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The Politics of Moral Posturing

In the aftermath of the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we’re seeing a groundswell of support for stricter gun control laws.

The impulse is understandable. The public, and particularly the political class, feel like they need to do something to address killings like we’ve seen in recent years at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colorado, and now Newtown, Connecticut. A great evil has been perpetrated–and a great nation has to respond. There is an imperative to act. “You can’t just curse the night,” is how Fox News’ Juan Williams put it. “You have to do something.” CNN’s anchor Don Lemon went even further, saying, “It doesn’t matter if gun violence is down… We need to get guns and bullets and automatic weapons off the streets. They should only be available to police officers and to hunt al-Qaeda and the Taliban and not hunt children.” 

The danger, then, is that the powerful emotions of this moment lead us to act in ways that don’t actually address the problem–but do give the appearance of having achieved something worthwhile.

David Brooks, who is generally supportive of gun control legislation, has in the past criticized gun control supporters for what he calls “their colossal incuriosity about the evidence.” David points to two different studies–this one  by the Centers for Disease Control (which reviewed 51 published studies about the effectiveness of eight types of gun-control laws) and this one by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine–which find that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective. The case, then, is hardly dispositive.

I would add to these studies this 2007 article by the late James Q. Wilson, one of the greatest social scientists this country has ever produced and the author of several authoritative books on crime. According to Wilson, passing more gun control laws are not the answer. He acknowledged that easy access to guns makes deadly violence more common–but added there is no way to extinguish the supply of guns in America (which is approaching 300 million). “It would be constitutionally suspect and politically impossible to confiscate hundreds of millions of weapons,” he wrote. Professor Wilson pointed out that guns also play an important role in self-defense (somewhere between 100,000 and more than 2 million cases of self-defense occur ever year). And he added this: “We need to work harder to identify and cope with dangerously unstable personalities.”

It’s probably worth saying here that I’m not a great fan of the NRA and I don’t have a strong attachment to America’s gun culture. I’m quite open to what works, including greater restrictions on firearms. Nor do I believe there’s a constitutional right to possess, say, an RPG. Politics is about drawing lines and making reasonable distinctions.

But the impression I get from many of the advocates of gun control, in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, is empiricism be damned. Now is the time to strike, while emotions are raw. What matters is doing what feels right, what seems right, what looks right. This is politics as moral posturing–and it often leads to the passage of ineffective, and sometimes downright counterproductive, laws and agreements. (See the War on Poverty and the Oslo Accords for more.)

Among the side effects if gun control laws are passed is that those who championed them will feel as if they did something marvelous, whether they did or not. They will pretend they took a stand in solidarity with the families of the dead, whether they did or not. 

Which brings me back to CNN’s Don Lemon, who in his anti-gun commentary felt compelled to add this self-revelation: “Listen, for the past three days, I have been on the verge of tears every second, and most of the people here have been crying 24 hours straight.” 

I believe his sympathy is real, if unremarkable. Anyone who has followed this story cannot help but be touched by it. But you know what? A few weeks from now, and a few months from now, Don Lemon will have gone on with his life, as the rest of us will have gone on with ours. But the parents of the dead children will not. Their grief will remain. And there is a rather massive difference in the scale of the sorrow. So the people covering and commenting on the story might consider putting a bit of a check on the temptation to focus on their emotional state, which can easily spill over into moral exhibitionism. Don Lemon’s feelings may be genuine, but they are also relatively momentary. And his tears, and even his moral outrage, don’t actually make him particularly well informed on matters of public policy. Passion is not, and never has been, a substitute for cool reason.



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