Commentary Magazine


Topic: Newtown

Gun Push Is About Second Term Momentum

Even before President Obama announced his much-ballyhooed package of gun control proposals it was already clear that he had little or no chance to gain passage of the most talked about element of the package: a new assault weapons ban. Nor, as even as sympathetic a forum as the New York Times noted, was there much connection between most of what he is putting forward and the Newtown shooting, which serves as the impetus for raising this issue. Yet with the family members of the victims and children who wrote letters to the White House around them today, the president is plowing ahead determined to make the most of this opportunity to put an emotional issue at the center of the nation’s political agenda.

The president’s decision to go big with his gun proposal is made possible by the country’s shock and horror over the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Yet the far-ranging list of executive action and proposed laws is intended to deal with what the president called an epidemic of gun violence, not more incidents like Newtown. Some of them are anodyne in nature and unlikely to prompt much in the way of serious protest. Others, like the idea of a universal background check, are also designed to gain broad support. But the event held today isn’t going to lead to anything that will prevent another such atrocity. What it is designed to do is to give the president an emotional issue with which he can generate momentum that will start his second term on a strong note and with his Congressional opponents on the defensive.

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Even before President Obama announced his much-ballyhooed package of gun control proposals it was already clear that he had little or no chance to gain passage of the most talked about element of the package: a new assault weapons ban. Nor, as even as sympathetic a forum as the New York Times noted, was there much connection between most of what he is putting forward and the Newtown shooting, which serves as the impetus for raising this issue. Yet with the family members of the victims and children who wrote letters to the White House around them today, the president is plowing ahead determined to make the most of this opportunity to put an emotional issue at the center of the nation’s political agenda.

The president’s decision to go big with his gun proposal is made possible by the country’s shock and horror over the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Yet the far-ranging list of executive action and proposed laws is intended to deal with what the president called an epidemic of gun violence, not more incidents like Newtown. Some of them are anodyne in nature and unlikely to prompt much in the way of serious protest. Others, like the idea of a universal background check, are also designed to gain broad support. But the event held today isn’t going to lead to anything that will prevent another such atrocity. What it is designed to do is to give the president an emotional issue with which he can generate momentum that will start his second term on a strong note and with his Congressional opponents on the defensive.

Senate Democrats have already signaled to the president that they are not interested in a vote on an assault weapons ban even if passing it there would put the onus on House Republicans who will vote it down if it gets to them. Though the president used dramatic rhetoric about the need for more gun regulations today, it is doubtful that invoking the victims of Newtown and other tragedies will convince Congress to pass weapons bans that won’t do much to reduce crime. Nor is the unpopularity of the National Rifle Association or their bungling attempts to push back at NRA critics enough to produce the sort of sweeping legislation that would conform to the president’s wishes.

But the use of the White House ceremony as a bully pulpit to hound Congress on guns does give the president a stick with which he can beat Republicans both this year and perhaps even next year at the midterm elections.

President Obama vowed to go the mat to get Congress to support his proposals, but this push should not be seen as unrelated to the other conflicts the White House will be having with the GOP. The rhetoric and the tone of the president’s statements about guns are clearly aimed at isolating Republicans and branding them as extremists in much the same way he has spoken about raising the debt ceiling and taxes. He clearly hopes to win at least some of the fights he is picking with them on guns just as he has did with the fiscal cliff. But even if he loses, the overall strategy here is not so much about getting any specific measures passed as it is to brand his opponents as irresponsible and heartless.

The president knows that his re-election gives him a finite amount of political capital and a limited amount of time to use it. Most of his predecessors have squandered their second terms on failed efforts, like George W. Bush’s immigration and entitlement reform proposals, and were quickly reduced to the status of lame ducks. But exploiting Newtown in this manner even if he doesn’t get his way on assault weapons has the potential to give President Obama the ability to stay on the offensive and keep Republicans off-balance and reacting to his initiatives, rather than attacking on their issues like cutting spending. With the help of an always pliant mainstream media that is happy to let liberals drape themselves in the bloody garments of the Newtown massacre, President Obama may have given himself a major momentum surge no matter what happens in Congress to this legislation.

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Obama to Propose Assault Weapons Ban Tomorrow

Harry Reid tried his best to undermine any assault weapons ban proposal before it saw the light of day, but the Washington Post reports that President Obama is going ahead with it. The president will release his proposals for comprehensive gun control tomorrow, including as many as 19 executive orders:

President Obama will unveil a sweeping set of gun-control proposals at midday Wednesday, including an assault weapons ban, universal background checks and limits on the number of bullets magazines can hold, according to sources familiar with the plans. 

The announcement, to be delivered at the White House, is also expected to include a slate of up to 19 executive actions that the Obama administration can take on its own to attempt to limit gun violence.  The White House has invited key lawmakers as well as gun-control advocates to appear at Wednesday’s policy rollout, according to two officials who have been invited to the event.

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Harry Reid tried his best to undermine any assault weapons ban proposal before it saw the light of day, but the Washington Post reports that President Obama is going ahead with it. The president will release his proposals for comprehensive gun control tomorrow, including as many as 19 executive orders:

President Obama will unveil a sweeping set of gun-control proposals at midday Wednesday, including an assault weapons ban, universal background checks and limits on the number of bullets magazines can hold, according to sources familiar with the plans. 

The announcement, to be delivered at the White House, is also expected to include a slate of up to 19 executive actions that the Obama administration can take on its own to attempt to limit gun violence.  The White House has invited key lawmakers as well as gun-control advocates to appear at Wednesday’s policy rollout, according to two officials who have been invited to the event.

It’s clear an assault weapon ban would have a very difficult time getting through the Senate, and no chance at all getting through the House. So why include it at all? Maybe because it’s one of the only proposals that is semi-related to the Sandy Hook shooting, and has major support among the president’s base. It’s also a big, shiny target for the gun lobby to go after, which means less energy will be devoted to opposing the White House’s other proposals.

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Stop the War on Video Games

The shock and grief generated by the Newtown shooting has generated momentum for gun control advocates. That push will fail, as President Obama conceded today in advance of the release of Vice President Biden’s proposals, to pass a new ban on assault weapons. That’s the result of the reluctance on the part of Senate Democrats as well as Republicans to support such a measure. Despite the renewed focus on the issue as well as the backlash in the media against the National Rifle Association, there is little likelihood that there will be a significant expansion of limitations on gun ownership in the foreseeable future. But there is one aspect of the fallout from that tragedy that politicians from both parties and all parts of the political spectrum seem to agree on: video games are bad and help create a culture of violence that some see as partially responsible for the murder of 20 children and six adults in Connecticut last month.

Video games deserve censure for the way they have helped desensitize the country to violence. The same can be said about other aspects of popular culture including films, television, and the music industry in which vulgarity and graphic depictions of violence are rampant. Yet despite the claims that the Newtown killer liked such games, there is no reason to believe they are responsible for his crimes, especially when you consider that millions play them without being impelled to commit mass murder. Put in that perspective, it is clear that condemning them is merely a safe outlet for those wishing to put themselves on record as being horrified by the slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. However, if legislators determined to be able to say they did something in response to this incident choose to involve government in the question of what sort of games Americans play, they will have stepped over the line that separates normal political bloviating from a dangerous infringement on our constitutional liberties.

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The shock and grief generated by the Newtown shooting has generated momentum for gun control advocates. That push will fail, as President Obama conceded today in advance of the release of Vice President Biden’s proposals, to pass a new ban on assault weapons. That’s the result of the reluctance on the part of Senate Democrats as well as Republicans to support such a measure. Despite the renewed focus on the issue as well as the backlash in the media against the National Rifle Association, there is little likelihood that there will be a significant expansion of limitations on gun ownership in the foreseeable future. But there is one aspect of the fallout from that tragedy that politicians from both parties and all parts of the political spectrum seem to agree on: video games are bad and help create a culture of violence that some see as partially responsible for the murder of 20 children and six adults in Connecticut last month.

Video games deserve censure for the way they have helped desensitize the country to violence. The same can be said about other aspects of popular culture including films, television, and the music industry in which vulgarity and graphic depictions of violence are rampant. Yet despite the claims that the Newtown killer liked such games, there is no reason to believe they are responsible for his crimes, especially when you consider that millions play them without being impelled to commit mass murder. Put in that perspective, it is clear that condemning them is merely a safe outlet for those wishing to put themselves on record as being horrified by the slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. However, if legislators determined to be able to say they did something in response to this incident choose to involve government in the question of what sort of games Americans play, they will have stepped over the line that separates normal political bloviating from a dangerous infringement on our constitutional liberties.

Popular culture is always an easy target for those of us who deplore the dumbing down of America and the way civilized standards of behavior as well as faith have been relentlessly excised from so much of our daily lives. Count me among those who intensely dislike this trend. Yet to jump from that position to the conclusion that they can be directly linked to crimes is a leap of faith that is not justified by any evidence. Nor is it one that is backed up by the law.

Over the course of the last century, the entertainment industry has been blamed for the spread of crime. The first silent picture that depicted bandits robbing a train in the Old West was blamed for violent crimes in much the same way we now bash video game producers. The gangster flicks of the 1930s were thought to have fueled mobsters of that era. We can laugh at those accusations and say that today’s pop culture violence is much worse, but the principle is the same. Like the accusations that rock ‘n’ roll caused teenage pregnancy or that the popular music of the 1960s and 1970s was at the root of an epidemic of drug abuse, the charges had a kernel of truth in them. But while we may well advocate for a change in the culture, a free society does not abridge basic freedom in pursuit of a more peaceful society any more than we should try to do so to have a more moral or godly one.

Like the movies, the games industry has a rating system that seems to be working well. Conservatives may seize upon this issue as one that demonstrates their desire to stand up for decency. But like them or not, disgusting rap lyrics, graphic movies and shows and even the games which allow the players to pretend to be the perpetrators of bloody violence are constitutionally protected speech. Government has no more business regulating such games any more than they have to tell us what films we can watch or books we can read.

That’s why I find statements such as the ones made by Representative Frank Wolff about the need to do something about video games, along with efforts to regulate guns and to improve mental health treatment, quite troubling. Like the loose talk about this subject from the National Rifle Association, which is desperate to deflect any attention from the use of weapons in violent crimes, any effort to defend the Second Amendment by trashing the rights enumerated in the First is unacceptable as well as unconstitutional.

Any such rhetorical excursion inevitably becomes one in which individual responsibility—a core conservative value—is de-emphasized in favor of sociological cant about the power of culture to make us misbehave. Video games make for a convenient punching bag for politicians in need of a platform from which they can pose as defenders of the innocent. But in doing so they are undermining freedom in the name of a dubious connection to crime. Any effort by Congress to further involve the government in the question of what games Americans can play or whether they can be legally manufactured or distributed must be rejected in principle.

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Is Gun Control the First Major 2016 Issue?

With gun control still in the news and Vice President Joe Biden’s recommendations on legislation expected to come tomorrow, it is increasingly clear the country’s political class is engaged in two different debates. Members of Congress seem to be conducting an entirely different argument than officials at the state level, especially governors. In Congress, not even the Democrats are united in their enthusiasm for more gun control legislation; Harry Reid and Joe Manchin have both thrown cold water on the idea while Republicans in Congress don’t seem to fear the debate at all, believing it poses no risk electorally. (They believe, with history to back them up, that either no serious gun control legislation will come to the floor of either house of Congress or that the Democrats will overreach, enabling the GOP to gain seats in the 2014 midterms.)

Meanwhile, governors are dividing along traditional party lines. New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley are diving in with both feet, while Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and Texas’s Rick Perry criticized the rush to use the school shooting to enact tougher gun laws. The exception in this case, and the one that proves the rule, is Biden. Gun control is fast on its way to becoming the first major issue of the 2016 presidential election.

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With gun control still in the news and Vice President Joe Biden’s recommendations on legislation expected to come tomorrow, it is increasingly clear the country’s political class is engaged in two different debates. Members of Congress seem to be conducting an entirely different argument than officials at the state level, especially governors. In Congress, not even the Democrats are united in their enthusiasm for more gun control legislation; Harry Reid and Joe Manchin have both thrown cold water on the idea while Republicans in Congress don’t seem to fear the debate at all, believing it poses no risk electorally. (They believe, with history to back them up, that either no serious gun control legislation will come to the floor of either house of Congress or that the Democrats will overreach, enabling the GOP to gain seats in the 2014 midterms.)

Meanwhile, governors are dividing along traditional party lines. New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley are diving in with both feet, while Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and Texas’s Rick Perry criticized the rush to use the school shooting to enact tougher gun laws. The exception in this case, and the one that proves the rule, is Biden. Gun control is fast on its way to becoming the first major issue of the 2016 presidential election.

As Jonathan wrote, Cuomo’s recent “state of the state” address was a liberal wish list designed to appeal to the Democratic Party’s base, gun control included. O’Malley has been strongly signaling that he’ll make a run for the nomination as well. Biden will no doubt use his gun control commission–whatever the result–as evidence of the essential role he played in generating policy and legislation from the Obama White House. Democrats seem to genuinely want gun control on their resume as they bid for national office. But should they?

If history is any guide, no. There’s a reason Republicans and pro-gun rights Democrats don’t seem too concerned by the fact that even the White House has elevated this issue now to take advantage of the headlines and public sympathy generated in the wake of the Newtown massacre. As Mark Blumenthal wrote before the Sandy Hook tragedy, reminding readers of the post-Columbine trend in public opposition to stricter gun control:

The post-Columbine bump had faded about a year later, and support for stricter gun laws remained roughly constant over the next eight years. Following the 2008 election, however, support for stricter gun laws dropped off considerably. By April 2010, Pew Research found more Americans placing greater importance on protecting the rights of gun owners (49 percent) than on restricting gun ownership (45 percent).

The one wild card here is how long the issue is kept in the news. If high-profile Democrats and 2016 contenders keep the issue in the headlines, they might think they can also keep up public outrage at the dangers of gun ownership. But it’s easy to imagine that the opposite might be true. When leftists say they want to “have a conversation” about guns, what they mean is they want a monologue. We’ve been having a national conversation about guns for quite some time, and it’s awfully clear the left is losing the argument in a rout. The way mass shootings fade from the public’s attention over time–as does all news–probably insulates Democrats from putting forward unpopular legislation.

And President Obama might very well have agreed, believing he could put Biden’s name on a commission and then blame Republicans if nothing came from the recommendations, covering his left flank and avoiding antagonizing the right. Governors, meanwhile, had it (politically) easier: they could have avoided taking up the issue entirely, since most of the fuss was focused on Congress.

Biden may simply take an “I tried” tack with regard to the issue, allowing his time on the commission to prevent him from having to lurch to his left on guns in a Democratic primary season. In the YouTube age, however, it’s getting more and more difficult for politicians to bounce back to the center after appealing to their party’s base in the primaries. Rick Perry and Bob McDonnell are far from sure things to enter the 2016 race, but their comments are indicative of the fact that GOP contenders now probably think they’d enter a 2016 general election having been spotted a few points by a clumsy and overeager opponent.

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Biden to Present Gun Control Proposals Tuesday

The White House isn’t wasting any time on the gun control debate. After meeting with gun-rights advocates today, CBS News reports that Joe Biden will present his gun control proposals to President Obama as soon as Tuesday:

After consulting with a series of stakeholders in the ongoing debate over gun control, Vice President Joe Biden will present his recommendations for reducing gun-related violence in America to President Obama on Tuesday, he said today.

The vice president, speaking to reporters before a meeting on gun violence with sportsmen and women, and just minutes before another school shooting was reported, outlined a series of the recommendations he said are emerging in the course of his conversations with various stakeholders in the conversation. Among those possible proposals include universal background checks, restrictions on high-capacity magazines, and increased federal capabilities for effectively researching gun violence. Biden also stressed ongoing discussions about the importance of including the mental health community in the conversation.

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The White House isn’t wasting any time on the gun control debate. After meeting with gun-rights advocates today, CBS News reports that Joe Biden will present his gun control proposals to President Obama as soon as Tuesday:

After consulting with a series of stakeholders in the ongoing debate over gun control, Vice President Joe Biden will present his recommendations for reducing gun-related violence in America to President Obama on Tuesday, he said today.

The vice president, speaking to reporters before a meeting on gun violence with sportsmen and women, and just minutes before another school shooting was reported, outlined a series of the recommendations he said are emerging in the course of his conversations with various stakeholders in the conversation. Among those possible proposals include universal background checks, restrictions on high-capacity magazines, and increased federal capabilities for effectively researching gun violence. Biden also stressed ongoing discussions about the importance of including the mental health community in the conversation.

Increasing federal capabilities for “researching gun violence” sounds about as effective as Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board. A task force will be convened, funding will be allocated, reports will be written, and that will probably be the end of it. But it will give the appearance that the government is doing something, and it probably won’t get much opposition from the gun lobby.

A ban on high-capacity magazines will get pushback. The problem here is that the definition of high-capacity can be subjective, and apparently there are easy ways of getting around this type of ban. As for more rigorous background checks, it’s irrelevant to the Sandy Hook shooting, since Adam Lanza stole the weapon from his mother. However, it may have made a difference in the Tucson shooting, since Jared Lee Loughner appeared to show signs of mental illness before the attack. The question is, where do you draw the line? Loughner was behaving erratically at school and work, but he was never declared mentally ill by a court, nor did he undergo a psychiatric exam before the shooting. Gun control advocates may try to push for mental health reviews in the background check, but that sounds like it could raise constitutional issues.

Allahpundit also writes that this would be a tough policy to get past House Republicans:

Background checks, in particular, enjoy massive support, with one recent poll showing 92% in favor of requiring them at gun shows and a CNN poll taken last year finding 94% support for checks on all potential gun buyers.  That’d be a very tough vote for congressional Republicans and of course Biden knows it, which is why he’s talking it up today. If you can’t get your policies passed, you might as well use them as a way to make the opposition squirm. 

More evidence that the White House primarily views the gun control debate as a way to score political points, and is looking to make things as difficult for Republicans as possible.

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Demonizing Gun Owners Isn’t Working

In less than three weeks since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the battle over gun rights has remained in the news thanks to both opponents and supporters of the Second Amendment. The “meaningful action” that President Obama promised would take place the day of the Newtown shooting is still being debated by yet another presidential task force. The task force was set to meet with gun sellers (like Walmart), gun rights advocates and gun control supporters today and members of the entertainment and video game industry later in the afternoon. 

While the national gun conversation rages on, liberals have decided to play hardball with legal gun owners, attempting to shame those who apply for gun permits so that they can legally and safely own and carry guns. The opening salvo came from the Journal News, a local New York newspaper that decided to publish the names and addresses, including a handy map, of every single legally permitted gun owner in Westchester County. Alana wrote about a hilarious twist in the story when the newspaper’s editors, who had received a significant amount of flak for the story, decided to employ armed guards in order to protect the newspaper’s offices.

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In less than three weeks since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the battle over gun rights has remained in the news thanks to both opponents and supporters of the Second Amendment. The “meaningful action” that President Obama promised would take place the day of the Newtown shooting is still being debated by yet another presidential task force. The task force was set to meet with gun sellers (like Walmart), gun rights advocates and gun control supporters today and members of the entertainment and video game industry later in the afternoon. 

While the national gun conversation rages on, liberals have decided to play hardball with legal gun owners, attempting to shame those who apply for gun permits so that they can legally and safely own and carry guns. The opening salvo came from the Journal News, a local New York newspaper that decided to publish the names and addresses, including a handy map, of every single legally permitted gun owner in Westchester County. Alana wrote about a hilarious twist in the story when the newspaper’s editors, who had received a significant amount of flak for the story, decided to employ armed guards in order to protect the newspaper’s offices.

Yesterday the Internet-rag Gawker published its own version under the headline “Here Is a List of All the A—holes Who Own Guns in New York City,” publicizing the names of every single legal gun owner in New York City, minus their addresses (not out of a sense of decency, but instead out of an inability to obtain them from the NYPD under the Freedom of Information Act). The author of the piece, John Cook, saw no problem with addresses of gun owners being published on the web, stating “In any case, it’s clear that many of the Rockland County and Westchester County gun owners who are outraged at having their addresses plastered on the internet have had those addresses plastered on the internet for years without it causing a problem.” In response, some readers decided to tweet the author’s address, that was already “plastered on the internet,” which was met with an expected amount of hypocritical outrage. I have to wonder if Cook will soon attempt to become a registered gun owner himself in response to real or perceived threats after his Gawker piece. 

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an expected candidate for mayor, spoke out against the Gawker list, telling gun owners “you have not done anything wrong. You’ve met the legal standard.” Unfortunately, Quinn, like Governor Cuomo yesterday, made clear her desire to make legal gun ownership that much more difficult in New York City and state. Quinn remarked “Now do I think the legal standard is high enough or strong enough? No. And do I want to do everything I can to limit the number of guns that are out there? Yes.” A commenter on the story for CBS Local New York asked:

Does she even have an idea about how hard it is to get a legal handgun in this city? She wants tougher rules for it? They already took my tax returns, bank statements, character references, pictures of my place of work, mental health records, personal interview, FBI background check, finger prints, and all this takes almost a year. What else could she add to this to make it “better”?

In response to this kind of gun owner demonization, the NRA has reported astronomical fundraising numbers, announcing to Politico that in just 18 days it has added more than 100,000 new members (aka donors) to its rosters. As Jonathan rightly remarked yesterday, “the more liberals talk about taking away legal guns the better things are for the NRA.”

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The Mentally Ill Don’t Have Motives

Last week local papers in New York City were captivated by yet another senseless killing. A 46-year old Indian immigrant, Sunando Sen, was pushed onto the subway tracks as a train was pulling into the station by a woman standing nearby. He was killed by the collision and initially, the woman, with whom he had not visibly communicated in any way, fled the scene. The city was left asking what many communities affected by senseless violence ask: Why?

Interviews with police after the perpetrator’s capture indicated that she harbored hatred toward Muslims and Indians since the attacks on September 11, 2001. Immediately the fingers of blame settled on Pamela Geller, the creator and funder of controversial subway ads about Muslims earlier this year. Her detractors called them incendiary and warned of potential violence; this incident was the moment they were waiting for–a chance to say “I told you so.” And they did.

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Last week local papers in New York City were captivated by yet another senseless killing. A 46-year old Indian immigrant, Sunando Sen, was pushed onto the subway tracks as a train was pulling into the station by a woman standing nearby. He was killed by the collision and initially, the woman, with whom he had not visibly communicated in any way, fled the scene. The city was left asking what many communities affected by senseless violence ask: Why?

Interviews with police after the perpetrator’s capture indicated that she harbored hatred toward Muslims and Indians since the attacks on September 11, 2001. Immediately the fingers of blame settled on Pamela Geller, the creator and funder of controversial subway ads about Muslims earlier this year. Her detractors called them incendiary and warned of potential violence; this incident was the moment they were waiting for–a chance to say “I told you so.” And they did.

While hatred of any large group after the destructive actions of few is irrational, the perpetrator’s hatred of Indians and Hindus is especially illogical–members of neither group were involved in the attacks. The Indian people have been recent victims of terror themselves and have assisted the U.S. government in the war on terror, especially after the attacks in Mumbai. The perpetrator’s motive in this instance show just how random and irrational the attack was.

Before pushing Mr. Sen to his death, the perpetrator had been seen nearby on the platform muttering to herself. This is characteristic of many recent such incidents. Instead of shock and surprise, many of the people familiar with the suspects in Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech and the Gabby Giffords shooting (to name a few) described ticking time bombs. They discuss how “creepy” they found these murderers beforehand, with some going to great lengths to avoid and report the suspects. (Two female Virginia Tech students reported the shooter’s behavior to the university the year before the shootings, and one of his professors removed him from her class in order to provide private tutoring away from other students.) What all of these murderers seemed to have in common beforehand were signs, and even diagnoses, of severe mental illness.

In a landmark decision in 1975 the Supreme Court ruled against involuntary hospitalization of the mentally ill, stating, “A finding of ‘mental illness’ alone cannot justify a State’s locking a person up against his will and keeping him indefinitely in simple custodial confinement… In short, a state cannot constitutionally confine without more a nondangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by himself or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends.” After the latest subway shoving incident, the New York Post published a story about the estimated 11,000 homeless “psychotics” currently on the streets, more than 3,000 of whom may have violent tendencies. 

In one Manhattan neighborhood a homeless man spends the majority of his time standing in the subway entrance walkways of a few stations, with his fingers in his ears, talking to voices only he can hear. In the winter months when temperatures dip below freezing, he is still there, wearing a ratty t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. The only time I’ve seen him wearing a winter coat was in the middle of the summer last year. I have placed multiple calls to 9-1-1 to report his presence and lack of appropriate winter attire, yet he remains in the subway entrances day after day. While he doesn’t appear to be a threat to anyone but himself, his lack of weather-appropriate attire indicates an inability to care for himself adequately. To the untrained eye, it appears this gentleman is suffering from schizophrenia and is in no way living in “freedom,” but rather is a prisoner of his own mind and the voices that bombard it daily. The New York Post explained steps that could be taken within New York State to offer treatment to its mentally ill homeless population:

Jaffe [D.J. Jaffe, executive director of the Mental Illness Policy Organization] said steps must be taken to strengthen Kendra’s Law — a loophole-ridden 1999 measure intended to allow courts to forcibly treat the dangerously unhinged.

“We want mandatory evaluations of all mentally ill who are being released from jails, prisons or involuntary hospitalizations,” he said.

Even Andrew Goldstein, the schizophrenic man who shoved Kendra Webdale to her death in front of a train in 1999, is calling for tougher laws — to keep nuts like himself off the street.

“There should be stricter regulations,” he told The Post in his first-ever jailhouse interview.

If we want to put an end to these senseless tragedies, it’s time for the media to stop breathlessly analyzing the “motives” of the insane while splashing their names and faces across the front pages (I have purposefully not used the names of any of the murderers here). This latest subway pusher didn’t kill Mr. Sen because he was Hindu; Gabby Giffords’s shooter wasn’t reacting to a slight from the congresswoman; and the Aurora movie theater killer wasn’t motivated by violence in the “Batman” series. Those suffering from mental illness are not able to form appropriate responses to real or imagined situations. As a society, it’s time to start asking ourselves what we are doing to prevent tragedies like this in the future, and any solution has to include a more comprehensive and coherent treatment plan for our mentally ill.

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Stigmatizing Gun Owners Makes Civil Debate Impossible

The decision of a newspaper in New York’s Westchester County to publish an interactive map that allowed readers to discover the names and addresses of owners of legal guns is generally being debated as one about whether the Gannett-owned Journal News showed good judgment. It didn’t, but the problem goes a lot deeper than whether or not a newspaper ought to publicize information that is legally available to the public in this manner. The controversy goes to the heart of the entire discussion about guns in this country.

No matter what those behind this stunt say, this wasn’t about the safety of the community or the right of the public to information. Rather, this was about the desire on the part of some in the liberal mainstream media to stigmatize legal gun ownership and to whip up sentiment for not just tighter controls but an eventual ban. This makes it easier to understand why the National Rifle Association fiercely resists even the most reasonable gun control measures. If even those who have jumped through the not inconsiderable hoops erected by the authorities to gain a legal gun permit in New York are now to be treated as if they were the moral equivalent of sex offenders, it’s clear the goal of the anti-gun media is not just to focus discussion on assault weapons and large ammunition clips but to ban individual gun ownership altogether.

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The decision of a newspaper in New York’s Westchester County to publish an interactive map that allowed readers to discover the names and addresses of owners of legal guns is generally being debated as one about whether the Gannett-owned Journal News showed good judgment. It didn’t, but the problem goes a lot deeper than whether or not a newspaper ought to publicize information that is legally available to the public in this manner. The controversy goes to the heart of the entire discussion about guns in this country.

No matter what those behind this stunt say, this wasn’t about the safety of the community or the right of the public to information. Rather, this was about the desire on the part of some in the liberal mainstream media to stigmatize legal gun ownership and to whip up sentiment for not just tighter controls but an eventual ban. This makes it easier to understand why the National Rifle Association fiercely resists even the most reasonable gun control measures. If even those who have jumped through the not inconsiderable hoops erected by the authorities to gain a legal gun permit in New York are now to be treated as if they were the moral equivalent of sex offenders, it’s clear the goal of the anti-gun media is not just to focus discussion on assault weapons and large ammunition clips but to ban individual gun ownership altogether.

The article accompanying the interactive map about “the gun owner next door” made it clear the boogeyman to those who wish to push more gun control legislation isn’t just an NRA leadership that is tone deaf to the country’s mood. It is the ordinary American exercising his right to possess a legal firearm while observing all the legal niceties. That’s made clear by a piece that begins by discussing a violent crime committed by a person with two unregistered guns but then quickly shifts to the discussion of who owns legal and registered guns. The conceit of the article is to heighten suspicion of all gun owners and to render them pariahs. That effect is not softened by the fact that the author notes that he has a legally registered pistol.

For all of the incessant calls for civil debate from the liberal media, this is exactly the sort of thing that makes such a discussion impossible. Advocates of gun control in Congress claim that talk of banning all guns is crazy, but stunts like this demonstrate that such foolish ideas are bubbling very close to the surface in the liberal media. Broad support for some changes in existing gun laws probably exists right now in the wake of the Newtown massacre. But the chances for putting reasonable limits on military-style weapons or ammunition clips will be sunk if the anti-gun zealots in the media continue to show their real agenda is creating an atmosphere in which all firearms will be banned.

Legal gun owners don’t deserve to have their privacy invaded or to be made the targets of criminals who will use the information published by the newspaper as a database to aid their efforts to steal weapons from their owners. Nor do they deserve to be hounded and abused in this manner. More to the point, this is exactly what should be avoided if the country is to have a discussion about guns that doesn’t boil down to a shouting match between those who want guns banned and those who want no restrictions or accountability.

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The Left’s Epistemological Closure

The Washington Examiner‘s Byron York has a fine piece on how journalists, including news anchors like CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and Don Lemon, have become fierce advocates for gun control.

In his column Mr. York quotes Frank Sesno, a former CNN reporter and Washington bureau chief who is now director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, who said there should be a “media agenda” on guns to push the issue until government action becomes a reality. “The media themselves have a huge opportunity and power and responsibility to channel this,” Sesno told CNN’s Howard Kurtz. And the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg–an NRA critic who wrote an intelligent article on the case for more guns and more gun control–pointed out, “Reporters on my Twitter feed seem to hate the NRA more than anything else, ever.”

A few thoughts on all this:

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The Washington Examiner‘s Byron York has a fine piece on how journalists, including news anchors like CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and Don Lemon, have become fierce advocates for gun control.

In his column Mr. York quotes Frank Sesno, a former CNN reporter and Washington bureau chief who is now director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, who said there should be a “media agenda” on guns to push the issue until government action becomes a reality. “The media themselves have a huge opportunity and power and responsibility to channel this,” Sesno told CNN’s Howard Kurtz. And the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg–an NRA critic who wrote an intelligent article on the case for more guns and more gun control–pointed out, “Reporters on my Twitter feed seem to hate the NRA more than anything else, ever.”

A few thoughts on all this:

1. The elite media are more open in their advocacy than at any time I can recall. There are probably multiple reasons why, including the fact that Fox News has been so successful in breaking the previous liberal monopoly that existed in journalism. When there was no real counter-weight to ABC, NBC, CBS, NPR, PBS, the Washington Post, the New York Timeset cetera, journalists were content to advance their worldview in more subtle ways–for example, through their story selection rather than out-and-out hortatory. But the “New Media,” which has injected new voices and different points of view into the public debate, seems to have convinced many journalists that something more is necessary. And so increasingly we see supposedly dispassionate anchors on supposedly neutral networks like CNN toss aside any pretense of objectivity. They are as political and dogmatic in their advocacy as the NRA is in its advocacy. It’s just the NRA has been more honest about its goals than progressive journalists.

2. What seems to be the animating passion of gun control advocates isn’t a solution to violence and mass killings; it’s moral posturing. They want to take advantage of massacres like the one we saw in Newtown to push an agenda that makes them feel morally superior. They want to act for the sake of acting. It doesn’t really matter to them which laws are most (and least) effective. They have decided that more gun control laws are needed and the NRA is malevolent, and they are determined not to allow any contrary evidence or thoughts to upset their settled ways. 

An liberal academic sent me a note in response to a piece I wrote last week. Here is some of what he said:

you can cite all the studies you want until the cows come home, allowing people to have semi-automatic and automatic weapons is insane. What are you arguing for?? Even Joe Machin (sic) has suggested that we should hear from all sides on this and everything should be on the table. My God, those are our kids, your kids, my kids destroyed… slaughtered, wow, if we don’t count feelings on this it seem (sic) just plain strange. So, for now, no more of your rants on this… okay… right now, it feels offensive.

Set aside the obvious ignorance that characterizes this note (we don’t allow people to use automatic weapons, and from what I can tell my interlocutor doesn’t know what semi-automatic weapons are and do). Notice how this person dismisses out of hand serious studies by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine which find that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective. My academic acquaintance is being overwhelmed by his emotions, including a deep hatred for the NRA and fury toward those who hold views different than his own. And anything that challenges his outlook “feels offensive.”

This outlook seems more and more pervasive among many journalists these days. Their “media agenda,” as Mr. Sesno says, is to “channel” the gun debate in a way that confirms their pre-existing biases. If they have to be anti-empirical in order to advance their cause, so be it. 

This attitude–moral posturing, the demonization of political opponents, the epistemological closure–is certainly not exclusive to the left. But it is increasingly characteristic of it. And it makes a serious and informed discussion of the issues all that much harder to have. Which is perhaps what their true intent is. Many modern-day liberals may feel that a reasonable, calm, fact-based conversation is the greatest threat to their agenda. Which is why they so often generate more heat than light.

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Those Courageous Liberals

The question at the heart of the Chuck Hagel controversy was always whether President Obama actually wanted Hagel as his secretary of defense, or whether it was all a gimmick to trick the press into further proclaiming the absurd-beyond-belief characterization of Obama’s cabinet as a “team of rivals.” You would think it would raise some eyebrows that this supposed ream of rivals all agree with each other. But Obama figured the press could be fooled again by appointing a registered Republican to run the Pentagon.

A gimmick, however, is generally not worth fighting for. But to understand why Obama thought the press could be fooled so easily into this nonsense, take a look at yesterday’s National Journal article, which broke the news that the White House is considering dropping Hagel. It’s a well-reported piece that got a scoop where everyone else merely had inklings. But notice the way this straight news story characterizes Hagel’s stand on the Iraq War:

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The question at the heart of the Chuck Hagel controversy was always whether President Obama actually wanted Hagel as his secretary of defense, or whether it was all a gimmick to trick the press into further proclaiming the absurd-beyond-belief characterization of Obama’s cabinet as a “team of rivals.” You would think it would raise some eyebrows that this supposed ream of rivals all agree with each other. But Obama figured the press could be fooled again by appointing a registered Republican to run the Pentagon.

A gimmick, however, is generally not worth fighting for. But to understand why Obama thought the press could be fooled so easily into this nonsense, take a look at yesterday’s National Journal article, which broke the news that the White House is considering dropping Hagel. It’s a well-reported piece that got a scoop where everyone else merely had inklings. But notice the way this straight news story characterizes Hagel’s stand on the Iraq War:

While much of the criticism centers on questions of whether Hagel has been a strong enough supporter of Israel and tough enough on Iran–as well as past comments he made about gay people–he is also paying, in part, for his bluntness and bravery in advocating unpopular positions during his 12 years in the Senate. Hagel’s gutsy and prescient stand against his own party and President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq invasion—and his criticism of the war’s management afterwards—all but cost him his political career, turning him from a possible GOP presidential contender into a pariah within his party.

As John Tabin noted last night, something is missing from the description of Hagel’s “prescient” stand against the Iraq War. And that something would be Hagel’s vote in favor of the Iraq War. What’s more, turning on the war effort when trouble hit was far from constituting “bravery,” as National Journal would have it. It was the popular thing to do.

Beyond the fact that reporters should not be bestowing medals upon politicians in straight news articles such as this, and in addition to the need to actually get the history and the facts right, there is the pattern of the press deciding that whenever a politician takes a stand on an issue that they agree with, it’s brave and courageous.

Hagel didn’t vote against the Iraq War, so his bravery consists of badmouthing Republicans and conservatives. In our current media climate, that is possibly among the least-brave acts one can take. But yesterday’s news also centered on the ongoing controversy over gun control in the wake of the Newtown tragedy–and it followed the same pattern and took the same tone it has since the fatal shooting took place. In a column about gun control, the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof had earlier asked: “Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?” What kind of courage, specifically, do we need? Kristof answers: “the gumption to stand up to National Rifle Association extremists.”

Of course. Just as in the case of Hagel’s nomination, we hear of powerful lobbies controlling members of Congress. But is it really courageous to attack the NRA? Bashing the NRA has been a daily ritual since the tragedy in Newtown, and both Republican lawmakers and Democratic legislators have said they’re open to adjusting their positions on gun control in favor of stricter rules and in defiance of the NRA.

But of course to the left, listening to interest groups can also be courageous and wise—it just depends on the interest groups. California Governor Jerry Brown is presiding over a fiscal basket case well on its way to becoming a failed state. But the L.A. Times, in discussing how to grade Brown’s year, can’t decide “whether to give him a B-plus, an A-minus or a full A.” What did Brown do to earn such accolades? He raised taxes on the state’s high earners. Specifically, “He merged his tax proposal with a more liberal version sponsored by the California Federation of Teachers.”

So allowing public sector union leaders to write legislation aimed at protecting their benefits by getting to choose who pays for them gets Brown on the dean’s list. It doesn’t seem to matter that the tax increase is already seen as a laughable bit of delusional public policy and that the state’s finances keep getting worse even as Brown and the unions celebrate their victory. When the tax initiative seemed headed for defeat, its supporters in the business community stepped forward to rally support. In another supposed straight news article, the San Francisco Chronicle called supporters of the tax hike “The few and the brave.” In case you didn’t get the point, one of the major liberal groups supporting the measure calls itself the Courage Campaign. After the tax passed, Brown praised the state’s “courageous decision.”

The liberal press knows bravery when it sees it. It’s just a coincidence that by their own criteria, America’s newspaper reporters join the Hagels and Browns up on that pedestal.

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NRA’s Schools Idea Not Crazy, Just Liberal

National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre doubled down on his defiant stance in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre yesterday by defending his proposal for a federal program to put armed guards at schools around the nation on the Sunday talk shows. On “Meet the Press,” he said, “If it’s crazy to call for armed officers in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy.” He’s right to the extent that there is nothing foolish about a discussion about strengthening security in schools. But NRA members who have lashed out at anyone who had the temerity to criticize LaPierre for his tone deaf response to Newtown after a week of silence, as I did both here at Contentions and in the New York Post, should realize something else. LaPierre’s idea may not be crazy, but it also isn’t conservative.

If there is anything at the heart of the modern conservative moment it’s the impulse to push back at the liberal drive to increase the power and the reach of the federal government at the expense of the states and local communities. Nothing is a greater threat to our individual liberty than giving federal bureaucrats the ability to impose their fiats on the nation through unfunded mandates and regulations. Yet that is exactly what LaPierre’s hare-brained scheme to make school security a federal program would do. After decades of furiously and rightly resisting attempts by liberals to bypass local resistance to gun control laws via federal legislation, the NRA is now playing the same card. If the group wants to know why most congressional Republicans have given the idea a chilly reception, it’s not only due to the public relations disaster that resulted from the group’s Friday presser; it’s because nationalizing school security is a liberal concept, not a conservative one.

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National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre doubled down on his defiant stance in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre yesterday by defending his proposal for a federal program to put armed guards at schools around the nation on the Sunday talk shows. On “Meet the Press,” he said, “If it’s crazy to call for armed officers in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy.” He’s right to the extent that there is nothing foolish about a discussion about strengthening security in schools. But NRA members who have lashed out at anyone who had the temerity to criticize LaPierre for his tone deaf response to Newtown after a week of silence, as I did both here at Contentions and in the New York Post, should realize something else. LaPierre’s idea may not be crazy, but it also isn’t conservative.

If there is anything at the heart of the modern conservative moment it’s the impulse to push back at the liberal drive to increase the power and the reach of the federal government at the expense of the states and local communities. Nothing is a greater threat to our individual liberty than giving federal bureaucrats the ability to impose their fiats on the nation through unfunded mandates and regulations. Yet that is exactly what LaPierre’s hare-brained scheme to make school security a federal program would do. After decades of furiously and rightly resisting attempts by liberals to bypass local resistance to gun control laws via federal legislation, the NRA is now playing the same card. If the group wants to know why most congressional Republicans have given the idea a chilly reception, it’s not only due to the public relations disaster that resulted from the group’s Friday presser; it’s because nationalizing school security is a liberal concept, not a conservative one.

As the New York Times reported, approximately one-third of all schools in the nation already have armed personnel on campus. Though most of these have been in urban areas where gangs and crime are at the root of the concern, others are starting to talk about increasing security, including having guards with firearms. But these decisions are the result of choices being made by local officials and communities, not a dictat issued from Washington. If federal programs such as “No Child Left Behind” have proved to be mistakes because they don’t give school districts the flexibility to make their own judgments, how much more misguided is the NRA’s attempt to make guns in schools a matter of federal purview.

It’s not exactly a secret that LaPierre’s presentation about school security was an attempt to divert the country’s attention from its grief about Newtown and the debate about a renewed push for gun control. Most Americans still support gun rights, if not in the absolutist fashion that the NRA feels is essential to fend off any sort of restrictions that could be an opening for those who wish to make gun possession illegal. But it’s not fooling anyone with its National Model School Shield Program. It’s something that will give Washington the ability to interfere in yet another sphere of our lives and it hasn’t a chance of mustering the support it needs from either liberal Democrats that despise the NRA or conservatives who understand that is not what the country needs.

The notion that a good guy packing heat needs to be there to stop bad guys with guns is sensible. But if LaPierre really believes that Americans wish to cede control of their schools to the federal government, he really is crazy.

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Demonizing NRA Won’t Transform America

Turn on virtually any talk show heard or viewed in the mainstream media this past week and it’s clear that most of the chattering classes are convinced that the Newtown massacre marks a turning point in the history of American culture. According to this narrative, the country’s understandable shock and horror over the slaughter of innocents at the Sandy Hook Elementary School is the equivalent of Pearl Harbor or 9/11 in that it has fundamentally altered the political correlation of forces that has prevented gun control. More to the point, they believe this sea change is so profound that it will effectively silence advocates of gun rights so as to render them incapable of stopping whatever it is that Vice President Biden’s task force comes up with.

The principal target of this effort is, of course, the National Rifle Association that sensibly stayed silent for several days after Newtown and has only just started to make its voice heard. Most liberals are assuming that the low profile the group has had since then is just the start of a new era in which its influence will be curtailed. The assumption is that anger about Newtown is so great and the impulse to try to do something to prevent another mass shooting is so widely supported that the NRA will no longer dictate to Congress. But, as the Pew poll cited earlier by Alana shows, support for gun rights may yet survive Newtown.

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Turn on virtually any talk show heard or viewed in the mainstream media this past week and it’s clear that most of the chattering classes are convinced that the Newtown massacre marks a turning point in the history of American culture. According to this narrative, the country’s understandable shock and horror over the slaughter of innocents at the Sandy Hook Elementary School is the equivalent of Pearl Harbor or 9/11 in that it has fundamentally altered the political correlation of forces that has prevented gun control. More to the point, they believe this sea change is so profound that it will effectively silence advocates of gun rights so as to render them incapable of stopping whatever it is that Vice President Biden’s task force comes up with.

The principal target of this effort is, of course, the National Rifle Association that sensibly stayed silent for several days after Newtown and has only just started to make its voice heard. Most liberals are assuming that the low profile the group has had since then is just the start of a new era in which its influence will be curtailed. The assumption is that anger about Newtown is so great and the impulse to try to do something to prevent another mass shooting is so widely supported that the NRA will no longer dictate to Congress. But, as the Pew poll cited earlier by Alana shows, support for gun rights may yet survive Newtown.

More than any other lobby or cause, the NRA is the boogeyman of the American liberal imagination. To listen to liberals talking about it is to hear a portrait of an organization that treats errant members of Congress the way heretics and Jews were handled by the Spanish Inquisition. More than that, many liberals speak as if it is primarily a profit-making entity funded by gun manufacturers that has imposed a bizarre reign of terror on an unwilling populace.

Yet even though the NRA is assuming a much lower profile these days, the idea that it and its 4 million members will simply go away or be drowned out by the chorus of outrage over the murder of 1st graders is based more on liberal ideology than hardheaded political analysis.

It is true that the chances of a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban that expired several years ago has just gone from nonexistent to quite possible. Indeed, it is more than likely that Biden will propose something that will have far wider scope than the previous bill since the rifle used by the murderer in Newtown was legal even under Connecticut’s assault weapons law.

It is entirely possible that Americans are ready for a ban on military-style weapons, especially those that fire large amounts of ammunition in a short time. Many are also ready for a stronger background check system for gun purchasers.

That these ideas are things that the NRA has previously successfully opposed is, as I have written before, evidence that the group regards any regulation, no matter how reasonable, as merely the thin edge of the wedge of a larger agenda whose goal is the effective repeal of the Second Amendment. In this sense they are like pro-abortion groups that fight furiously against even the most reasonable restrictions on the procedure such as parental consent because they also not unreasonably believe that such bills are merely a prelude to an attempt to repeal Roe v. Wade.

The effect of Newtown will be to point out to the NRA those areas where they have overreached. But the expectation that supporters of gun control can do more than that is highly unrealistic.

After all even Joe Manchin, the senator who has become the poster child for NRA members who have had second thoughts about the issue in the aftermath of Newtown, has yet to say what gun control measure he will actually support in any of his seemingly innumerable press interviews.

What liberals who think Newtown means that gun rights can be rolled back will re-learn in the coming weeks is that the NRA’s influence is not so much a matter of money as it is of votes. For all of its bad press, the NRA is the living illustration of democracy, not influence peddling. Its voice has carried weight in Congress because it speaks for 4 million members who share its concerns about the threat to gun rights. That concern is currently overshadowed by anger about Newtown and the widespread though largely mistaken conviction that there is a way to legislate such tragedies out of existence. But it won’t take long for the liberal war on guns to wake up the NRA and its members and far more numerous sympathizers.

As Pete wrote earlier today, the demonization of gun supporters by media figures such as Piers Morgan illustrates the politics of a moment of outrage, not the sort of fundamental shift in American culture that would be required for liberals to do more than enact measures on the margins of the issue, such as assault weapons. Indeed, the comparisons to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 should prove instructive to those who think the NRA is on its last legs. Though both those events did transform American politics in the short term, in the long run the effects were minimal.

Try as they might, those seeking to capitalize on Newtown can’t make America a country that no longer thinks that gun rights are the guarantee of democracy. That is a belief that is not shared by any other modern democracy, even a country like Israel, where gun ownership is widespread. But like other stubborn elements of American exceptionalism, it is not the sort of thing that will be erased even by an event as horrific as Newtown.

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RE: The Ugly Politics of Piers Morgan

I certainly agree with Peter’s post that Piers Morgan is a first-class jerk. His vicious, insulting tirade against Larry Pratt should, at the least, have gotten him severely reprimanded by CNN. If you invite a guest into your house, you don’t treat him that way. But Peter makes an interesting point:

Morgan embodies an attitude that we’re seeing more and more on the left. It’s a nasty combination of supreme self-righteousness and reflexive demonization. Piers Morgan can’t accept that people of good will and decency might hold views that are very different than he does on gun control. And so it’s not enough to say Pratt is wrong; he has to be portrayed by Morgan as moronic and a moral monster.

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I certainly agree with Peter’s post that Piers Morgan is a first-class jerk. His vicious, insulting tirade against Larry Pratt should, at the least, have gotten him severely reprimanded by CNN. If you invite a guest into your house, you don’t treat him that way. But Peter makes an interesting point:

Morgan embodies an attitude that we’re seeing more and more on the left. It’s a nasty combination of supreme self-righteousness and reflexive demonization. Piers Morgan can’t accept that people of good will and decency might hold views that are very different than he does on gun control. And so it’s not enough to say Pratt is wrong; he has to be portrayed by Morgan as moronic and a moral monster.

This intellectual rigidity and moral preening, of course, is characteristic of a religion in decline. Think of the Catholic Church at the beginning of the 17th century as the Scientific Revolution was just getting underway. They burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 for asserting that the sun was a star and there might be many worlds in the universe, not just one. Galileo—too famous to be burned—was forced to abjure his belief in a heliocentric universe and was under house arrest for the last years of his life. The Soviet Union could never tolerate dissent for fear that the whole Communist political cosmology might come crashing down, which, of course, it did.

If liberals could win the argument with facts and logic, they would do so. But they can’t so they have to fall back on, in Ring Lardner’s immortal phrase, “Shut up, he explained.” Today the “thought” of liberals consists almost entirely of looking in the equivalent of Mao’s little red book to find out what they’re supposed to think and vilifying anyone who disagrees. The solution to gun violence? Gun control. Global warming? It’s “settled science” (a phrase as moronic as it is oxymoronic). Federal deficit? Tax the rich.

But just as the Catholic Church was soon forced to deal with reality (the Vatican Observatory can trace its origins back to 1774) and the Soviet Union ended up on the ash heap of history, the left will have to adapt or die. It is spitting into the wind and has been for decades. It’s just too bad the spit has to land on so many people trying to express a contrary opinion.

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Pew Poll: Not Much Change in Gun Control Views

The Pew Research Center released a poll today that found Americans support gun control over gun rights, 49 percent to 42 percent. A shift in favor of gun control would be expected after last week’s horrific shooting in Newtown. But Politico is reporting on this as if it’s a major attitude change:

More Americans prioritize gun control above Second Amendment rights by the widest margin since President Barack Obama took office, according to a new poll released Thursday in wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. 

Forty-nine percent of those polled said it’s more important to control gun ownership, compared to 42 percent who say it’s more important to protect Americans’ rights to own guns, according to a Pew Research Center Poll. 

The Pew poll showed a slight shift toward gun control that wasn’t apparent following a July shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. Following that shooting, 47 percent thought it was more important to control gun ownership and 46 percent said it was more important to protect gun rights, according to Pew, within the poll’s margin of error.

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The Pew Research Center released a poll today that found Americans support gun control over gun rights, 49 percent to 42 percent. A shift in favor of gun control would be expected after last week’s horrific shooting in Newtown. But Politico is reporting on this as if it’s a major attitude change:

More Americans prioritize gun control above Second Amendment rights by the widest margin since President Barack Obama took office, according to a new poll released Thursday in wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. 

Forty-nine percent of those polled said it’s more important to control gun ownership, compared to 42 percent who say it’s more important to protect Americans’ rights to own guns, according to a Pew Research Center Poll. 

The Pew poll showed a slight shift toward gun control that wasn’t apparent following a July shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. Following that shooting, 47 percent thought it was more important to control gun ownership and 46 percent said it was more important to protect gun rights, according to Pew, within the poll’s margin of error.

That seven-point gap isn’t particularly significant. Support for gun rights is still much higher than its been at almost any point in the past 20 years, and support for gun control is much lower. In the same Pew poll in 2007, Americans favored gun control above gun rights by 28 points. In 2000, the gap was 37 percent, and in 1993, it was 23 percent.

According to Pew’s data, mass shootings don’t tend to impact public opinion very much, if at all. The poll found little change after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. The Tucson shooting in 2011 and the Aurora shooting this year had no discernible impact. After Aurora, support for gun control vs. gun rights was split, 47 percent to 46.

Maybe public opinion is still shifting, and Obama will be able to rally enough popular support to push through stricter gun control laws. But this poll certainly doesn’t show he gained a mandate on gun policy.

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The Ugly Politics of Piers Morgan

On Tuesday night, CNN’s Piers Morgan interviewed Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America. Anyone who has watched Morgan knows he has an obsessive dislike for America’s gun culture. He’s a fierce advocate for gun control, so it didn’t take a genius to predict the interview would be confrontational. But it turned out to be much more, and much uglier, than that.

Mr. Morgan was furious, insulting, and childish during the interview. He called Pratt “an unbelievably stupid man,” “dangerous,” accused Pratt of being a liar, said, “You shame your country,” and for good measure added, “You don’t give a damn, do you, about the gun murder rate in America.”

On Morgan v. Pratt, I have three observations to make. The first is that you would think that if Mr. Pratt was as stupid as Morgan said, Morgan could easily best him in a debate. But he didn’t. And I say that as someone who has disagreements with Pratt on gun control.

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On Tuesday night, CNN’s Piers Morgan interviewed Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America. Anyone who has watched Morgan knows he has an obsessive dislike for America’s gun culture. He’s a fierce advocate for gun control, so it didn’t take a genius to predict the interview would be confrontational. But it turned out to be much more, and much uglier, than that.

Mr. Morgan was furious, insulting, and childish during the interview. He called Pratt “an unbelievably stupid man,” “dangerous,” accused Pratt of being a liar, said, “You shame your country,” and for good measure added, “You don’t give a damn, do you, about the gun murder rate in America.”

On Morgan v. Pratt, I have three observations to make. The first is that you would think that if Mr. Pratt was as stupid as Morgan said, Morgan could easily best him in a debate. But he didn’t. And I say that as someone who has disagreements with Pratt on gun control.

Second, Morgan embodies an attitude that we’re seeing more and more on the left. It’s a nasty combination of supreme self-righteousness and reflexive demonization. Piers Morgan can’t accept that people of good will and decency might hold views that are very different than he does on gun control. And so it’s not enough to say Pratt is wrong; he has to be portrayed by Morgan as moronic and a moral monster. This act is lovely coming from those who from time to time, and when it’s convenient, lecture the rest of us on the importance of civility in public discourse.

Point three is that Morgan and his CNN colleagues Don Lemon and Soledad O’Brien have become vocal and emotional (but not particularly well-informed) advocates for gun control since the Newtown massacre. There is not the slightest pretense of objectivity. They and their network have a story to tell, a cause to advance, an ideology to champion. And they will use their posts as journalists, including (in the case of Lemon and O’Brien) as anchors, to make their case.

Now the liberalism of these three individuals–and CNN more broadly–is hardly a state secret. Their bias is evident to anyone who watches them. That’s true of someone like Anderson Cooper, whose show I generally like. But since the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, CNN’s cast of characters (Cooper excluded) has begun to resemble the prime-time line-up at MSNBC. And for all of MSNBC’s problems–and they are very nearly endless–at least there is no play acting. They are left and they are proud of it. Which is better in some respects than CNN, which is liberal but pretends not to be.

Piers Morgan made a fool of himself and embarrassed his network on Tuesday night. And while I don’t share Larry Pratt’s views on guns, he did the country a bit of a service in revealing the ugly politics of Piers Morgan.

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Obama: King of the Task Force

Today President Obama announced an interagency task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to guide his administration’s response to the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Politico reports “it will follow a call on Friday for ‘meaningful action’ and his Sunday pledge to use the White House to ‘engage’ Americans to prevent mass shootings. According to a White House official, the president likely won’t make significant policy announcements but will instead explain how his administration will determine what to do next.”

The president is well-known for asking groups of people to gather to discuss problems of national importance, including task forces on: working familiesthe middle class; Guantanamo Bay, commercial advocacy, Hurricane Sandy rebuilding, interagency ocean policy, childhood obesity, Puerto Rico’s status, federal contracting opportunities for small businesses, climate change adaption, financial fraud enforcement, and many, many others. A search on the White House website for the words “task force” yields 86,000 results. What exactly have these task forces accomplished? What legislation has been put forth? What executive orders have been put into effect? What do they do besides issue reports? 

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Today President Obama announced an interagency task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to guide his administration’s response to the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Politico reports “it will follow a call on Friday for ‘meaningful action’ and his Sunday pledge to use the White House to ‘engage’ Americans to prevent mass shootings. According to a White House official, the president likely won’t make significant policy announcements but will instead explain how his administration will determine what to do next.”

The president is well-known for asking groups of people to gather to discuss problems of national importance, including task forces on: working familiesthe middle class; Guantanamo Bay, commercial advocacy, Hurricane Sandy rebuilding, interagency ocean policy, childhood obesity, Puerto Rico’s status, federal contracting opportunities for small businesses, climate change adaption, financial fraud enforcement, and many, many others. A search on the White House website for the words “task force” yields 86,000 results. What exactly have these task forces accomplished? What legislation has been put forth? What executive orders have been put into effect? What do they do besides issue reports? 

Two of the most famous initiatives the White House has began, the Middle Class Task Force and the Jobs Council, can give you some idea. Over the summer the Daily reported on the now-defunct MCTF:

In its first years, Vice President Joe Biden, who leads the initiative, toured the country promoting the administration’s economic policies as the group pumped out a flurry of reports on the state of the middle class, pushed for clean energy manufacturing tax credits and Pell grants, and helped make the case for the president’s health care overhaul.

The group includes about a dozen other members, including eight Cabinet secretaries and a handful of top appointees on economic policy.

More than three years after its launch, however, the task force seems to have lost its steam. 

The task force’s website has become a virtual graveyard for aging updates about the middle class like “Why Middle Class Americans Need Health Reform,” published in 2009. The last annual report available on its site dates to 2010. 

The task force blog has over the past few years been transformed from a showcase of the group’s policy proposals to a repository of press releases from the vice president’s speeches. 

With the election just months away, some Democrats fear the fate of the task force is emblematic of an administration that has struggled mightily to sell — and even explain — landmark achievements like health care reform to the middle-class voters it must win over in November.

“What happened to the task force? That’s a good question,” Democratic strategist Peter Fenn said in a phone interview.

“One of the things people have been concerned about is that with a lot of these victories for the middle class, that the president has not been beating his chest enough about it,” said Fenn. “He has not gone out and really said, ‘Hey look, here’s what we’ve been doing.’ ”

While the MCTF discussed the importance of health-care reform and green jobs, it doesn’t appear that any meaningful legislation or ideas stemmed from these task forces that largely served as a vehicle to cheerlead for administration pet projects already in the works. The final “report” on healthcare reform in 2009 was just three pages long and provided a laundry list of problems without recommendations for solutions or next steps. 

The president’s “Jobs Council” was a frequently mentioned failure during the Romney campaign. During the campaign over the summer, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had to answer questions about why the council hadn’t met in more than six months, and predictably, he had no good answers. There were other embarrassing moments for the council, like the council’s chairman saying this about China’s authoritarian government: “state run communism may not be your cup of tea, but their government works.” One member of the jobs council, Intel CEO Paul Otellili, endorsed Romney and toured with the campaign. The council hasn’t met since February of last year and is now totally defunct. 

Last week President Obama promised “meaningful action” in the wake of the massacre in Newtown that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults. In the president’s world that means it will be talked about and eventually statements will be issued, with no tangible “meaningful action” taken or even suggested. President Obama is the leader of the free world. If he wanted to lead on gun violence his first step would be to actually lead, instead of asking other people to sit around a table and talk. It appears that this issue will disappear down the rabbit hole along with the rest of the task forces the president has convened over the last several years, only to reemerge the next time a fatal shooting makes the front pages. 

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Crisis and Conservatism

On the morning of October 1, 1997, 16-year-old Luke Woodham of Pearl, Mississippi slit his mother’s throat, grabbed a rifle, loaded his pockets with ammo, and drove his dead mom’s car to Pearl High School. There he opened fire, killing two kids and injuring seven others. Woodham then got back in the car with the intention of heading to nearby Pearl Junior High, where he planned on becoming his own copycat. But he never got there. Woodham crashed his car when he saw another gun trained on him through the windshield. That gun belonged to Pearl High’s vice principal Joel Myrtle, who had got his Colt .45 out of his truck at the first sound of shots fired. Myrtle managed to subdue Woodham until police showed up. 

The similarities between the Pearl High School shooting and Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook are strong. Depraved minds are rarely original. But the central difference between the two tragedies is important. Woodham, unlike Adam Lanza, was stopped mid-rampage by a law-abiding citizen with a gun. We can’t know how many innocent young lives the quick-thinking vice principal saved. While this doesn’t constitute an air-tight case for the availability of guns as defense against gun violence, it does remind us that such a case exists. It is a thoughtful case for saving lives, not ending them. Its defenders can adduce mounds of supporting data. And it is a case grounded in constitutional rights.

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On the morning of October 1, 1997, 16-year-old Luke Woodham of Pearl, Mississippi slit his mother’s throat, grabbed a rifle, loaded his pockets with ammo, and drove his dead mom’s car to Pearl High School. There he opened fire, killing two kids and injuring seven others. Woodham then got back in the car with the intention of heading to nearby Pearl Junior High, where he planned on becoming his own copycat. But he never got there. Woodham crashed his car when he saw another gun trained on him through the windshield. That gun belonged to Pearl High’s vice principal Joel Myrtle, who had got his Colt .45 out of his truck at the first sound of shots fired. Myrtle managed to subdue Woodham until police showed up. 

The similarities between the Pearl High School shooting and Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook are strong. Depraved minds are rarely original. But the central difference between the two tragedies is important. Woodham, unlike Adam Lanza, was stopped mid-rampage by a law-abiding citizen with a gun. We can’t know how many innocent young lives the quick-thinking vice principal saved. While this doesn’t constitute an air-tight case for the availability of guns as defense against gun violence, it does remind us that such a case exists. It is a thoughtful case for saving lives, not ending them. Its defenders can adduce mounds of supporting data. And it is a case grounded in constitutional rights.

None of that means the “pro-gun” argument should prevail. But it should be heard and debated, and its adherents should be shown the same respect as gun-control advocates. Both groups, after all, want to see fewer Sandy Hooks.

And yet that’s not where we are. The current “debate” is mooted by its own terms: guns are the problem and fewer guns the solution. The only matters up for discussion are which guns to ban, how to enforce the ban, and are Second Amendment advocates cruel or just dumb. This is where we’ve been heading for a while. In March 2011, 48 hours after the post-earthquake explosion at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel reneged on extending the life of her country’s nuclear reactors. At the time, I wrote

Hysteria on the largest scale possible has become the default official response to all crises. A lay public furnished with near-instantaneous media coverage can be counted on to demand immediate and absolute measures so that the crisis can be scrubbed from consciousness, however crudely or illogically. And over-monitored leaders will be sure to comply. Today a politician can lose his job if he doesn’t swiftly change historical precedent to fit the frenzied misinterpretation of a still-breaking news story.

That’s where we are. Reactive, finger-snap solutionism. If a single nuclear plant explodes, immediately move to halt civilian nuclear energy. If a hurricane devastates the East Coast, demand climate-change legislation. If a spree-killer goes on a rampage, get rid of guns.

The problem is that weather is, scientifically speaking, a chaotic system. And so too is human interaction. There is no one solution for keeping the chaos at bay. But, believe it or not, conservatives have thoughtful proposals about mitigating chaos or reducing its negative impact on people. The very night that Hurricane Sandy hit, the New York Times published an editorial explaining that such events demonstrate the need for big government. But many conservatives believe that big government was itself partially to blame for the damage done—without federal flood insurance no one would have developed homes so dangerously close to the water in the first place. Scaling back big government is not a matter of short changing those who have it hard but of sparing them the negative effects of poorly executed government intervention. A similar idea informs pro-Second Amendment arguments. If the government takes guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, only determined law-breakers will be armed in the event of attack.

The fault for not having real debate does not rest exclusively with progressive solutionists. It’s time for conservatives to drop their embattled and antagonistic posture. If they don’t want every crisis to automatically affirm progressive ideas they must acquaint Americans with why their own—sometimes, counterintuitive—ideas actually work for the good of the country.

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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.

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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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Few Similarities Between Suicide Terrorists and Rampage Killers

It has long been argued by psychologists and political scientists that most suicide bombers are not mentally ill and most aren’t inherently suicidal. Rather they are indoctrinated or brain-washed by terrorist organizations to perform high-profile attacks with a political or religious motive. Adam Lankford, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, seeks to dramatically revise our understanding of this phenomenon with a new book which he adapted into a New York Times op-ed today. He argues: “For years, the conventional wisdom has been that suicide terrorists are rational political actors, while suicidal rampage shooters are mentally disturbed loners. But the two groups have far more in common than has been recognized.”

His arguments would radically revise our understanding of terrorists and their motivations–if they were true. But his evidence is, to put it charitably, less than convincing.

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It has long been argued by psychologists and political scientists that most suicide bombers are not mentally ill and most aren’t inherently suicidal. Rather they are indoctrinated or brain-washed by terrorist organizations to perform high-profile attacks with a political or religious motive. Adam Lankford, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, seeks to dramatically revise our understanding of this phenomenon with a new book which he adapted into a New York Times op-ed today. He argues: “For years, the conventional wisdom has been that suicide terrorists are rational political actors, while suicidal rampage shooters are mentally disturbed loners. But the two groups have far more in common than has been recognized.”

His arguments would radically revise our understanding of terrorists and their motivations–if they were true. But his evidence is, to put it charitably, less than convincing.

He mentions only four terrorists: Mir Aimal Kasi (not “Kansi,” as Lankford has it), a Pakistani man living in the U.S. who in 1993 killed two employees and wounded three more outside CIA headquarters before escaping to Pakistan; Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, a Palestinian-American teacher who in 1997 opened fire on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, killing one person and wounding six others before taking his own life; Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian-American limousine driver who in 2002 opened fire in front of the El Al counter at Los Angeles Airport, killing two Israelis before himself being killed by security guards; and Nidal Malik Hasan, a Palestinian-American army officer who in 2009 went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, killing 13 people and wounding 29 before being captured.

Lankford may well be right that these attackers have something in common with rampage killers such as Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho and Adam Lanza, who shot up a high school, a university and an elementary school, respectively, but there is one crucial difference. Most of the terrorists he cites cites were not, contrary to his claims, suicidal–Kansi actually escaped after his attack and Hasan was captured; only Kamal killed himself. Whereas all four of the rampage killers he describes committed suicide before police closed in. This suggests some pretty significant differences between the terrorists and the rampage killers.

More significantly, the four domestic terrorists Lankford cites have significant differences from suicide bombers who are to be found in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, the West Bank, Syria, and Iraq. None of the four was part of an established terrorist network in this country. They were “lone wolves” who acted on their own initiative although they were no doubt influenced by terrorist propaganda; Hasan, for example, had even communicated with Anwar al-Awlaki, the former imam of his mosque in northern Virginia who became a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But that is a far cry from the kind of rigorous indoctrination and planning that goes into suicide-bomber attacks in the Middle East.

Just yesterday there was a suicide bombing in Kabul: “A suicide bomber driving a car packed with explosives targeted the compound of a private military contractor on the eastern outskirts of Kabul on Monday, killing at least one person and injuring at least 15 others.”

Does anyone imagine that the perpetrator of this attack just got up in the morning and, enflamed by mental illness, decided to go out on a whim to attack a security compound in Kabul? The very thought is ludicrous. Such attacks are planned weeks, even months, in advance by sophisticated networks such as the Haqqanis who procure a vehicle and explosives, indoctrinate a driver, survey and identify a target, and infiltrate the driver and vehicle into a heavily guarded city such as Kabul. They are using suicide bombers much the way the U.S. military uses precision-guided munitions.

The acts in question are supremely rational and strategic. Not all of the suicide bombers are even aware that they are on a one-way mission; sometimes a terrorist controller hundreds of yards away detonates the vehicles by remote control. Sometimes the driver has been coerced into carrying out the mission by threats against his family. Whatever the case, these attacks do not involve crazy loners like the examples Lankford mentions. Until he analyzes these types of attacks, which are far more common and far more destructive, his arguments will not gain much credence among terrorism analysts.

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The Gun Control Moment

There is little doubt that the Newtown killings have materially changed the discussion in this country about guns. The shock and horror about the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has created a demand for some sort of action by the government that will assuage the public’s need to believe that another school massacre can somehow be prevented. The result is that President Obama has the opportunity to pursue an assault weapons ban or restrictions on ammunition without having to worry very much about the usually vociferous opposition to such measures from the National Rifle Association and its many supporters.

That such measures are unlikely to prevent mentally unstable persons from obtaining weapons is almost beside the point. Governments cannot legislate the abolition of the sort of evil that led a disturbed individual to kill children in Connecticut last Friday. Nor is it likely or even desirable that Washington seeks to restrict the rights of Hollywood or video game makers that produce the sort of violent entertainment that creates the culture of violence that may also contribute to crime. Sadly, there is little likelihood that any of this will lead to a push to give more funding to the sort of mental health issues that do lead directly to violence.

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There is little doubt that the Newtown killings have materially changed the discussion in this country about guns. The shock and horror about the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has created a demand for some sort of action by the government that will assuage the public’s need to believe that another school massacre can somehow be prevented. The result is that President Obama has the opportunity to pursue an assault weapons ban or restrictions on ammunition without having to worry very much about the usually vociferous opposition to such measures from the National Rifle Association and its many supporters.

That such measures are unlikely to prevent mentally unstable persons from obtaining weapons is almost beside the point. Governments cannot legislate the abolition of the sort of evil that led a disturbed individual to kill children in Connecticut last Friday. Nor is it likely or even desirable that Washington seeks to restrict the rights of Hollywood or video game makers that produce the sort of violent entertainment that creates the culture of violence that may also contribute to crime. Sadly, there is little likelihood that any of this will lead to a push to give more funding to the sort of mental health issues that do lead directly to violence.

Yet at a time when the public wants something done, any solution that speaks to the revulsion people feel about the slaughter of 1st-graders will provide a degree of catharsis. With even pro-gun legislators saying they will support gun control and the NRA effectively silenced, the field is open for a game-changing push from the White House. The question is not whether it will happen but whether the president will overreach.

Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, famously said of the 2008 financial meltdown “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” That sort of thinking led to a decision to exploit the situation to push through a liberal wish list in the form of a trillion-dollar stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. The former failed to revive the economy and the latter bogged the administration down in a crippling debate when its political capital might have been better spent on efforts to bring down the unemployment rate. Yet the president’s re-election last month may have convinced him that he was right all along about everything even if the new year may bring worse economic news that the implementation of ObamaCare will only exacerbate.

If the president opts for a quick, limited push on assault weapons that will allow him to say he has responded to Newtown effectively, the result will likely be an easy victory that will enable him to start off his second term on a positive note. However, the temptation to exploit this gun control moment may be overwhelming.

Liberal interest groups see the emotional reaction to Newtown as their chance to roll back gun rights in a way that would have been unimaginable only a week ago. But if Obama listens to them, he could overplay his hand and risk losing the support of the vast majority of Americans who support sensible restrictions on military-style weapons but not anything that smacks of an attack on the Second Amendment. The gun control moment is here, but the president and his supporters need to be wary of misinterpreting the reaction to Newtown with an overreach that could be a crippling mistake.

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