Anyone with sense should hesitate to comment on events such as the killings in Newton, CT since any analysis can easily fall victim to the hubris that one understands the incomprehensible. Yet, since these are neither the first nor last mass killings that we will witness, it does seem fair to note some observations.
The first is that serious gun control is unlikely to occur this term. Washington is already preoccupied with negotiations on averting the fiscal cliff and correcting fiscal and monetary imbalances that threaten the nation’s economy. The parties are still far apart on how to resolve the near-term fiscal problems and appear even further apart on the long-term role of tax increases, spending cuts, and structural reform of the nation’s entitlement reforms. Continued debates on these issues are likely to occupy much of the next two years. The implementation of financial reform and Obamacare will also take a great deal of this Administration’s time and effort, especially when the unintended consequences of attempting to restructure two of the country’s most important and complex sectors become clear. Finally, the President is unlikely to set aside priorities like immigration reform to deal with issue on which many of his own party will not support him. If senseless violence were enough to lead to gun control, it would have done so long ago.
Second, it is not clear that there is an answer to Newton. Gun control provides an obvious response to the modern assumption that all problems must have an answer. But the evidence supporting gun control is not very strong. It is just as easy to speculate that criminals will be more reluctant to commit crimes if they think that more people are armed as it is to assume that the government can effectively keep weapons out of the hands of people determined to use them. Now that guns can be printed at home on a 3-D printer, prohibition will be even harder to achieve. When we look at the actual facts, the correlation between gun control and less crime is not very strong, in that cities with strong gun control legislation do not enjoy lower crime rates. There is also some evidence that loosening laws deters crime.
Third, it seems strange that few people are pointing to the corrosive effects of modern entertainment as a possible contributor. It is not hard to find television shows, movies and video games containing numerous examples of gratuitous violence and sex, increasingly associated together, explicitly aimed at young males. First person shooter games are designed to keep the user engaged by triggering those parts of the brain most responsible for aggression. Victims, whether shot at in a game or shown on the screen, are usually portrayed as an anonymous “them” rather than as people who hope and breathe and whose absence will be missed. Add to this shows such as Dexter and Breaking Bad where the line between good and evil is blurred and where the audience is encouraged to identify with characters who commit heinous acts and it is not difficult to speculate why confused, angry young men might decide to go out in a rage of violence. Of course the purveyors of this “entertainment” will claim their Constitutional protections and point out that the evidence between violence in fantasy and real life is weak. Still, if we are looking for answers, it seems as if the entertainment industry is getting an easy pass.
I suspect that we will never solve this problem. Evil predates and will survive us. But it might be possible to lessen the occurrence of events like this if we tried to live a gentler life. It is important to remember that the vast majority of people, though flawed, are basically kind and honest. A society in which portrayals of generosity and caring predominated the news, in which even confused and ill children easily found a place and acceptance, in which the political dialogue was civil instead of demeaning, where entertainment encouraged us to unleash the better angels of our nature and where the desire to shoot, blow up or hurt anything was regarded as an unfortunate relic of an ancient time when our amygdalas ruled our brains, might see fewer of these events. Or maybe not. Maybe the speed, size, and complexity of modern life will continue to leave behind those who cannot cope. And maybe some of them will react with rage against a society that they believe has no place for them. Either way, doing what is easy is unlikely to be effective.