On Dec. 14, none of us were able to escape the tragic events that unfolded in Newtown, Conn. Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 people. Twenty of those people were children under the age of seven. The other six were teachers and staff who died trying to protect their students.
Since that day, numerous important debates were renewed. Several in the media discussed the impact of violence in movies and video games on society. The declining state of America’s mental health and care systems has also garnered a great amount of national attention. However, the biggest debate has been a renewed call for stricter levels of gun control in the United States. And in that discussion and the political debate that have followed from Sandy Hook, multiple segments of the American public have lost their minds.
Let’s be clear: what happened in Sandy Hook was deplorable. However, in responding to this tragedy politically we’ve gone completely off the rails with a purely emotional response.
It is understandable that our response to gun violence might be more intense after Sandy Hook: after all, the victims were children. But that doesn’t excuse us from the need to behave rationally. According to publicly-available government crime statistics, the rate of violent crime in the United States dropped by 50 percent between 1992 and 2011, from 757.7 per 100,000 people down to 386.3. Murder rates have also decreased by over 50 percent during that same time, from 9.3 per 100,000 down to 4.7. Additionally, in 2011, the rates of both violent crime and murders in metropolitan areas of over 250,000 people were over double that of the national average – 754.5 violent crimes and 10.1 murders per 100,000 people, respectively.
For a moment, consider our response to plane crashes. Do we ban all planes simply because of the tragic, deadly plane crashes that occur each year? No. We know objectively that the overwhelming majority of plane flights each year are safe, so we instead examine the details as to why that particular crash occurred. Using that knowledge, we can then formulate a solution, if one is actually necessary.
So why aren’t we doing the same with firearms?
No gun crime is good, but by looking at these statistics we can see that America is clearly becoming less violent than in previous years. Not only that, but we have the statistical tools at our disposal to isolate truly problematic areas and respond to those hotspots directly. So why aren’t we doing that? Why, as author and Breitbart editor-at-large Ben Shapiro recently accused Piers Morgan of doing on his CNN program, are so many people “standing on the graves of the children of Sandy Hook” and condemning anyone that doesn’t seem to believe that blanket gun restrictions are an appropriate solution?
I would argue that we as a society at large simply aren’t encouraged to think rationally on this issue.
Popular culture associates certain images of guns with action and violence. When we as individuals see a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle (the gun used by Adam Lanza), we tend to associate it with similar images of automatic rifles seen in scenes of violence and action: millions of bullets flying, blood spraying and Rambo swinging down from the ceiling complete with a bandana and cigar. We know intellectually and morally that those images are neither correct, nor appropriate to adopt in real life, but they are nevertheless still present in our thinking.
Those images makes us more likely to respond emotionally and collectively to a firearm rather than rationally and individually, and this phenomenon cuts both ways. One, it makes a negative or fearful response much more likely in groups that pick up on the negative imagery. And two, it makes a positive response more likely in communities that identify with the positive aspects of that imagery – both for law-abiding gun enthusiasts AND for those in the aforementioned urban areas of 250,000 who are actually using guns in violent crimes. This gap in emotional response discourages one half of the equation from engaging with firearms, resulting in less education and awareness about firearms, while the other half generally becomes more aware and at least peripherally better educated. In this debate, the evocative, less knowledgeable voices are often the loudest and most widely spread. When we hear those kinds of evocative, emotional arguments, we are instinctively encouraged to respond in kind – either negatively or positively – rather than to think through the issue rationally. But in reality, the facts are simple: technologically, there is very little difference between the Bushmaster XM-15 “assault rifle” and the Beretta pistol that your friends or family may own for self-defense.
Allow me to explain: Both are semi-automatic weapons, meaning that the gas released each time the gun fires is used to power an internal mechanism that automatically loads one new bullet into the chamber. Automatic weapons, by contrast, continuously fire so long as the trigger is pulled.
Really, the only differences between “assault weapons” as defined by the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons ban and semi-automatic pistols are a list of purely cosmetic features: flash suppressors, heat dissipators, bayonet mounts or pistol grips. None of these features actually changes the basic mechanical function of the gun. This is why many conservative critics have begun calling the recent outcry for new assault weapons bans as “scary-looking weapons” bans, because the entire conversation is predicated on cosmetic features rather than hard facts about the weapons themselves.
A more intelligent conversation is needed. Rather than blaming the weapons involved in crimes, we need to look at the perpetrators themselves. Where does the impetus for violent crime come from? Is mental health an issue? Why are certain areas of the country more violent than others? Without discussing these key questions – and prescribing appropriate solutions – we will do nothing to bring a halt to mass shootings in the United States.
And the political capital from Sandy Hook that could be used to truly help reduce violent crime in this country will instead be squandered, as it currently is, on virtually meaningless gun bans.
David Giffin is a second year Masters in Theological Studies student at the Candler School of Theology from Charleston, Ill.