very upbeat and kind.”
“She was a sweet, beautiful little girl,” Ms. Dryer said.
Naturally, the conversation almost immediately went to guns and whether we should get them out of our society. I don’t really want to get into this very far because I just don’t see the point. We have three hundred million guns in this country. While gun ownership is steady or declining slightly, gun control is simply not politically popular. Almost every legal move over the last twenty years has been toward more gun freedom. And despite this — and I want to keep hitting this point — America is less violent than it has been in half a century. Murders are way down. School shootings are down. Assaults are down. All of it is down down down. (For the background on all these facts, check out Ezra Klein).
The reason these events always provoke an outcry for gun control is because they are the only times when there is even a flicker of public support. Connor Friersdorf has pointed out that we *have* had a dialogue about guns and the gun controllers lost. Nate Silver points out that it isn’t even discussed unless a shooting has happened.
The Supreme Court has recognized the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right. The President has stood back from any and all gun control measures except, perhaps, restoring the assault weapons ban. Even the gun control advocates are calling for, at most, closing the “gun show loophole” or tightening mental health restrictions, neither of which is particularly radical. Even the Brady Campaign admits that the Second Amendment protects an individual right.
Granted, this event may change the dynamics. But I really don’t think we’ll see anything radical. An assault weapons ban will in the offing (although the last one was haphazard and the weapon used was illegal in Connecticut anyway). We may see some efforts to tighten up background checks, as Jeffrey Goldberg advocated. It’s possible we will see a limit on magazines or background checks at gun shows, if they can be implemented easily.
But let’s put aside whether these actions are good or bad. They would do little to prevent events like this. Even assuming that a ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines worked as advertised, I don’t see that this would have been prevented if he’d only had two handguns with 10-bullet clips. It didn’t stop the Virginia Tech killer.
There are some comparisons being made to other countries, particularly Australia, which banned most guns after the awful Port Arthur incident. I don’t see these examples as particularly useful. Comparing us to countries that are a 15th of our size and are not as filled with guns as we are is of limited utility. The fact is that we have liberalized our gun laws over the last 20 years and violent crime has fallen like a brick. The predicted wave of shootouts over car accidents has not happened. We are not other countries; we are unique. We can sometimes learn from policies enacted in other countries. But they are not us.
Gun bans are simply not going to happen. And I think it’s a waste of time to pretend that they will, even if we punt on the wisdom of them.
Annie Get Your Gun
Boisterous and imaginative, Jesse was raised in the village of Sandy Hook with his brother, J.T. Family friends say he played with the family’s collection of animals: five horses; a mini-horse; a mini-donkey; three dogs; and chickens. Recently, he was learning to ride horseback, the friends said.
“Jesse was such an incredible light,” his mother, Scarlett Lewis, said in a email on Sunday. “So bright and full of love. He lived life with vigor and passion…brave and true.”
One idea that has surfaced again is the idea of arming the teachers. Eugene Volokh walks us through the logic, pointing out that people would not object to armed cops or armed security. So why would they object to schools being defended by a rigorously screened, checked and vetted security force: conceal-carry permit holders? (With the caveat that some states are a lot more lax with conceal-carry than others).
I think there is some merit to this idea, generally. But it also crosses me as a bit glib. There are very good reasons we do not allow dangerous weapons in schools that have nothing to do with being terrified of guns: the hundreds of little hands that could get hold of them. All we need is for one teacher to leave a firearm in an unlocked desk and the country will erupt.
I also think, like everything else, this is an over-reaction to a rare event. The chances of a teacher ever having any shooting in her school are about about one in 400 (one in 12,000 schools a year times thirty years of service). The chance of a mass shooting over her entire career are about one in 30,000. I do think revisiting gun free schools would be a good idea; maybe create a little doubt in the shooter’s minds. But the idea of “arming teachers” specifically is just as much an over-reaction as banning guns. These are rare events. They’re just as rare when you’re pro-gun as when you’re anti-gun.
Would arming teachers have stopped Sandy Hook? Possibly, assuming any of the teachers in the school had wanted to be armed. But I could just as easily see them being gunned down anyway by the guy with the three guns, the body armor and the crazy look in his eye. Defending yourself is not easy. Defending yourself against a maniac with screaming children underfoot would required extraordinary heroism and skill. Yes, armed people have stopped things like Pearl shooting. But we have to balance that against the very real risk of a bad accident involving a gun in a school, a prospect I see as much more likely than another mass shooting.
Lonely Among Us
Saxophonist Jimmy Greene moved his family from Canada, where he was a college professor, to Sandy Hook just a few months ago. A Bloomfield, Conn., native, he wanted to come home, where the heart is, he told the Hartford Courant in May.
On Saturday, a day after his 6-year-daughter Ana was shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Mr. Greene wrote on Facebook that he was trying to “work through this nightmare.”
One of the few positive things to emerge from this may be a renewed focus on mental health. Indeed, Nick Gillespie thinks this is the most likely response to the shootings: that we will ramp up services and be more attentive to disturbed individuals. We may even increase the power to confine people against their will. You can read this well-circulated essay about the frustrations of a mother dealing with a kid who doesn’t just have mental problems, but is violent.
I do think there is some progress to be made here, especially if we have a renewed focus on those who have violent tendencies and reopen the idea of involuntary commitment. This might have not have prevented Sandy Hook: the shooter had been identified as having problems, had adequate resources and had a mother who was taking care of him. But it may prevent future slayings.
We have to be careful here, however. Mental illness is a very broad category and there is no clear connection between mental illness, per se, and violent behavior. Depressives, for example, are rarely violent. And I can easily see this getting out of hand, with kids being confined or medicated just because they are a bit weird. We need to focus very very carefully here on people who are violent and disturbed.
First-grade teacher Vicki Leigh Soto, 27 years old, died trying to protect the children she loved, her cousin Jim Wiltsie said. When the gunfire started on Friday morning, she gathered her students and tried to hide them in a classroom closet, officials told her family.
There has been the usual call to make schools more secure: hire more guards, lock doors, etc. But I am loathe to make schools into police states — well, more than they are already. This school was locked down and the killer blasted his way in. Columbine had metal detectors. In fact, the Secret Service specifically said that the physical barriers at Columbine created a false sense of security (their entire report is worth a read (PDF).)
In end, we simply can not put up enough bars, enough bullet-proof glass and enough metal detectors to prevent a once-a-decade event. You have to remember that we are reacting to evil. When it comes to physical tactics, the evil guys get to make the first move and they will certainly be looking for ways to get around security measures. We shouldn’t make it easy, obviously. But trying to prevent last year’s horror won’t necessarily prevent next year’s.
He Who Shall Not Be Named
You’ll notice that, throughout this post, I have not referred to the shooter by name. As I articulated on the day, I don’t think we should be, in effect, making celebrities out of these guys. As always, these events are too rare to know what does and does not cause them. But I am sympathetic to the view that talking about the killer, putting his face everywhere, trying to figure out what motivated him doesn’t help. I am sympathetic to the idea of damnatio memoriae, of scrubbing from history those who have done vile things. That’s obviously impossible in the modern era. But I see no reason to indulge these monsters in a bit of herostratic fame.
Do I think media blackouts would prevent shootings? Probably not. Crazy people do not always make decisions for the reasons we think. To me, it’s more a matter of ethics. I would much rather talk about the victims and give the fame and recognition to them. Hence the quotes I’ve put in from the WSJ’s wrenching profiles.
Keep Calm and Carry On:
Charlotte had recently been shopping for a new outfit – a pink dress and white boots — that were set aside for the holidays. After weeks of Charlotte asking, her mother, JoAnn Bacon, finally relented on Friday, letting her daughter wear the clothes to school. Charlotte had even done her hair for the school day.
In the end, I find myself agreeing more and more with what Megan McArdle said yesterday: there isn’t a lot we can do about this short of shredding the Constitution. The policies people have proposed might make some small difference. They might make the occasional massacre less bloody. They might prevent one or two. We should do them. But this is case where everything people want was in place: background checks, assault weapons ban, mental health help, locked down school. And it still happened. We could ban all guns and one of these guys would re-enact the Bath, Michigan horror and blow up a school. It’s not that we shouldn’t do anything; it’s that we need to leaven our actions with the realization that our power to stop the one in a hundred million maniac is limited.
(McArdle actually wins the prize for one of the dumbest suggestions, which is that we train people to mass rush gunmen (not train kids, as some of her critics have said). Even if this were feasible, I find it ridiculous. A mass shooting will strike a school approximately once every million years. Any shooting is about once every 12,000 years. Training people to deal with something that is unlikely to ever happen, that they probably would not be able to think about if it did, crosses me as a colossal waste of time. We could do much more by trying to prevent the ordinary run-of-the-mill killings that constitute 99.5% of the violent crime in this country.)
We live in a big vast country. There are lots of open spaces and lots of freedom for people to get bad ideas and have them fester. We can pick at the margins. But the problems is that, to be safe, we have to be right all the time. The killers only have to be right once. It’s likely that dozens of these shootings have already been prevented through alert teachers and parents, through gun laws or through mental health efforts. Most of them were averted long before the real menace appeared. But if only one in ten million have the right combination of intelligence, freedom and malevolence to do something like this, that means have thirty potential mass killers roaming the country. We are looking for needles in a haystack the size of Central Park.
A Way Forward
It’s easy enough to poke holes in what everyone suggests; it’s harder to propose positive action. I will list what I think are not just reasonable steps but steps I think are likely to happen. The latter is important because, in the end, we are not going to ban guns in this country nor are we going to (nor should we) turn our schools into prisons.
Moreover, I think these are reasonable steps in the broad context of gun violence, not necessarily in the context of rare horrors that comprise less than half a percent of the violence in this country and go some years without happening at all.
Here’s what I would do:
Improve the databases we use for gun background checks so that it easier to identify people with histories of violence or psychological problems.
Improve mental health resources, particularly for people with violent tendencies. Part of this should be encouraging the families of those with psychological or violence problems not to stock firearms.
I think we are also likely to get the following, probably more at the local than federal level. I don’t think they will do much good but would be unlikely to do much harm.
Limitations on magazine size and an assault weapons ban.
Allowing conceal-carry in school for rigorously screened educators.
Background checks at gun shows, if they can be implemented.
Mostly, however, I think we need to keep doing the things that have cut violent crime in half over the last two decades. That means keeping violent people in prison. That means keeping guns away, as best we can, from crazy people and criminals while allowing the sane and law-abiding to bear. That means developing more resources to identify and stop dangerous people before they kill. That means remembering that these events, while awful are rare.
I wish I could sit here and type out some grand manifesto that would have everyone nodding and agreeing that this would prevent these events from ever happening again. But anyone who tells you that is lying to you. Anyone who say that there is a magic potion out there — be it gun control, armed teachers, locked up schools, God in the classroom — is telling you what you want to hear to push an agenda.
We have made progress in our society. In my lifetime, we’ve made huge inroads against things like drunk driving and discrimination. We’ve seen the monstrous evil of communism fall. We’ve seen violent crime surge to unthinkable levels and then roll back for reasons no one is really clear on.
There’s another reason I included the WSJ excerpts about the victims: as a reminder that the vast vast majority of people in this country are good. We outnumber the bad people a hundred to one. We outnumber truly evil people like the Connecticut shooter a million to one. This has its drawbacks: they are sometimes able to move among us like a wolf among sheep. But it also means the forces moving this country forward are vastly more powerful than those moving it backward into chaos and despair.
We will make progress on this. The problem seems massive and immovable right now because 2012 has been a terrible year for mass shootings. But overall violence remains down at levels we have not seen in half a century. We have made progress. We are making progress. We will make progress. And it will not be because of radical changes or sudden upheavals but because of the slow steady incremental changes that has worked so well for the two decades and the basic inherent goodness of the American people.