We don’t need common-sense gun control measures. We need law enforcement to focus on domestic abusers.
People across the world watched as yet another school shooting took the lives of students, teachers and coaches in Parkland, Florida. The cycle of AR-15 murders wasn’t surprising for people stateside; we are used to learning that a troubled white male walked into a place with a lot of people carrying a killing machine and took lives. As an American tired of it, I’m baffled that we have allowed it to get this bad. As a graduate-level policy student, I know why it has. Many have noted that this time feels different. Perhaps, for once, the piles of policy studies I’ve read can be of some use.
This time, the students seem to not be taking what happened to them as just a fact of American life. The brave survivors of the tragedy are organizing and making themselves heard, garnering extensive media coverage, including a CNN town hall, and a mass rally is planned for March that will most likely get wall-to-wall airplay. Some believe we are witnessing a chance at real change: Companies like Delta Airlines and Hertz are distancing themselves from the pro-gun rights group, the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Gun-control measures are being discussed at the state level and even by the president himself. When a conservative Congress member like Marco Rubio (who was raised by the Tea Party) even hints at a policy that will give fewer people access to guns, there may be a reason to think that the tide is changing. In public policy process, a moment like this is called a window. It is important to know that they are often small and fleeting. If this is a real policy window, we need a better stance than common-sense gun control, lest we not waste an opportunity.
When it comes to gun control, there’s a general perception that any gun law other than the Second Amendment will lead to all weapons being taken away by socialists. If you’ve had any conversations about gun restrictions, you know that they all end in Hitler’s second coming. On the other side of the debate, those who oppose gun control are viewed as child killers. Then, based on what incident caused the conversation to start, policy choices will emerge.
Columbine shocked the country and spurred new lockdown drills in schools. Aurora reinforced our fears of those who suffer from mental health and motivated consequential background checks. Las Vegas entered bump stocks into the public lexicon. Most recently, Parkland has made young AR-15 owners the focus of rage. There is a proper way of looking at these events and recognizing that they all lead to policy windows.
A policy window is only the end of the line. Imagine our policy process as a large room with Donald Trump tweeting, Antifa rioting and Congress sitting on its hands. With every event that happens, an opening appears in the ceiling; that opening is our “window,” and it is gets smaller as time passes. Now, just because a window opens doesn’t mean that change will happen. We need three things — ladders if you will — to reach the top and push change through.
The first ladder is public support: People must care enough about something for it to matter to politicians. The next ladder is politics: The political situation must be right for change. And then there is finally the policy ladder: Once the hole in the ceiling is reached, a law is passed and signed, and the hole closes again.
It is important to note that every step up the ladder, the idea for a final policy is warped. Public opinion process is plagued by vague demands, the political ladder is jarred back and forth by party alliances, and by the time ideas reach the policy step, issues are unrecognizable. Most issues never get to the ceiling before the window closes, only to fall back down to the floor.
If we take this way of looking at policy and apply it to the Parkland shooting, we can think about whether this is a chance to reach the ceiling. Will we shove some watered-down policy through the window before it shuts, or will this, like many before it, fail to reach the third ladder?
Public Fear and Political Loathing
Americans have spent the last weeks listening to survivors and parents of those slain in Parkland describe what it’s like to go through a mass shooting. Every day since we have been visited by the specters of the gory images and screams recorded that day in a Florida high school, and we have adopted a familiar fear.
In public policy, we have become accustomed to gaging public awareness of an issue based on how many people are googling it. Looking at the trends in Google searches related to the Parkland shooting, we see a sustained interest that has lasted over a week. In the past, school-shooting incidents have seen a spike in searches for a day or two; then searches usually stop as people move onto another issue in the 24-7 media cycle.
It is not hard to see that the public cares about this issue, and many want to see change. Even Republicans recently polled by Quinnipiac are supporting some form of gun control at a higher rate than ever before. Despite this positive outlook, this is only one-third of the process. Unfortunately, it is in the political discussion that this issue is suppressed, distorted and ruined every time.
When it comes to guns, America is unlike anywhere else. We are obsessed with guns. While data on gun ownership is hard to come by, the Small Arms Survey estimated that the US has 89 guns per 100 people. The next closest countries were Yemen and Switzerland, at 55 and 46 guns per 100 residents. Important note: Yemen has been enthralled in a civil war since 2004.
As President Barack Obama said at a CNN town hall, “The United States was born suspicious of some distance authority… It’s in our DNA.” Hence, the idea of an unquestionable Second Amendment underpins any conversation about guns. It allows a group like the NRA to argue that any gun control will magically extend to all guns disappearing. It allows people to argue that guns are a right that needs protecting — and that is held as a valid argument despite it actually meaning that “We need ARs to protect against the Mass Media Military State,” as one commenter wrote to me on Facebook.
If this is in our DNA as Obama says, it is the deepest, darkest part of our genetic makeup that spurred thousands of Americans to create, view and discuss videos detailing a false flag operation in which the survivors of the attack in Parkland worked with the FBI and establishment Democrats to carry out the killing of 17 of their friends.
This is the shaky reality of our second ladder. And the anti-gun reaction has always been to take whatever image is currently at the forefront of America’s mind and run with it. With the mess that is our politics when it comes to guns, you can see why gun policy is failing. Smart policymakers know this and toe the line, begging for common sense when we need policy solutions that are much more than common. And that won’t happen until we realize that nothing about the way we see gun policy involves sense.
The third ladder, the policy step, is always wobbly when we are trying to fix the problem of mass shootings. If we take a look at the process, one might conclude that nothing can be done. If you are a proponent of gun control, the outlawing of AR-15s and other assault weapons, and the addition of background checks for mental health issues might be cause for celebration. But by now you know that that is a political improbable and, I would argue, not the solution you think it is. I believe the young students standing up to the NRA and organizing marches are keeping this political window open, but they too are influenced by our illogical political reality. So what policies should they support?
A man walked into a Texas church in November of 2017 and shot and killed 26 people. Five years prior, he had escaped from a mental-health facility. He had dealt with mental disorders for some time, to no one’s surprise. Many can quickly conjure up the image of the young man who killed 12 and injured 70 in a movie theater in Aurora as he sat in the courthouse, lifelessly staring his way to an insanity plea under his faded pink, electrified hair. It is easy for us to connect mental health with mass shootings because we like to believe that only insanity could cause people to devalue life enough to murder indiscriminately.
President Trump responded to the Parkland shooting with a speech that didn’t even mention guns one time (purposefully, most likely). He put the blame completely on mental illness, as many do. Is this backed by research?
Bethany Lilly from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, told NPR that, “according to all experts” the connection between mass shootings and individuals with mental health issues “doesn’t exist.” That doesn’t mean that no one with a mental illness has ever been the perpetrator of a mass shooting, but that they aren’t more likely to be the culprit than those without mental illness. In fact, those with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be the victims of violent crime.
Without a doubt, the US is facing a mental-health crisis. We do a horrible job at taking care and supporting those with mental health disorders. About one in five adults in the US experiences some form of mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, but only 41% of those affected received mental-health care or services in the past year.
It doesn’t help that rates of depression are very high to begin with. According to the World Health Organization, India, China and the US are most affected by anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar and unipolar depressive disorder.
But if mental health problems were predictors of gun violence, especially mass shootings, these three countries would be near the top in both those categories. Yet they are not. Since 2010, the US has had 188 school and university shootings alone, according to one estimate. To match the number of incidents we’ve had, you would have to add all the school shootings in China, India and 31 other nations.
The idea of background checks for mentally unstable people doesn’t sound too great as a theoretical policy. So what can we do?
The NRA has made it very difficult to study gun crime. They have helped make it illegal for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun crime rates, so researchers don’t have a solid cache of data to get policy clues from. What can we glean from the data that we have on mass shooters?
They are almost always men and often have a history of domestic abuse. When we look at mass shootings, domestic abuse correlates with men who beat women and children. Everytown for Gun Safety, a pro-gun control organization, found that of the mass shootings in the US between 2009 and 2015, 57% of the victims included a family member or love interest of the perpetrator. And 16% of these men had been previously charged with domestic violence. Understanding this correlation and arresting dangerous men who attack the women in their lives we have concrete policy action.
There is no sense in the idea that the young survivors speaking out and embarrassing officials for their political views should stop because these kids aren’t “experts.” What expertise on this issue has been brought to the Fox & Friends couch or on CNN panels? Living through a mass shooting gives them more expertise than the senators who voted to prevent the government from collecting gun-crime data. Having said that, they could use some lessons of experience.
If gun control policy is to move forward, the key to success may be in the window. There is a reason the president and the NRA throw ideas that no person who has ever gone to a school would support — the arming of teachers. They know, like we do, that teachers currently have to scrape together dollars for paper and pencils. The likelihood that guns in schools lead to more shootings, not fewer, is high.
They float extreme ideas because they know that policy windows are fleeting. They are loading the second — political — ladder with ideas that will leave us pushing the most menial changes through the ceiling, like a bump-stock ban or finally allowing the government to upgrade from boxes of filed papers to using computers to track guns. They want you to be happy with an insignificant policy, until the next shooting.
So, no, we don’t need common-sense gun control measures. We need law enforcement to focus on domestic abusers. If those young people were to ask a nerd like me, I’d say they should call for the US to begin a mandatory gun buyback program like Australia did. Don’t ask for an AR ban: Scream with all your might for a complete gun registry. Don’t talk about age limits on guns: Demand research into smart gun technology that will only allow a registered purchaser to shoot the weapon. Don’t tweet about an AR-15 ban: Tell policymakers you won’t stop marching until all semi-automatic and automatic weapons are banned and melted into ballpoint pens so that teachers don’t have to buy them anymore.
I’d tell the students that these policies will not pass because America is a gun-loving country. But from a policy standpoint, when there is a policy window, you must expect to reach high and fall short. When it comes to gun policy, even a failure can save lives.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.