Op-ed column: Aiming at the right target
Base any gun laws on everyday killings, not just massacres
It seems as though every couple of weeks, there’s another shooting in America: First the Aurora theater massacre, then the hate-crime rampage against the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a shooting at Texas A&M University, the attack on the Family Research Council offices in Washington D.C., and most recently (and closer to home), the firefight that erupted outside the Empire State Building last week. Just when we thought we were safe!
Mass shootings like these draw attention to the problem of gun violence in America, but in the very act of zooming in on places like Aurora, we forget about the dozens that die daily in incidents that don’t get covered on national television. In New York, gun deaths number in the hundreds every year. The Capital Region has been racked by an uptick in violence in Albany, and some argue it’s responsible for a decline in business downtown.
Gov. Cuomo and state lawmakers hope to tackle the problem in the nick of time. Actually, they’ll tackle it in January, when the Legislature is back in session. But until then, there will be a lot of talk on what to do. And something must be done.
Let’s dispense immediately with this idea: Criminals will break the law anyway, so gun control laws are meaningless. You don’t have to dig far to understand that’s really a critique of laws in general. And it’s no secret that lax gun laws are correlated with increased gun violence. New York’s gun laws are relatively strict, and our gun deaths are comparatively low for the nation.
But the left can’t assume that gun control can solve it all. Nor should we expect it to, nor should we blame (or punish) the average, responsible gun owner. Reasonable proposals have included, among other things, increasing sentences for illegal guns, tracking bullets with microstamping, and further restricting assault weapons. These are great ideas from the Legislature, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves and think guns themselves are the only problem here.
In fact, part of the problem is our own thinking on the subject, and how our view is warped by the high-profile episodes of violence. These brutal attacks dominate the news with their appalling nature, but equally appalling is the mundanity with which we treat the “regular” gun crime — the kind we almost accept unless it happens to someone close to us.
A near-exclusive focus on the massacres as if they were “show-stopping numbers” affects our perception of the issue, and our ability to propose solutions: We end up arguing about gun violence solely in the context of the most recent mass killing, and reduce it to what we can imagine happening in that particular scenario if things were different. Would the shooter have caused so much damage with a knife instead of a gun? Maybe he’d have gotten the weapons illegally! And perhaps the most hazardous takeaway: Would the people in that theater or temple have been safer if they too, had been able to fire back?
Gov. Cuomo and other lawmakers may find it easier to get gun violence legislation passed by appealing to the memories of the mass shootings, but they risk falling into this bad paradigm. Not much good will come out of it, partially because it’s so easy for each side to be entrenched in their own speculation.
The Empire State Building event is a perfect example of the reverse — a lack of focus on the more common kind of violence. Our attention was initially focused on midtown Manhattan because of enduring fears of terrorism. When it wasn’t terrorism, we assumed it was another Aurora. When it wasn’t a mass shooting but a firefight in which the police accidentally wounded nine people, the gunman died and his victim did too, the story was fated to disappear. And it has. And it will probably be almost totally forgotten, despite this style of shooting being much more “typical” than the massacres. Thus, the day-to-day-problem will remain.
It’s ironic that the one thing that brings attention to the problem distorts our focus. Regardless, New York will get a much better policy result with a broader package in January that touches on the many factors that cause gun violence.
For example, focusing on rehabilitating nonviolent criminals rather than branding them for life, thereby restricting their options later on (and turning them violent), is a start. Increasing aid to schools — especially inner-city ones — and keeping a broad range of outlets available within, will raise a better generation than education cuts will. While we’re talking about cuts, we should make sure we keep cops on the streets. Mental health services are a good investment for reasons that should be obvious.
And finally, we can separate drugs and violence by bringing the harmless drugs out of the shadows and into the spotlight, where they can be treated the same way as alcohol abuse and tobacco addiction. These measures will have more of an effect than a focus on guns — since they will tackle the root causes for why people want to commit violence in the first place.
The rest is up to our culture, not the government. I look forward to society’s eventual revelation that it’s not just guns or culture or poverty or lone nuts, but “all-of-the-above.” Until then, let’s keep having the conversation. Even though the problem is staring down the barrel, right at our faces, every day, we can’t just “get used” to it. The dozens who die daily should appall us just as much as the horror of the massacres, even if the TV cameras don’t think so.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette.