The murder of 20 innocent children and 6 innocent adults in Newtown, Connecticut is nothing short of heartbreaking. As the world turns toward the Christmas season, it is fitting that we reflect on the tragedy of this shooting. Twenty-six lives cut short in a senseless act of carnage. The image of those empty places at dinner tables, the Christmas presents that will never be unwrapped by their intended recipients, the grieving families, all of them bring a sense of undeniable tragedy at a time that should be about peace and family.
Yet like nearly everything else in society today, the Newtown atrocity has become yet another excuse for the crudest of partisan politics. Mere minutes after the shootings, the predictable calls for gun control were echoing online. We are being told, in that typically histrionic style, that opposition to gun control might as well be the same as siding with the murderer. The political-media complex are already in full swing, doing all they can to shape the narrative in favor of more firearms restrictions.
Blame the Person, Not the Object
The problem with this convenient narrative is that it misses the points. Guns didn’t kill 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut. Guns are inanimate objects, not evil talismans that possess innocents and turn them into mindless killing machines. The Newtown atrocity was committed by a deeply disturbed person with what appears to be a substantial history of mental illness. It is easy to try and “control” firearms—at least on paper. But admitting that this country has a crisis in mental health is a much harder debate. Instead, the focus is on the longstanding objective of the left: disarming the American populace.
For one, that will never work. Guns exist. High-powered assault rifles exist. We can make them marginally harder to obtain, but criminals will still find a way to get them. The idea that Congress can pass a law banning certain weapons and those weapons will magically disappear is childish thinking. Indeed, we’ve already tried with the Assault Weapons Ban. But when that ban expired in 2004, the number of shootings remained constant.
The anti-gun crowd keeps making predictions of imminent disaster: if the Assault Weapons Ban is not reauthorized, blood will run in the streets! The ban was not reauthorized, and the level of violent crime continued to go down. We heard that if states adopted Concealed Carry laws, that the result would be the Wild West all over again—but the hard evidence shows that concealed-carry permit holders are in fact less likely to be involved in violent crime than the general population. The fact is that as terrible as mass shootings like the ones we have seen this year are the exception, not the rule.
Culture Matters, But Not in the Way You Think
Saying that America’s “gun culture” is to blame is equally facetious. For one, it’s not like these shooters are card-carrying members of the National Rifle Association. The people who care about Second Amendment rights tend to be people who have a healthy respect for firearms. The NRA itself is diligent in promoting safety training and the responsible use of firearms.
There is a cultural problem here, but it has less to do with guns and everything to do with the media. The media breathlessly reports on these mass killings, even going so far as to ghoulishly shove their microphones into the faces of traumatized children from Sandy Hook School. And these killers, almost always mentally ill young men who feel ostracized from society, get exactly what they want: publicity and notoriety.
To be sure, a transparent society demands reporting newsworthy incidents — and this definitely qualifies. But it should be done responsibly. And that is not what we have witnessed. We have instead a feeding frenzy that is all about beating the competition — not disseminating information.
It’s about being first, beating other media outlets, and making a name for themselves. It’s a ghoulish mentality that stokes controversy and violence — for business purposes. It’s a sort of “if it bleeds it leads” mentality that causes cable networks to create logos and theme music for such tragic events (all the while, they feign maudlin concern and outrage.)
Come to think of it, the media is guilty of doing what they criticize big business for — putting money (in this case, ratings, newsstand sales, and web traffic) ahead of humanity and decency. Just as greedy businessmen put profit and personal gain ahead of ethics, so too do our media outlets.
It is a commentary on our media that there’s a mad rush to repeal the rights protected by the Second Amendment, but none to restrict the dangers of the First Amendment. After all, the Founders never envisioned a world where irresponsible mass media could broadcast falsehoods and misinformation across the globe in a matter of seconds. The Founders could not have envisioned a world when a handful of media outlets would have such control over the public discourse and could use their power to advance their own agendas. In their time, the press consisted of numerous small region publications that could check the excesses of one another. Should not the freedom of the press be restricted only to reasonable technologies such as a basic Gutenberg press? After all, that would be more in tune with what the Founders really intended, wouldn’t it?
Of course that’s a silly argument—but why then are the same arguments used in the context of firearms? Yes, the Founders lived in a time when firearms were relatively crude and cumbersome. But that is not the point of the Second Amendment. The point is that the last and most crucial bulwark against despotism is an armed and capable populace—a nation of riflemen is far more resilient than a nation that has been thoroughly disarmed.
Our culture is the problem, but its a culture that is created by the very same media that wants to disarm the rest of us. If we want to reduce the incentives for these horrific attacks, then the media should have policy that the name of the shooter is never released, the focus is only on the victims, and sensationalism is to be avoided at all costs. Fat chance of the media ever agreeing to that, even in principle.
As The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf points out this country has already had an in-depth conversation about guns, and the pro-gun side won decisively, with anti-gun efforts failing across the country. The right to self-defense has been recognized as such, and the American people have spoken. We value our ability to keep and bear arms, and that is a choice that represents the democratic will of the American people.
Does that mean that gun violence will continue to be endemic in America? Only if you assume that the availability of firearms is the biggest factor, rather than mental illness, the breakdown of the American family, a failing prison system, etc. The fact is that the number of firearms in this country continues to rise while restrictions on firearms have been loosened—and violent crime continues to decrease.
What happened in Newtown was undeniably a heartbreaking tragedy. But using it as a launching pad for another campaign to restrict the rights of tens of millions of law-abiding Americans is not only a poor way of honoring the dead, but ultimately counterproductive as well.
Postscript: Oddly enough, it is Saturday Night Live that had the most appropriate reaction to this tragedy: having their cold open this week be a children’s choir singing “Silent Night” in front of a single candle. That a comedy show showed more class and dignity than their news operation says a great deal about the media today.