“We have to do something,” U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy said in December, advocating for gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre.
Before I go any further, this post is not about gun control. It’s about a certain type of thinking that follows tragedies.
When a tragedy happens—a hurricane, a murder, a human rights crisis—people have a natural tendency to want to do something, anything, to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. The result is poorly thought-out actions and laws that create more problems then they solve.
When Soviet spies were infiltrating our intelligence, “we have to do something”—resulting in the 1950s Red Scare that persecuted thought and banned literature.
Sexual abuse in daycares in the 1980s? “We have to do something!”—resulting in mass hysteria that led to the accusation of many innocent day-care workers and leading many promising child-care professionals to chose another profession.
The do-something phenomenon struck home locally in 2011-2012 with the sex abuse scandal involving former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Although the scandal involved a small number of prominent figures—all no longer involved with the program—some people advocated for canceling full seasons of Penn State football.
When one online commenter pointed out that this would negatively affect many people not involved in the scandal—the current players and coaches, the local economy, all Penn State fans—a supporter of canceling the season coldly responded, “it’s called collateral damage.”
Now, if someone could have shown me how canceling Penn State’s season would have prevented future similar tragedies, I might have supported the move, but its advocates seemed to be mainly aiming for the emotional satisfaction of “doing something”—even if it hurt other innocent people for no reason.
So, getting back to gun control: it’s a blindingly relevant fact that none of the gun control legislation being proposed in the name of Newtown would have actually prevented Newtown. Connecticut has some of the strongest gun control laws in the country; background checks succeeded in preventing Adam Lanza from purchasing a gun, but he found another one. Better mental health programs and banning violent video games (everyone’s favorite!) probably would have fared no better in stopping Lanza.
To be clear, I support some of the gun control measures that have been proposed, particularly closing the “gun show purchases loophole” on background checks. The NRA’s opposition to some common-sense gun control measures makes no logical sense (and is entirely based on the even more popular logical fallacy of slippery slopes). But I base my views on the effectiveness of potential legislation rather than an emotional reaction to Newtown.
I can’t put it any better than Washington Post Writers Group columnist Kathleen Parker: “This is not to say we should do nothing. But, lest we delude ourselves, whatever we do, we will do because it makes us feel better.”