Sunday night I had a conversation with a couple who were planning on attending the protest the next day in Washington, D.C. at NRA headquarters. They were going despite believing incorrectly that a semi-automatic gun sprays bullets and despite not knowing that re-instating the federal assault weapons ban would not have prevented Adam Lanza’s mother from buying the guns used in Newtown. They did not know that Connecticut already has an assault weapons ban or that neither the rifle nor the pistols in Adam’s possession are classified as “assault” weapons under that law, nor did they understand that the number of bullets in the magazines used by Lanza made little difference in the outcome given the number of guns he had at his disposal.
One can excuse the ignorance of people who are outraged at the loss of so many lives, but not the behavior of politicians who leapt onto the public stage trying to be the first to go on record as saying we need more gun control. Elected officials should know the history of gun control legislation and should know that assault rifle bans and limits on magazines would not have prevented the Connecticut tragedy.
It is natural when hearing about such events to want to do something to prevent a reoccurrence, but legislation enacted in the heat of the moment is inevitably foolish legislation. Assault rifle bans are a case in point. To begin with the definition of an assault rifle is a political construct without correspondence in the world of weaponry. Second banning the manufacture and sale of certain types of guns will not prevent those who intend on doing harm to others from obtaining guns. It would take years to reduce the number of such weapons that currently exist in private hands, and it is inevitable that outlawing specific types of guns will create a black market for the import and sale of outlawed guns to those with enough cash and desire to obtain them.
Too often legislation is passed to make the legislators feel good and of course to give them something to brag about to their constituents. They pass bills without regard for whether their legislation will actually accomplish what they claim. Criminal justice legislation is the prime example of this fallacy. Increasing the penalty for a crime has zero impact on the likelihood that someone will commit that crime since most crimes are committed in moments of anger or out of drug-induced need and such criminals have no idea, nor do they care, about the length of the sentence if caught.
The hardest thing for adults to do in a world where news is immediate and constant is to admit that there is nothing we can do about a situation. We cannot prevent some children from starving in Africa. That will take place even if we donate to relief organizations. We cannot prevent some children from being sold into slavery no matter how many letters we write demanding it be stopped. We cannot prevent certain some individuals from doing terrible things to others and/or themselves.
It’s also possible that passing a law is the worst possible thing we can do because it gives people the false impression that the problem has been solved and they can go back to ignoring the world around them.
What we can do is be conscious of things happening in our own lives. We can speak out when there’s a situation that doesn’t seem right. That still might not prevent a tragedy from occurring, but we don’t know how many Adam Lanzas are brought back from the brink by a conscientious teacher or neighbor.
Keeping guns out of the hands of the wrong people cannot be prevented entirely by passing assault weapon bans. We can and should try, but there is no perfect solution. That said, we can be better citizens by reaching out to those who appear to be in trouble. Nancy Lanza needed help. The cost of someone’s not giving it to her should make all of us more vigilant in the future.