In my last post I mentioned some of the freakish and delusional paranoid conspiracies people have been hurling around after the Newtown massacre. Perhaps the peak of that particular phenomenon appeared in the form of Alex Jones’s meltdown on national television.
But there’s more to this than just cranks and wingnuts blowing smoke and throwing tantrums. Another problem are the various public-policy decisions that are being debated.
A lot of folks are talking about increasing restrictions on guns and ammunition — ideas ranging from increasing background-check requirements, to reimposing the “assault weapons” ban of the 1990s, to taxing ammunition at 400%, and more. There’s also talk about mental health care and various means of getting weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill (the aforementioned background checks are one way to do that). There’s also talk about video games and how they contribute to violence, and the same goes for America’s “gun culture.”
The problem is, all of this talk — and more — is predicated on a single event, about which we know precious little, and a lot of the known facts don’t really contribute to any of this jabber.
As far as guns and gun violence are concerned, it may sound very strange and seem incredibly counter-intuitive, but the truth is that the availability of guns does not correlate with gun violence. FactCheck’s long article addressing this particular aspect of the talk makes this clear (WebCite cached article). They note:
The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world — by far. And it has the highest rate of homicides among advanced countries. And yet, gun crime has been declining in the U.S. Firearm murders are down, as is overall gun violence — even as gun ownership increases.
The Newtown and Aurora massacres notwithstanding, gun violence in the US is at its lowest rate since 1981 … yet guns are more numerous, and more available (especially since the “assault weapons” ban has been gone for several years), than ever before. Will banning any particular kind of gun, or even all guns, make any difference? I’m not sure it would. There are already about as many guns in the US as there are people. The country is nearly saturated. Banning all future gun sales will do nothing about any of the many that are already in the field. What’s more, banning all gun sales is — for better or worse — very likely not legal, especially in light of the Heller (2008) and McDonald (2010) decisions. Ammunition controls would more likely pass legal muster, and might have an impact, but there’d still be the problem of all the ammunition out there being available to those who want it.
Proposals have been made in the opposite direction, to arm all teachers in schools, and even arm everyone in some communities. The thinking is, as stated by NRA president Wayne LaPierre, that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” (cached). More people with more guns means less crime, supposedly. But as FactCheck explained, while this sounds like a good idea to people who like guns, and is apparently supported by economist John R. Lott, this principle hasn’t borne up to scrutiny:
While Lott’s work is often cited by gun rights advocates, his findings are strongly disputed by numerous academics. Most notably, in 2004 a committee of the National Research Council of the National Academies analyzed Lott’s research and took issue with his findings [cached], concluding that “it is impossible to draw strong conclusions from the existing literature on the causal impact of these laws” (See Chapter 6).
Besides, LaPierre’s assertion was proven wrong just a couple days later, when a teacher in Taft Union High School talked a student into ending his shooting spree (cached). The idea of turning America into a latter-day “wild west” is fraught with complications, such as a chance of increased accidental shootings, the possibility of people being attacked in order to have their guns taken, and more.
What’s more, the guns used in the Newtown massacre had been legally acquired and were legally owned by the shooter’s mother, Nancy Lanza. If legally-compliant guns in Connecticut, which already has restrictive gun laws, ended up being used in a horrific crime, I’m not sure how making those laws even more onerous are going to help very much.
Now, about video games. It’s true there are now tons of extremely violent video games all over the place, now. It was also reported that the Newtown shooter was an avid player (cached). The problem is, the correlation between violent video games and real-world violence, hasn’t yet been established (cached). Some research has suggested there’s a link; other research suggests there’s none. What’s a person to think? I have no idea. What I do know, as the FactCheck article I mentioned previously points out, is that we’re at the lowest level of gun violence since 1981. Back then, video games were rare, few were overtly violent (beyond things like Space Invaders and Asteroids). Video games are now common, in nearly everyone’s homes, and many of those are extremely violent. If there were a correlation, one would expect there’d be more gun violence, not less, now than in 1981. So call me skeptical of such a link.
Violence in Hollywood has also been cited as a culprit. But again, we have the same problem: No sure correlation between violence in the media and violence in the real world, plus the fact that there is a lot more violence in the media now (more channels, more shows, and greater amounts of violence depicted within them) than in 1981, yet we’re at the lowest level of gun violence since 1981. For the same reason, I can’t find it credible that violence in the media has much to do with it.
Then there’s the matter of mental health care. Most people assume the Newtown shooter to have been mentally ill. Reports claim he’d snapped because his mother had been planning to institutionalize him (cached). His brother also reportedly claimed he had Asperger’s syndrome (cached). But AS is not a mental illness; it is, rather, a developmental disorder in the autism spectrum. As a result, people are now talking about mental health care as a way of preventing these kinds of events (cached). There are even people who think America’s system of institutions needs to be re-established and the mentally ill warehoused as they used to be, before exposés in the 1970s and the enactment of legislation, including the Mental Health Systems Act, that eventually led to their closure.
Personally, I find it frightening that anyone is seriously considering going back to the days of rampant forced confinement of the mentally ill. There’s a reason there was a hue and cry against those institutions; those housed within them were often treated horrifically. We cannot and should not even consider that course of action. Combine this with the fact that we aren’t even sure if the Newtown shooter was actually mentally ill at all — officials have not disclosed whether he’d been diagnosed or treated, and have not confirmed any of the stories about him that I mentioned. It may well be the case that the shooter had been mentally ill … but really, we have no idea whether he was or not.
What all of this boils down to is, we don’t know enough about this event to be able to draw any conclusions from it, and by extension, make any policy decisions because of it. The Connecticut State Police are in charge of the investigation into the shooting, its causes, the shooter, and his family. They’ve disclosed nothing of consequence about it, and I don’t envision them ever doing so. We know nothing about the Newtown shooter with any certainty. We don’t know his motive, or what could have caused him to go on this rampage. We don’t know if his mother had kept her guns locked up, or if she did, if she’d allowed her son access to the keys. We don’t know what sort of planning went into this event or if anyone in his life had seen any warning signs.
In sum … we don’t know Jack shit about Adam Lanza or about why the shooting occurred. The people who do know, aren’t talking, and they aren’t likely to talk. To make any large-scale policy changes based on zero knowledge, is the worst kind of folly. We need to put the brakes on all the yammering and get to the bottom of this event before making any serious moves.
That’s just the way it is. Unfortunately.
Photo credit: Motifake.Tags: adam lanza, gun control, gun violence, mental health, mentally ill, newtown, newtown CT, newtown massacre, sandy hook elementary school, sandy hook elementary school shooting, video games, violence, violence rates