March 19, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Guns and Poses

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When Nikolas Cruz opened fire in Parkland on Valentine’s Day, the shooting left in its wake not only the usual and maligned ‘thoughts and prayers,’ but an avalanche of gun control advocacy. However, the response to the Parkland shooting could, ironically, end up being detrimental to meaningful solutions to gun violence. Many on the left correctly criticize the right for being sensationalist and for seeking overly simplistic solutions to deep and complex issues. Yet, many gun control advocates seem to fall into the same trap.

The elevation of the Parkland students to the forefront of the national conversation on gun control is, quite frankly, manifestly inconsistent. There is perhaps nothing that tanks an objective analysis of policy more quickly than allowing pathos to block logical assessment. And the left understands this. When Donald Trump referenced so called “Angel Moms” whose children had been killed by illegal immigrants, Michelle Goldberg wrote in Slate that “We rightly accord a measure of gravitas and moral authority to people who have suffered family tragedies, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with them about the meaning of their loss.”

Goldberg is right. Imbuing victims — perhaps the most likely people to be skeptical of factual analysis given their experience — with a reverential position is not the way to legislate. Yet the left is eagerly thrusting the responsibility for gun control to high schoolers without recognizing the nuances and underlying factors of gun violence.

These are complicated issues that must be grappled with comprehensively. Gun control is not remotely close to a catch-all. Even the vaunted Australian example, which is not necessarily applicable to America in the first place, suggests that, while gun control has a major effect on firearm related crime and reduces mass shootings, total homicide rate is hardly affected, if at all. Australia illustrates the limitations of focusing on mass shootings. Do we really prioritize reducing the relatively small number of incidents involving highly concentrated violence than reducing the total number of killings? This notion was picked up by the progressive Century Foundation in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting with the conclusion that:

“While mass shootings compose less than 0.01 percent of gun-related violence…the media’s response to these tragic incidents tends to be wall-to-wall, non-stop coverage. Comparatively little coverage is dedicated to much more common forms of gun violence…the term “Orlando shooting” yielded 14,747 news articles while “shootings in Chicago” yielded just 262 news articles. The Orlando mass shooting received sixty-five times more coverage than the Chicago shootings that have left thousands wounded and hundreds dead.”

If we truly want to reduce violence, we can look to cities like New York where local programs based on ideas like innovations in policing and courts have helped lead to historic drops in violent crime — down 66% since 1985. New York is far from perfect but its comprehensive approach to crime reduction is a blueprint for the nation. It is easier and simpler, however, to look at the attention grabbing mass tragedies and shake our fists than to really study the data. Let’s be clear: even if we passed a ban on assault weapons, or something like it, it would be an insufficient solution to violence on the whole and any hope of addressing the roots of violent crime would again vanish from the national consciousness.

Thus, it is deeply ironic to me that the left is so focused on guns. For all of the accusations of the right being obsessed with firearms, it seems that the left is similarly enthralled by devastating sensationalism. Could it be that the left is susceptible to the same variant of fear mongering it has vehemently decried when used by conservatives? The issues are, of course, different. But the main point — that making emotional appeals without the benefit of carefully analyzed data is a terrible way to decide policy — is present whether it be Republican firebrands on immigration or liberal firebrands on guns.

This is a central problem: the surreptitious duplicity of the media and of politicians distract us from rational assessment and focus on generating brief spikes in public interest — or even sustained pushes for inadequate solutions — at the price of legitimate reform. The media get views, politicians get a soapbox and job security but little of substance changes.

This is not to say that gun control should not be pursued. I support gun control, I would be perfectly happy if we woke up tomorrow and no civilians in the country had access to firearms. However, though I agree in principle with bans on assault weapons and I firmly support background checks, I believe that the underlying violence that gun control is trying to solve is most effectively prevented through local initiatives and that such efforts must be driven by accurate methodology which is now in short supply.

We ignore the underlying factors at our own risk. Progressives have been willing to make broad emotional arguments that have little basis in practicality, even when such courses are devastating to actual attempts to ameliorate the problems of crime and violence. Skeptics are more than happy to tune out the left — we need not make it any easier. The backbone of ethics is consistency and to have credibility on the national stage we on the left must reckon with our sensationalist impulses. To actually accomplish what we all seek — a safer America — we have to avoid the melodramatic posturing that plague our national debate.

Jack Carlos Mindich is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Guest Room runs periodically this semester. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.