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SALT LAKE CITY — There's not much to say about the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. that has not already been said. We asked "what?" followed by a shocked "wait, WHAT!?", and then, a sob-strangled, "Why?" We're still asking why. We may never find an answer, making what is already awful beyond description almost too much to bear.
As happens with events of this magnitude, we've pulled together. We've pulled together in our shock and profound sadness, in our support of the Sandy Hook community, and in our desire to prevent something like this from happening again. The debate on this latter point began in earnest last Friday, when the National Rifle Association held a press conference about the tragedy. I was struck by one line from the press conference (which seems to have been the desired effect, given its nature and the manner in which Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's CEO and Executive Vice President, delivered it).
The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
–Wayne LaPierre, NRA
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
This argument has echoed in my mind since Friday. The NRA called for armed guards in all schools, and reiterated the idea again on Sunday. If the idea were viable as a short-term stopgap, I might support it. LaPierre expressed concern about other twisted individuals planning copycat crimes. He's probably right about that. The practical problem with the NRA's proposal, though, is it's not doable in the short-term, and may not be viable at all. According to the New York Times, law enforcement officials interviewed after the press conference "said putting armed officers in the nation's 99,000 schools was unrealistic because of the enormous cost and manpower needed." And even if it were practical, it's not clear the approach would be effective. Critics of the NRA's proposal were quick to point out that there were two armed guards at Columbine High School.
The chilling part of the proposal, though, is that there's no indication the NRA necessarily intended it to be only a short-term solution, implemented to give us time to find something better. Implicit in the NRA's statement -- that only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun -- is the idea that there's nothing we can do to prevent bad guys from getting guns in the first place, so we better be prepared to fight fire with fire. I hope LaPierre is not right about that.
The NRA's position brought echoes of Leviathan to mind. Published in 1651, Thomas Hobbes' seminal work describes man's natural state as one in which all contend against one another for scarce resources, a state of bellum omnium contra omnes, or a "war of all against all." According to Hobbes, in this natural state the world ultimately becomes a place of "no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Hobbes' work, along with that of other philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau, led to the idea of the "social contract," whereby individuals agree to give up some of their natural freedoms to the authority of a ruler or government, and in exchange the individuals' remaining freedoms are protected and a functioning society created. The intellectual justification for the American Revolution was premised, in part, on social contract theory, and the Declaration of Independence is suffused with concepts related to it.
The NRA's proposal, and the argument for it, accept as given a state of affairs that hews far too close to the state of nature described by Hobbes, one of "continual fear, and danger of violent death." Our goal should be to do what we can to create a society in which we can go about our lives without fear of attack. The NRA may be right that our schools need armed guards; however, that reality is unacceptable. We should be working toward a comprehensive, long-term solution that makes such extreme, short-term solutions unnecessary.
Finding such a comprehensive solution will not be easy. Troubling signs are already emerging that the debate is poised to follow the same unproductive path we see too often in politics today. Early participants are already speaking in terms of "the" cause of the problem, as if the issue were simple enough to isolate to one variable. Arguing that regulating guns, alone, or improving mental health services, alone, or reducing violence in the media, alone, will solve the problem is foolish; further, assuming that a solution even exists that will solve the problem entirely and prevent all bad guys from getting guns is naive. In reality, firearm violence in America, of which the tragedy at Sandy Hook is but one particularly harrowing example, is a multivariate, complex problem, and one which we can hope to address but never fully solve. But that does not mean we should not try.
Addressing the problem will require all of us to step back from our comfortable biases and strong emotions; we must look at the issues from a cooler perspective and with a clearer eye. For example, those who favor more regulation of firearms will need to acknowledge, as my friend Dan Burton has pointed out, that gun laws do not always prevent maniacs from obtaining guns, and that the presence of a well-trained "good guy" has, in fact, prevented would-be mass killers from deserving the "mass" label on various occasions. Similarly, those who oppose regulation of firearms will need to stop equating guns with other weapons -- there's a reason police and military are not carrying swords, and even the NRA's own argument highlights the superiority of firearms to other options -- and acknowledge that the type of firearm used has played a significant role in many of these tragedies.
Put simply, if we hope to address the problem, we will need to roll up our sleeves and work together in good faith. I hope we are up to the task.