Newtown: ‘a 9/11 for gun control’?

Both liberals and the right responded to the dreadful Sandy Hook massacre by denigrating liberty.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics

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In the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, there seemed to be a great debate taking place in the US between those who want to see stricter controls on guns, and those who are opposed to such controls. But to focus on the back-and-forth arguments over guns is to overlook the fact that there has been an underlying consensus in the response to Newtown. That consensus is: we must curtail freedom to prevent something like this from happening again.

The loudest voices in the post-Newtown discussion have been those of campaigners seeking to impose new controls on guns. Many have called for a ban on so-called ‘assault weapons’, which would probably be an expanded version of a 1994 law signed by President Bill Clinton (which expired in 2004), among other measures. Such a move would be a limitation on the right to bear arms, as famously enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

At a press conference in December, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) gave his organisation’s response to the Newtown shooting. As expected, LaPierre rejected further controls on guns. But he did not stop there; instead, he went on to blame the media for spreading a culture of violence with ‘vicious violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse‘ and ‘blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers‘. In calling for restrictions on the media, LaPierre was effectively saying: don’t touch the Second Amendment, the real problem is the First Amendment (which protects freedom of speech).

Looking beyond guns or violent media images, some have identified individuals with mental illness or other psychological problems as the key issue to address. Marco Rubio, Republican Senator-elect from Florida, has talked about the need to ‘keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill’. The NRA’s LaPierre called for a national database of mentally ill persons. Leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, was mentally ill, efforts to limit gun rights on the basis of mental status raise issues of basic privacy protections, and proposals for national surveillance of potentially disturbed people smack of Big Brother.

From the perspective of defending freedom, the great gun debate is actually a narrow one. The debate boils down to identifying the type of freedom that you think needs to be restrained. Liberals don’t like guns – as with SUVs and big sodas, they see guns as things they don’t use, and therefore as expendable. Conservatives blame Hollywood images or lack of oversight of the mentally ill, and in other situations are willing to call for mosques to be shut down or support having us strip down in airport security lines if they believe it will ‘prevent violence’.

Time after time, freedom is counterposed to security, and it is always the case that freedom is supposed to bend. After the 9/11 attacks, George W Bush’s administration introduced the Patriot Act, which Republicans defended as necessary for national security and to prevent another terrorist attack. Many liberals rightly criticised the act’s measures as an infringement of civil liberties. Yet today, some liberals are saying that Newtown will be ‘a 9/11 for gun control’. In other words, the Newtown shooting should change how we act from now on, and any freedom of gun ownership should be outweighed by security concerns – this time for the security of schoolchildren.

In criticising calls to implement nationwide surveillance of the mentally ill after Newtown, the liberal writer Robert Kuttner notes the parallels with anti-terrorism measures: ‘In the age of anti-terrorism, courts have already permitted the National Security Agency to troll among otherwise confidential records – everything from cell phone and computer-information trails to bank and insurance company records. The Fourth Amendment, which usually requires a warrant for invasion of privacy, has been simply waived. If the justification is preventing a “terrorism” – and surely shooting up a classroom is a kind of terrorism – the NSA could create a database in which half of Americans are classified as potential mass killers.’

Good points. But then, in the next line, Kuttner asks, ‘Isn’t it better to just get rid of guns?’. He seems completely unaware that he is opposing one restriction on freedom (a national database of the mentally ill) while calling for another (on the right to bear arms). Defend the Fourth Amendment – but not the Second!

It reveals a lot about the state of our politics and society that there is this consensus which says the cause of a mass shooting must be in the realm of too much freedom, and that the solution is therefore to hand the state more power to control the population. What this really reflects is a low opinion of people generally. The defence of freedom assumes that people are rational and can manage their affairs independently of the state; but today, many on both sides of the political divide question whether the public at large is capable of such sane behaviour. LaPierre has a nightmare vision of violent Americans everywhere: ‘The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters – people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.’ The liberal side also sees demons – men in middle America who can’t be trusted with guns.

The shootings of children and adults in Newtown were heartbreaking and shocking. The killings posed the question of our security in a direct and emotional way. But we need to resist the temptation automatically to assume that ditching our freedoms will make us safe. Freedom is not a secondary consideration that is always negotiable and in need of curtailment. It is a primary constitution of who we are as people; it makes life worth living. In handing over our freedoms in the name of security, we lose something precious. As was often pointed out in the context of 9/11, when you put limits on our way of life, ‘the terrorists win’. We should have the same response after mass shootings – we shouldn’t let these disturbed, often attention-seeking individuals win.

We need a wider imagination. Right now, the idea that we could respond to mass killings (which are thankfully rare events) without limiting our personal freedom in some way is just not countenanced. But there are ways to respond that do not involve handing over our rights to the state – such as encouraging social engagement over atomisation, promoting community-based healthcare involving family and friends, stigmatising narcissistic and nihilistic behavior – which need to be explored.

There is no doubt that with freedom comes risk. Allowing people to act freely, and putting technology at their disposal, means that some may choose to be violent and cause great damage. But if we take away that freedom, we take away the capacity for people to be moral agents. It’s not just doing the right thing that matters – it’s choosing to do the right thing.  As the cases of mass shooters like Adam Lanza all too painfully demonstrate, we need to inculcate a greater sense of moral responsibility, not lessen it.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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Topics Politics


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