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Pure Onsense

Will This Time Be Different?

Scott Zuke

(1/2013) We are tempted to call the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut an "unthinkable" crime, but we know that isn't true. We know we have been here before, coped with the same fear and pain. The American public has developed a macabre and predictable routine for reacting to acts of domestic mass violence. The emotions are real and right, but also far too familiar. Like the five stages of grief, there could also be a model for the stages of processing shootings like those at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and now Newtown.

In place of denial there is shock and sympathy for the victims, expressed in candlelight vigils, prayers, and donations for affected families. Next comes anger and the need to assign blame, not only to the shooter but to anyone who failed to notice warning signs and stop the tragedy from occurring. The bargaining stage is where people turn to politics to try to find a way out of an unavoidable truth: that this will all happen again. Depression comes as the limitations of public policy to deal with these crimes become clear, followed quickly by acceptance, in the form of setting aside the issue until the next time a Breaking News banner interrupts the day with the latest "unthinkable" crime.

In a critical post after the shooting, the Economist's "Democracy in America" blog argued that, "Considering the frequency with which gun massacres now occur in America, the media attention they garner, and the failure of that attention either to shift public opinion regarding gun control or to prod the political system to take any action at all, the outpouring of sentiment over the shootings Friday in Newtown, Connecticut is probably best viewed as a ritualistic exercise in mass histrionics." There's plenty of sound and fury, but little evidence that it signifies a meaningful shift in Americans' attitude toward guns.

The magnitude of the shock following the shooting at Sandy Hook has led political leaders to say this time is different; this time there must be a change. How this invigorated bargaining stage will proceed is coming into focus at the time of this writing, but its ultimate outcome is hard to predict.

Is this time really different in terms of the political momentum behind implementing new gun laws? It's possible, because of a change in how this particular shooting has been politicized. As we are all accustomed to by now, immediately following a mass shooting, it's only a matter of time until some politician or pundit uses the moment to call for new gun control legislation. Then comes swift pushback from opponents, arguing that "now is not the time to talk about gun control" and admonishing them for politicizing a tragedy.

What is important to understand is that there are two ways of talking about "politicizing" an event. There is the "dirty" way, when a politician capitalizes on an event purely for personal and political gain. But there is also a second way, which occurs when the public concludes that a social issue has reached a sufficient level of concern that it can and should be dealt with through the political process.

Previous shootings have produced widespread shock and alarm, but this latest one appears to have reached a new height in generating public pressure on politicians to take meaningful, preventative actions. Gun control has been thrust back into the political arena not by President Obama, who has never before shown any interest in pursuing new gun laws and has actually approved more easing of gun regulations than tightening of them, but by the public, which has undergone a sharp shift in opinion and has demanded a policy response from the President and Congress.

What will result from this politicization of the issue is hard to predict, and depends on how much momentum is retained after the holidays, after the Fiscal Cliff negotiations, and after a new Congress is sworn into office. The president has moved to keep gun control on the legislative agenda by forming a task force to produce a list of policy recommendations by the end of this month. After that, it's up to Congress, and particularly the Republican-controlled House to decide whether those policies are given serious deliberation or set aside to collect dust.

Gun control may not even be the only policy under consideration. There's been talk of deficiencies in our system of mental health evaluations too, among other things. But gun control will remain highly controversial. A Congressional Research Service report, just recently published in response to the Aurora, CO shooting, succinctly summarizes the political divide: "To gun control advocates, the opposition is out of touch with the times, misinterprets the Second Amendment, and is lacking in concern for the problems of crime and violence. To gun control opponents, advocates are naive in their faith in the power of regulation to solve social problems, bent on disarming the American citizen for ideological or social reasons, and moved by irrational hostility toward firearms and gun enthusiasts."

That's a tough chasm to cross, but there is something that gun control advocates must come to terms with, and that would be beneficial for them to adopt into their rhetoric. Their refrain has often been, "We need laws to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again." This is not a realistic goal, and leads opponents to envision a true violation of the Second Amendment through government-mandated disarmament of the public. There is no policy that can reasonably eliminate the risk of future mass shootings, but there are measures that may reduce their likelihood and frequency without impinging too heavily on citizens' rights. It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of such regulations, but the extent to which the public and policymakers have realistic expectations and a pragmatic approach to policy reform will determine whether this time really is different, or becomes just another cycle through inefficacious emotional outpouring.

Read other article by Scott Zuke