The Sandy Hook shooting, like Columbine 14 years ago, has sparked national outrage and reignited the gun control debate. Mass shootings, of course, are horrid, especially when small children are involved. These events have an emotional aspect to them that qualitatively changes them compared to other types of murder. That emotional response is valid. But other responses in the aftermath of these tragedies are not as logical. The gun debate post-Newtown is one of these responses that have been illogical, spanning everything from school safety to civil liberties. Since Newtown, there has been increased rhetoric regarding gun control. But do the solutions that are being voiced even make sense?
It's interesting to note that not even all the parents of the victims in Newtown believe that gun laws are the answer. The same was true after the Columbine tragedy. Even the closest people to the victims know that the solution to these types of violence isn't exactly a mass gun ban ... it goes deeper than that. And history proves them write. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban did not work before, and there is no good reason to conclude it would work now. So our emotional response may not ultimately be our best choice. When not even all the parents believe new guns laws would work, why should the rest of us?
In Newtown, Mark Mattioli, whose 6-year-old son James was murdered, feels that there are more than enough gun laws on the books. During the first of a series of meetings set up by a legislative task force assigned to review Connecticut's gun laws, he said: "I don't care if you named it 'James' law,' I don't want (another law).” He called instead for a closer look at mental health policies.
Following the tragedy at Columbine in 1999, Darrell Scott, father of two victims at the Columbine High School shootings, testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime. He had this to say:
“In the days that followed the Columbine tragedy, I was amazed at how quickly fingers began to be pointed at groups such as the NRA.
“I am not a member of the NRA. I am not a hunter. I do not even own a gun. I am not here to represent or defend the NRAA – because I don't believe that they are responsible for my daughter's death. If I believed they had anything to do with Rachel's murder, I would be their strongest opponent.
“When something as terrible as Columbine's tragedy occurs – politicians immediately look for a scapegoat such as the NRA. They immediately seek to pass more restrictive law that continue to erode away our personal and private liberties.”
“We do not need more restrictive law. [The shooters] would not have been stopped by metal detectors. No amount of gun laws can stop someone who spends months planning this type of massacre. Political posturing and restrictive legislation are not the answers.”
Academic research so far concurs with both Mark Mattias and Darrell Scott: gun laws aren't the answer. A review of research on firearms by a National Research Council panel concluded that academic studies of the assault weapon ban (AWB) “did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence” and noted “the maximum potential effect of the ban on gun violence outcomes would be very small.” Likewise, the CDC did not find any evidence to support the ban had an impact. There is no good reason to conclude a “high capacity” magazine ban would reduce either homicides overall or prevent mass shootings (shooters at both Columbine and Virginia Tech used 10 round magazines, they just carried a lot of them – 13 and 17 of them, respectively).
In fact, the longterm trend in the U.S. is that gun violence and homicide are down, and that we're at an all time low in violent crime. Homicides are the lowest they have been since 1976. It is important to note this trend took place with and without the AWB, indicating that the AWB was not a critical factor. And despite former President Bill Clinton's assertion that mass shootings have gone up since the AWB expired in 2004, and the Mother Jones study, mass shootings have not, in fact, gone up. James Alan Fox, a highly regarded criminologist from Northeastern University in Boston says they have been consistent on a yearly basis for a long time, exposing the flaws in the Mother Jones study from an academic standpoint.
If more gun laws are not the solution, then what is? Many, including Mark Mattias call for a real look at mental health care. While this has been mentioned in the wider post-Newtown debate, the focus seems to be instead on "scary looking weapons." Many also call for better enforcement of our gun laws, stronger prosecution of straw man gun purchasers and those who falsify background check information, and fully funding NICS (the background check system), and ensuring all states provide comprehensive felon and mentally ill data to the system. Some argue we could protect our schools with armed security and many schools are doing just that, including Newtown.
An appeal to emotion is strong when the event in question elicits a strong emotional response. However, a look at the research tells us that our emotional response may not ultimately provide us with the best approach. When even parents of children murdered in these senseless acts of violence agree that guns aren't the problem, the rest of us should take note.