Hearts are aching for the victims and the families whose lives were forever changed yesterday. Let us try to put aside the motives that could drive a person to commit the heinous acts seen in Newtown, three days prior in Portland, or three months earlier in Wisconsin. The somber list of tragedies goes on. Instead of focusing on analyzing the killers' backgrounds and motives in these cases, we should strive to prevent tragedies like these from reaching such proportions in the first place.
Unfortunately, even in societies where guns have been all but eliminated from the civilian population, there are people who decide to make themselves heard by attacking others. The same day as the shooting in Newtown, where 28 died, a man in China stabbed 22 children and one adult at an elementary school. Certainly the innocence of these children was taken from them, but they kept their lives.
Undoubtedly we all live in a less violent world today than our forebears ever did. Steven Pinker artfully makes the case for declining violence throughout the world in his most recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature. The U.S. has certainly benefitted from this trend, but to a lesser degree than our economically developed counterparts. Duke Professor Kieran Healy points out that we suffer from much higher levels of violence than other OECD countries, as measured by assault deaths per 100,000 people (graphs here).
Theories abound as to why this is the case. Pinker puts forth a very plausible one that says this is partly because large parts of the U.S. were effectively in a state of anarchy until the 20th century, and people needed guns for self-protection. When government finally did reach these areas, they were reluctant to give up their arms. Compare this to our European counterparts, where smaller territories meant government protection was available before the citizenry became so armed. In fact, one of the main reasons for the decline of violence Pinker puts forth in his book is effective governance.
This begs the question: are we governing effectively when shootings are this common? Mother Jones' analysis of mass shootings in the U.S. shows that in the majority of cases, the weapons used were purchased legally. It seems to me that if you restrict who is able to purchase guns, making them harder to obtain (or impossible to get in the case of assault rifles), the situation can only improve. Certainly following many states in rolling back regulations will not help. There will unfortunately be people who get their hands on other weapons and decide to use them against others, but smart policy action can reduce their lethality.
Politics, in the best sense of the word, is a tool to help address the needs of the people. This terrible tragedy has reached everyone's doorstep. What we need now is for our leaders to take action and to not kick the can further down the road.