But they also regularly bring out the worst in observers, commentators, and pundits who will never let a lack of knowledge or expertise stand in the way of making grand pronouncements.
Here's a short tour of four of the least-helpful reactions to an attack that slaughtered more than two dozen Americans - most of them kids 10 years and younger. They come courtesy of a former presidential candidate (Mike Huckabee), an international media mogul (Rupert Murdoch), an Oscar-winning filmmaker (Michael Moore), and a famous crusading journalist (Geraldo Rivera).
Following that is a discussion of the reality of gun violence in America and what might actually address some of the issues in play.
Next: God has left the building...
1. Mike Huckabee: "We have systematically removed God from our schools."
The former governor of Arkansas, Republican hopeful for president, and Fox News host says we've got no reason to be surprised when adult gunmen shoot up educational establishments.
"We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools," Huckabee said on Fox News, discussing the murder spree that took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, CT that morning. "Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?"More here.
I don't doubt the governor's sincerity, but among other things, he might want to think about the declining rate of school violence. According to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, schools have been getting safer and less violent at least over the past couple of decades - despite what Huckabee would doubtless consider a period of rising godlessness. During the school year of 1992-93, for instance, the number of on-location murders of students and staff at K-12 public schools was 47 (out of population of millions). In 2009-2010 (the latest year for which data is listed), the number was 25. Over the same period, the rate on victimizations per 1,000 students for theft dropped from 101 to 18. For violent crimes, the rate dropped from 53 to 14. And for "serious violent" crimes, the rate dropped from 8 to 4.
Next: It's never too late to blame George W. Bush...
2. Michael Moore: "killer... used an assault weapon called The Bushmaster."
Michael Moore is no stranger to bombastic, offensive statements. Who can forget (despite trying really, really hard) when he denounced the butterfly ballot fiasco in Palm Beach, Florida during the 2000 presidential election as the final act of Kristallnacht?
No one has made more money off of bashing George W. Bush so it wasn't surprising that Oscar-winning documentarion tweeted this:
In addition to his two handguns, the killer in CT this morning used an assault rifle called The Bushmaster.And in case you didn't get his wry, humorous intent, he followed up with this retweet of a comment by a follower in Australia:
@MMFlint I didn't know you guys named your guns after presidents. How cuteCute is one word for it.
Moore, of course, made the film Bowling for Columbine, which was named for one of the most notorious mass shootings in memory and tried to explore why America had always been more violent than other countries - even ones such as Canada and Switzerland that have similar or higher rates of gun ownership. As Reason's Brian Doherty noted, Moore was enough of a truth teller in his documentary to acknowledge he didn't really know:
Except for one scene - in which Our Hero himself apparently pressures Kmart into promising to phase out ammunition sales - Moore offers no suggestions for how to make America a less depressing place. He raises many of the obvious explanations for the high number of American shooting deaths - our violent history, our violent pop culture, the presence of so many weapons - and then debunks them all. Bowling for Columbine does not make a pro-gun control case. It is more existential nightmare than political document.Next: We need to ban guns that are already illegal...
3. Rupert Murdoch: "When will politicians find the courage to ban automatic weapons?"
Speaking of Australians and Twitter, media magnate and longtime gun control advocate Rupert Murdoch took to the short-message system to blurt:
Terrible news today. When will politicians find the courage to ban automatic weapons? As in Oz after similar tragedy.Perhaps Murdoch's focus was distracted by the ongoing ethics charges against various personnel in his global media empire or maybe he just doesn't care about details. As Mediaite's Josh Feldman points out, none of the weapons reported to have been used in the Sandy Hook shooting was automatic. In fact, according to gun-control-promoting Mother Jones, none of the weapons used in mass killings at least since 1982 have been automatic guns.
Feldman could have also pointed out that it's already illegal for Americans to own fully automatic weapons (more commonly called machine guns) that were made after 1986. (According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives [ATF], an automatic weapon allows a shooter to fire more than one round with a single trigger pull). Of the 250,000 or so legally registered machine guns kicking around, many are at shooting ranges or in the hands of dealers. The only way that citizens can legally own such weapons made before 1986 is by going through an extensive approval process run by ATF.
Not only has machine gun ownership has been strictly controlled since 1934, the use of fully automatic weapons - whether legal or illegal - in criminal activity is vanishingly small. So getting rid of the few machine guns still in legal circulation would have just about zero effect on anything.
Next: How can we make school even more like prison?
4. Geraldo Rivera: "I want an armed cop at every school."
After running through his resume, which includes interviewing Charles Manson and visiting wartime Iraq and Afghanistan, legendary broadcaster Geraldo Rivera told Bill O'Reilly on the latter's show:
This is the worst thing ever and there's a scene I can't get out of my mind. You have these babies who had never seen evil, who are in the flower of innocence, and here's a grownup dressed in camouflage and he's killing the children and he's reloading... I want an armed cop at every school, we have to protect these children as if they were gold.The raw emotionalism of Rivera's response - like President Obama, he choked up in describing the massacre - is understandable, but provides absolutely zero insight into how society or individuals should react.
Like 88 percent of public schools in the country, Sandy Hook Elementary already controlled access to its building and its students; the alleged shooter Adam Lanza reportedly shot through the security system that was in place. Could an armed presence at the school have prevented Lanza from killing all or some of his victims? It's possible, though given the low and falling number of violent crime on K-12 campuses nationwide (see Mike Huckabee section above), this seems like a misplaced emphasis at best, and the next step toward a greater lockdown environment at schools at worst.
Next: The reality of gun violence and how to deal with it...
The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting has understandably already energized the debate over gun control. During his first term in office, President Obama was widely understood to be in favor of tighter federal gun ownership laws but made no real moves toward that end. As Craig R. Whitney, the author of Living with Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment, told me in a recent interview (the video will run next week), the two actions that Obama took actually expanded gun rights: The president allowed for individuals to carry loaded guns into national parks and to check guns as luggage on Amtrak trains. These actions - along with Obama's failure to push for a renewal of the ban on "assault weapons" - caused the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence to give Obama an F for his first year in office.
At the start of a second term and facing a terrible economic situation (much of it due to his own policies) and an equally awful foreign-policy situation, it's plausible that Obama will turn to gun control as a way reconnecting with his liberal base and as an attempt to soothe the nation. At a press conference about the shooting, the president said, "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
And his spokesman Jay Carney has also said that the president will fight to reinstate the ban on so-called assault weapons (an imprecise category of guns that typically targets semi-automatic weapons festooned with military-style detailing).
None of that will be easy, for a number of reasons. Over the past several decades, virtually every state in the country has liberalized its gun control laws. In 2008 (in the Heller decision) and 2010 (McDonald), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an individual right to bear arms. Despite a number of high-profile gun-violence cases - including this year's mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater and 2011's shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords - the past 20 years has seen a sharp and continuing decrease in violent crime.
In 1992, for instance, the violent crime rate per 100,000 residents was 758. In 2012, it was 386. Between 2000 and 2009 (the latest year for which I could easily find data) use of firearms in violent crime had decreased from a rate of 2.4 per 1,000 to 1.4 per 1,000.
So gun violence overall is down significantly from where it was about 20 or more. At the same time, comfort with guns, which are present in about 45 percent of households, has been increasing. Gallup reports that in January of this year, only 25 percent of Americans wanted to see gun laws be made more strict. Two-thirds either wanted laws to stay the same or be less strict, while 8 percent had no opinion. It's likely that those percentages will shift somewhat over the coming weeks or even months, but the long-term trend lines - that include the years of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and other gun-related massacres - will make it difficult for gun control proponents to gain large majorities.
Beyond all questions of politics is a more basic question of efficacy. What exactly might be done to prevent mass shootings, especially at locations such as schools? In the wake of the Giffords shooting by Jared Lee Loughner, there were many calls for institutionalizing more people who seemed mentally unhinged and potentially violent. The same thing is happening now, for obvious reasons (by various accounts, none of which has been fully substantiated yet, presumed gunman Adam Lanza was unhinged). As Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote regarding Loughner, even the most vociferous propopents of locking up potential killers grant that maybe 10 percent of schizophrenics become violent. Academic studies of presumptive detention of the mentally ill suggest that mental health professionals do about as well, and sometimes worse, than regular people in figuring out who exactly is going to go postal. Such results should temper any and all calls to start rounding up more people in the name of protecting innocents.
The general decline in gun-related violence and the inability even of mental health professionals to identify future mass killers should be the essential starting points of any serious policy discussion generated by the absolutely horrific slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We should also add a third starting point: Few good policies come from rapid responses to deeply felt injuries. Many of the same people who are now calling for immediate action with regard to gun control recognize that The Patriot Act, rushed through Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, was a terrible piece of legislation that ultimately did nothing to protect Americans even as it vastly expanded the state's ability to surveil law-abiding citizens. There's no reason to think that federal, state, or local gun control laws promulgated now would result in anything different.
If hard cases make bad laws, it's even more true that rare crimes make terrible public policy. In a piece for Quartz, journalist Lenore Skenazy recalls that the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history took place in Michigan in 1927, when a disgruntled school-board official blew up 38 people, including himself. She writes that the real difference between now and then is the immediacy of the media, which shrinks the distance between victims and the rest of us. Even as that allows us to have more empathy for the grieving, it creates the conditions for an overreaction that will ultimately be little more than symbolic:
I expect we will now demand precautions on top of precautions. More guards. More security cameras. More supervision. We will fear more for our kids and let go of them even more reluctantly. Every time we wonder if they can be safe beyond our arms, these shootings will swim into focus.Acknowledging the horror of what happened and mourning for innocent lives snuffed out and families destroyed by the incomprehensible act of a madman is precisely what the country should be doing right now. If it seems as if that is a passive non-reaction, that's because too many people understand what mourning entails. After that can come a policy battle that can be fought with passion but not with emotionalism and ignorance of relevant, basic facts standing in for rational analysis and honest debate.
Will this new layer of fear and security make our children any safer? Probably not, but for a reassuring reason: A tragedy like this is so rare, our kids are already safe. Not perfectly safe. No one ever is. But safe.
That's a truth the folks in 1928 America understood. We just don't feel that way now.
Sent from my iPad