How Do We Prevent Another Newtown?

The shooting that occurred at Sandy Spring Elementary School is perhaps the most cold-blooded and evil act of violence that we have seen since 9/11. When something so incomprehensible occurs, we are compelled to step back and think about how we can make society a better place and the country safer for our children.

In his speech on Sunday in Newtown, President Obama said,

 “No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society,” he said. “But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.” He added that “in the coming weeks I’ll use whatever power this office holds” in an effort “aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”

Turn on any news channel, and politicians and pundits are suggesting more mental health resources, bans on assault rifles, more background checks and restricting gun sales.

Our communities need to do whatever we can to stop this kind of atrocity from happening again, but Megan McArdle, columnist at The Daily Beast, brought to light an idea that is hard to swallow in the face of such tragedy. Maybe there is nothing that the law can do to prevent killers like Adam Lanza.  

What Lanza shows us is the limits of the obvious policy responses.  He had all the mental health resources he needed–and he did it anyway.  The law stopped him from buying a gun–and he did it anyway.  The school had an intercom system aimed at stopping unauthorized entry–and he did it anyway.  Any practical, easy-to-implement solution to school shootings that you could propose, along with several that were not at all easy to implement, was already in place.  Somehow, Lanza blew through them all.

Megan McArdle, There’s Little We Can Do to Prevent Another Massacre

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) is issuing the call to ban assault rifles. But the bad news is that we’ve already tried this with the Federal Assault Weapons Ban from 1995-2005, and it didn’t work. There were still atrocious massacres during this period—including the famous Columbine shooting. Furthermore, someone should let Rep. Jackson Lee know that a hunting rifle used to take down a massive buck or shoot a rapid string of clay pigeons is just as deadly as a semi-automatic assault rifle. Unfortunately, no level of restrictions is going to stop a crazed, evil lunatic (who obviously has no regard for laws) from obtaining a destructive weapon, such as a hunting rifle or homemade pipe bomb, and doing harm with it.

When one examines the history of gun violence in this country over the last century, the trends show there is absolutely no correlation between more gun laws and fewer random acts of violence.

The U.S. homicide rate has fallen by over half since 1980, and the gun homicide rate has fallen along with it. Today, Americans are safer from violent crime, including gun homicide, than they have been at any time since the mid-1960s.

Mass shootings, defined as four or more fatalities, fluctuate from year to year, but over the past 30 years there has been no long-term increase or decrease. But “random” mass shootings, such as the horrific crimes last Friday in Newtown, Conn., have increased.

Why the increase? It cannot be because gun-control laws have become more lax. Before the 1968 Gun Control Act, there were almost no federal gun-control laws. The exception was the National Firearms Act of 1934, which set up an extremely severe registration and tax system for automatic weapons and has remained in force for 78 years.

Back in the mid-1960s, in most states, an adult could walk into a store and buy an AR-15 rifle, no questions asked. Today, firearms are the most heavily regulated consumer product in the United States. If someone wants to purchase an AR-15 or any other firearm, the store must first get permission for the sale from the FBI or its state counterpart. Permission is denied if the buyer is in one of nine categories of “prohibited persons,” including felons, domestic-violence misdemeanants, and persons who have been adjudicated mentally ill or alcoholic….

Dave Kopel, Guns, Mental Illness and Newtown


McArdle laid out the hard truth well: “A law would make us feel better, because it would make us feel as if we’d “done something,” as if we’d made it less likely that more children would die.  But I think that would be false security. And false security is more dangerous than none.”

We need only look at how we have coped with crisis and tragedy in American history to see that laws passed hastily to “protect” citizens have some very bad consequences. See the Patriot Act, the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798, or the Japanese internment camps.

A better, but more complicated, answer would be for us to reform our systems that care for the violently mentally ill and take a serious look at the psychological effects from the media’s portrayal of violence and other sociological factors, such as family and religious structures.