Newtown: Few policy consequences

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 18, 2012


The tragic death of 20 children and 6 adults in an upper middle-class school in Newtown, Connecticut, has shaken the United States. Since the children were killed by a 20-year old former student armed with a powerful semi-automatic weapon, the issue of gun control has again been raised.  As the industrialized country with the most tolerant policies on access to firearms, the U.S. is an anomaly among consolidated democracies. However, despite the strong emotional effect of the tragedy, it will take much more than the deaths of 20 children to build enough support in Congress—and to overcome the powerful lobby in favor of an easy access to guns—to strengthen gun control policies in the U.S. 


Even before the pictures of the children killed were shown on national television, advocates of lax gun control policies were out in the public arena reminding Americans that guns don’t kill people, people do. Thus, just as you can’t blame automobiles for traffic accidents, you should not blame guns for the deaths of children caused by a mentally ill person.  When details about the identity of the killer surfaced, gun advocates focused on the government’s failure to protect children. The strategy is certainly not new. Every time there is a massive killing caused by an armed assassin, gun advocates point to mental health issues and insufficient security in public places as the reasons behind the killings. 


Some gun advocates also claim that if more legally fit persons carried weapons, people would have the tools to defend themselves against attackers. Regardless of the merits of the arguments, people’s ideology frames the way in which they interpret the events they witness.  For gun control advocates the tragedy underlines the need to pass and enforce stricter gun control laws. For defenders of gun rights, you shouldn’t blame a constitutional right for the actions of a single individual.  Gun advocates will correctly point out that the guns used by the killer in Connecticut were legally registered by the assassin’s mother. Stricter gun control laws would not have kept those weapons from the assassin’s hand.  Only the ban of semi-automatic weapons—advocated by only a few legislators in Washington—would have reduced the destructive power of such a determined assassin.  Thus, advocates of stricter gun control policies will find it difficult to use the shocking images of dead children to build permanent support for their cause.  When news of the tragedy is replaced by other news in the 24-hour news cycle, arguments in favor of stricter gun control laws will weaken.


Advocates of a total ban on sales of semi-automatic and other powerful weapons will be able to make a stronger case. Unquestionably, the number of victims would have been much lower had the assassin used less powerful weapons.  Thus, even if a mentally ill person has access to legally registered weapons, their more limited firepower would have lowered the death toll. Unfortunately, advocates of a ban on semi-automatic weapons sales have a more uphill battle than advocates of stricter gun control legislation.  While a majority of Americans are in favor of adopting more restrictions—including background checks—on who can buy a gun, support for ban on sales of certain guns is much weaker. 


The Newtown tragedy will probably increase support for the gun-control cause—including banning sales of semi-automatic weapons—but it is unlikely that this tragedy will have permanent effects on gun control policies in the U.S.  Admittedly, a generational chance is taking place in the U.S.  Younger Americans are more strongly in favor of stricter gun control policies. However, younger Americans are also more strongly in opposition of the government imposing restrictions on what people can do. Thus, while there is more support on restricting who can have access to a gun, there will likely be less support on restricting the kinds of guns people can buy. Thus, tragedies like the one in Connecticut could very well happen again. A mentally ill person can obtain a powerful weapon legally owned by a careless relative who is legally fit to own guns.  Unless powerful weapons are taken out of the hands of Americans—even if the current owners have no criminal records—tragedies like the one that shocked the nation last week are not inevitable. 


In speaking to the families of the victims, to the Newtown community and to the entire country, President Obama challenged Americans to make the safety of American children a first priority for the nation.  Caring for the nation’s girls and boys should be atop the concerns of the entire society.  Visibly shaken, President Obama has asked Americans to think as parents and to prioritize the safety of children beyond partisan politics. However, as long as the U.S. constitution continues to guarantee Americans the right to bear arms but says nothing explicitly about the well-being of children, the tradeoff between access to guns and children’s safety will favor advocates of the second amendment rather than those who want to restrict the access Americans now have to acquire guns.