“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
– H. L. Mencken
It happened again.
Once again, a heavily armed teenager has walked into a public school with loads of ammunition and a grudge. Again, mothers, fathers, and friends are lamenting the taking of so many young lives. Again, politicians and talking heads are pointing fingers and assessing blame. Again, the Internet and social media are awash with loud opinions and angry condemnations in both directions.
The events at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida—and others in Kentucky, California, and numerous other locations across the country—are just the most recent in a long string of violent outbursts in public spaces. Parents are understandably on edge, wondering if their kids are safe when they leave the house in the morning, and if all is being done to protect them from a risk that most of them wouldn’t have even considered when they were in school. And virtually no one believes Stoneman Douglas is going to be the last such sad occurrence.
The initial response to such senseless loss of life is usually outrage, followed by a demand for a strong and meaningful action that will prevent future pain and suffering. Not only is such a response understandable, it is, I believe, the correct one. A failure to express anger and frustration at the murder of innocents bespeaks either a failure to completely grasp the situation or an utter lack of compassion. A moral people should be outraged by violent acts, and grasping for answers and solutions shows a desire that no one else go through what the current victims are experiencing.
That said, it needs to be acknowledged that solutions birthed during times of extreme pain or intense anger are rarely the best answers to tricky issues. They are often more fixed on assessing blame or punishing those who are perceived to be at fault than actually solving the problem. And in some instances, the cure can be worse than the disease.
The temptation is to seek a simple answer—one that is definitive, quick, and easily applied. It allows those who implement it the satisfaction that they have “done something,” rather than waiting helplessly while other tragedies loom in the distance.
But, as Mr. Mencken points out above, clear and simple answers don’t always equate to the right answers. And on a matter of life and death, we owe it to ourselves to get the proper solution.
While it is important that those who have suffered terrible loss be able to express their thoughts publicly—be they sad, angry, confused, or any combination of the above—it does not necessarily follow that those comments should set the framework for future policy. Rage, while understandable, is typically the enemy of reason, and almost never the basis for sound strategy.
The political agents and activists with skin in this debate, who could help to illuminate the issues and foster meaningful dialogue on the subject, more often than not succumb to the temptation to take advantage of the opportunity to cast aspersions on their ideological opponents. Referring to the NRA as a terrorist organization on par with ISIS is not helpful. Nor is releasing a video claiming that “the mainstream media love mass shootings” (repeated twice for emphasis). Instead of channeling the hurt and anger of victims toward implementable answers, these parties have chosen to use that anger to fuel their own preset agendas, and are using the victims as their proxies, truth and reason be damned.
When someone does make an attempt to open up a discussion on the matter, they usually end up taking arrows from both sides. Shortly after the Florida shooting, Senator Marco Rubio (CHOOSE ONE: courageously; foolishly) took part in a town hall meeting in an attempt to begin dialoguing on the spate of mass shootings. For his efforts, he was booed lustily and condemned as a “murderer” by some in the audience, and was seen as an appeaser by gun rights advocates (despite currently having an A+ rating from the NRA). He currently has his lowest approval rating among Florida voters as a result of his appearance, and his once-bright political future seems imperiled.
Such is the nature of the current debate on gun control. In what might end up being a prescient article, David French identifies the current debate as more than policy, but as the hottest flash point in a culture war between two sides that actively loathe one another. And the heat produced threatens to break the country in two:
Unlike the stupid hysterics over net neutrality, tax policy, or regulatory reform, the gun debate really is—at its heart—about life and death. It’s about different ways of life, different ways of perceiving your role in a nation and a community. Given these immense stakes, extra degrees of charity and empathy are necessary in public discussion and debate. At the moment, what we have instead are extra degrees of anger and contempt. The stakes are high. Emotions are high. Ignorance abounds. Why bother to learn anything new when you know the other side is evil?
French concludes, ominously, “A nation cannot endure forever when its people are consumed with such hate.”
The issue is about so much more than who can or cannot buy this or that weapon. It hits on what we value as a people, and how we choose to solve it will reflect those values. Do we just look at the end result and seek to mitigate it, or do we delve down deeper into the societal issues that precipitate such tragic events? Do we approach the matter from the top down, or do we seek community-based answers that may more accurately read the local climate? Will stringent restrictions on buying, selling, and manufacturing firearms have a meaningful impact on those using them for evil purposes, or will law-abiding gun owners be the ones to pay the price for others’ malfeasance? These are all things that require a deeper examination than can be presented on the nightly news or in a politically charged town hall meeting.
So, what is the solution? Is there a way to provide safety and security for the vulnerable, while recognizing the constitutional rights and liberties of law-abiding citizens? Perhaps as importantly, is there a way to bridge the yawning chasm that is growing between “red” and “blue” America that the gun debates both reflect and accelerate? The only way to find out is to begin the long and arduous journey of building consensus—or at least principled compromise. Actively listening, without projecting motives or agendas, is the first step. Acknowledging legitimate concerns, even when strenuously defending one’s own positions, will go a long way to unlocking potential answers. We can’t settle for simple answers birthed out of anger or for quick fixes for deeper problems. Long-term, effective solutions must be forged over time.