Not Today.

Slate has a tendency to be make bold proclamations and generally I appreciate their confident assertion of their beliefs. But not today (or really yesterday). Within hours of the shooting in Newtown, Slate had called the President out on his failure to politicize the tragedy:

Right, right, today’s not the day because we wouldn’t want to politicize a tragedy. That might make you look crass. And more important than stopping future elementary school students from being shot in the face and head and chest and little legs is for you to show a little tact by rising above your unseemly urge to make this country better. Also, you don’t want to offend anyone directly involved in the shooting. Like the parents of the kids who were murdered this morning while learning basic addition and how to write their ABCs.

I understand Benedikt’s push for action. It feels better to be doing something, or clamoring to do something, rather than waiting for more bad news and feeling sorry for your country. I agree with the sentiment that action is necessary. But not today–or tomorrow or the day after.

First of all, the President absolutely should tread carefully in order to avoid unintentionally offending the parents of victims. We should not assume that all of the victim’s parents are for gun control. They may be lifelong members of the NRA. And while it is possible that on the day they lost their child they immediately switched sides the odds are they didn’t take time out from mourning to re-consider their stance on the 2nd Amendment. Regardless of their view on guns or their feelings about the President they are undoubtedly wondering what they could have done to protect their children better. Their elected officials should not be compounding that guilt and blaming anyone other than the shooter, at least not today.

But if sensitivity towards victims is not reason enough to avoid politicizing the lives of 20 children and 7 adults, then the desire for rational debate and effective legislation should be. It is not only heartless to ask the President to make a political stand today, it is also pointless. How can you learn from this incident before all the facts are in? Benedikt (and many others) are calling for tougher restrictions without knowing how the guns were acquired in the first place, without knowing which guns were used, without even knowing the shooters identity or the full scope of the shooting spree. On the other side, political pundits are already crying foul and trying to blame everything but gun regulation. But we can’t use this incident to defend (or blame) the policies in place until we know what happened.

As a liberal and a scholar, I believe that policy should be based on information and not emotion. Polices and promises made in the shadow of tragedy can not be rational and as such have a greater risk of failure–we saw plenty of that after September 11th. There will be time for action but not today. Not while parents are planning funerals and not before the investigation is finished. And if that wasn’t reason enough, the reality is it takes a lot of time to draft any legislation (contentious or not). That fact alone should be enough to prevent political pundits from demanding knee-jerk reactive political promises from our representatives.

I am willing to wait for well-written, effectual, and fact-based legislation. I will wait for the trauma to recede and for the facts to be collected. But I will not wait forever. I will expect the President to offer a response that demonstrates his desire to make our country a better place. Just not today.

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4 thoughts on “Not Today.

  1. While I agree with much of what Anne B. says in her post, there are a few comments that I would like to add to this conversation:

    1. When does it become appropriate to start talking about changes in gun laws (or publicly available mental health care)? Is next week too soon? Next month? Personally, I found Obama’s comments incredibly moving and appropriate. I do not join Slate in their criticism. However, it seems that political discussions will need to be started long before parents and loved ones have recovered. This is likely because:
    2. Although I too would like to see policies which are informed and not purely emotional, the fact is that many political movements and changes are fueled by emotion. If law makers want to facilitate change, they need the support of people and communities. The number of volunteers and donations (not to mention the media attention) needed to push such changes rely on emotion for momentum and sustainability. I think it is unlikely to see any legislative changes without the use of emotion to garner support.
    3. While I think emotion will be inevitable, I agree with Anne B. that I would like to see informed dialogue over both gun control and mental health issues. Although many details are still murky from Newtown, we do know a lot from the events at Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Portland, and others to begin the conversation.
    4. Finally, perhaps one reason that the debate over gun ownership seems so distasteful is due to prevalence of extreme positions. To open a dialogue about gun control is not to suggest that we should do away with the 2nd Amendment. I, for one, would never suggest making gun ownership illegal. But perhaps there should be limits on the types of ammunition or types of guns available. If that is too restrictive, we might also consider changes in the process of securing a licence, requiring training in safe handling and storage, or laws requiring proper storage. Such changes would not, of course, prevent the future Adam Lanzas of the world from getting a hold of guns altogether. Rather, the hope is that it would make it more difficult–perhaps delaying individuals long enough that someone takes notice and intervenes— and that it would minimize the destruction that such individuals can cause.

    These are emotional and difficult topics to discuss, but it is a conversation worth having.

    • I agree that emotions will fuel the debate and that without the collective effervescence of a tragedy it is difficult to get the political will to make change. While it is not possible to completely drop the emotional content of legislative debates I think it is important to wait until the initial shock has worn off and the facts of the incident are in. It is unfortunately true that we have many previous mass shootings to learn from (70 school shootings since 1994–According to Letterman via Politico). But if we are going to use the emotional momentum from Newtown we need to use the facts from it as well. I don’t think it would be politically viable to do away with 2nd Amendment or even really necessary to prevent these tragedies. But I think we, as a nation, could do more to limit the risk associated with the right to bear arms. Slate did have an interesting article today on the increased lethality of these shootings, saying it took 10 minutes for Lanza to fire an estimated 200 rounds and kill 26 people. It is details like this, along with motivation and home environment, that should be informing public debate about guns.

      On a side note, I think this is an important conversation to have but since it is so emotionally charged I think it is a difficult one. I know that in my family, where opinions are divided, even in the aftermath of Sandy Hook it is a topic to be avoided in order to maintain the peace. Another reason to wait until emotions die down a bit so that reasoned debate has a chance.

  2. Great discussion–I’d like to add a few comments.

    1. I agree with both sentiments above. Emotion is a powerful force and one that can provide the momentum for change. At the same time, emotion is not necessarily a stable force, and in using it, our political figures should tread lightly. Perhaps the timing has less to do with whether or not to use emotion but with how that emotion is used. If Obama had begun to advocate for changes in our gun policy immediately after the shootings, he would have been viewed as using the public’s fear and sorrow to push his own political agenda. For a president widely feared as a threat to the 2nd Amendment, immediate action on his part would have been an ineffective use of public emotion. In fact, I think it could have given a “legitimate” reason (i.e. a defense against government manipulation) to reject any proposal, even in spite of the emotional pull toward change. Again, I am led to C.D. Maiers question above–when is the right time to act? When might the public still be open and motivated to discuss change; when will emotions be high enough to overcome previously held political convictions but not so high that manipulation of emotion is accused?

    2. I also think another important factor in the discussion on guns in the aftermath of Sandy Hook will be business. What will their role be? While long-term policy decisions may be considered bad form in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, shifting gun investments during this same time can be good for business. And businesses have taken note. For example, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it will stop selling modern rifles such as the Bushmaster, and Wal-Mart removed several guns from its website. Even a private equity group–Cerberus Capital Management–took this time to announce its retreat from the gun business. It has yet to be seen, however, whether these are short-term PR stunts or reflective of a shift in long-term business models. While I do not adhere to a framework that suggests that business is a numbers-only game (free of emotion and social values), I do think the narrative may go something like this: “if distance from guns is good for business, then long-term changes will ensue; if not, the changes will be fleeting.” What will be interesting to observe will be the way in which this plays out, as “good for business” will likely be defined based on the political and cultural climate.

  3. I agree that business has a large role to play and, unfortunately, that role is likely to be obstructionist. There is a lot of money to be made selling military-style weapons to American civilians. I am glad that some companies are taking a step back, but I suspect it will be temporary. I am looking forward to Tom Diaz’s book “The Last Gun”. His interview on Fresh Air was one of the better post-Sandy Hook discussions I heard.

    http://www.wbur.org/npr/167694808/assault-style-weapons-in-the-civilian-market

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