Framing, overinclusion, and underinclusion in the response to the Sandy Hook massacre

At what point do we declare that the near saturation media coverage of the Newton massacre, however understandable initially, has become not just politically opportunistic on the part of a nearly unanimous gun control bloc but also voyeuristic?   Perhaps any coverage of such a tragedy inevitably contains elements of voyeurism from the very start—humans compassionately grieve for and sympathize with the victims, but also are drawn to look upon  others’ suffering with a horrified fascination.  That fascination includes some element of “Phew, I’m glad that wasn’t me” (as well as: “Why him and not me?”).   The Greek tragedians understood the mesmerizing effect of other people’s travails.   The Newton coverage to me is starting to enter the realm of arguably gratuitous detail regarding matters best left to private sorrow. 

The media also have an interest in selling their wares, obviously, and so will symbiotically exploit their audiences’ voyeuristic tendencies as long as they can. 

 Part of the answer to how much coverage of the massacre is justified—and by extension, what the public policy response should be–requires precisely defining what happened there.   If we categorize it narrowly as belonging to the subset: schoolyard massacres, those are incredibly rare.  The New York Times reports:

Research on mass school killings shows that they are exceedingly rare. Amanda B. Nickerson, director of a center that studies school violence and abuse prevention at the University at Buffalo, said studies made clear that American schools were quite safe and that children were more likely to be killed outside of school.

How much should we change our laws to prevent an event that almost never happens, especially in comparison to the number of school days logged by American children each year?   Gun control advocates thus want to put the Newton massacre in a broader context of gun violence more generally.   I have almost no gun rights instincts, so my knee-jerk response to the tragedy was: “Enough is enough.  The NRA’s got some ‘splainin’ to do here.”   Nevertheless I well understand the substantial arguments of the gun lobby against further regulation.  Homicides have dropped enormously over the last thirty years, and not just because of better emergency care treatment.  Gun violence is not getting worse, it’s getting better.  And as Steven Pinker has shown, violence in general has plummeted over centuries.  Further restrictions on gun purchases will be greatly overinclusive, especially if we define the problem we are trying to avert as school massacres.  Almost no one buying semi-automatic weapons and ammo will go on to murder school children.   But the proportion of legal gun owners who go on to kill anyone is also very low. 

The extent to which one tolerates over-inclusion and under-inclusion in a law depends on your preexisting world view—if you’re already inclined towards gun regulation, for example,  you won’t care so much if the proposed solution would burden many innocent gun owners and would not necessarily have prevented the current tragedy.  Because I don’t personally value gun rights, I am easily prepared to support a potentially infinite range of further restrictions on ownership.  But I realize that such a position  is purely idiosyncratic, if not selfish.  Suggest something greatly overinclusive about something I do care about, and I will be much more insistent on a tight fit between the law and the alleged problem.  When Al Sharpton proposes to shut down proactive policing in New York City after an officer mistakenly shoots an unarmed man, for example, I do rebel, and will argue the utter rarity of such shootings compared to the tens of millions of officer-civilian contacts a year and the costs of further restricting officers’ ability to prevent crime. 

Short of disarming everyone, it’s hard to see how to prevent such unusual tragedies like we just experienced—especially where the gun user was not the lawful gun owner.  Perhaps I’ve missed something, but nothing seems to suggest that Adam Lanza was within the range of even greatly liberalized involuntary commitment laws, so the safe harbor of hoping that stricter mental health laws or even more treatment would have prevented Sandy Hook seems unavailable. 

Of course, the greatest victims of gun violence proportionally are blacks; there are more black homicide victims each year than white and Hispanic victims combined, even though blacks are only 12 percent of the population.  Even the liberal media doesn’t care much about them.  Blacks are also the greatest perpetrators of gun violence.  In New York City, blacks commit 80 percent of all shootings, though they are 23 percent of the population.  Whites commit 1.4 percent of all shootings, though they are 35 percent of the population.  Blacks are underrepresented among gun owners.  Policing, not gun laws, brought gun violence down in New York City since 1994.  The one root cause that I would go after to lower black crime would be illegitimacy.  But the New York Police Department managed to decrease homicides by 80 percent since 1993—twice the national average—without changing family structure one iota. 

Left to my own devices, however, and reacting purely emotionally, I swing back into the gun control camp.  There simply is no dispute that the U.S. is miles more violent than other advanced countries.  Are guns a symptom or a cause of that violence?  I don’t know.  But in any case, do we really need all those guns?  Taboo question in many circles, I know.  If something is question of rights, “need” does not come into the question.  And conservatives preach that we should be nonjudgmental about other consumer preferences.  I am not supposed to question whether you “need” five SUVs or 63 pairs of Jimmy Choo stilettos.  Still, I will not mourn if it gets harder to buy guns.  The sounds of the machinery of the federal government cranking into gear must be terrifying to many a libertarian, but is a federal response really so inappropriate?  I am agnostic on this.  Legislation serves a symbolic as well as a technocratic function.  

(However rare mass shootings are, Islamic terrorist shootings—or any kind of domestic Islamic terror event–are even rarer.  Conservatives have been just as quick to jump on the policy bandwagon to prevent Islamic terrorism, an exceedingly unusual occurrence, and in so doing to impose far greater costs and consequences, as liberals are with regards to highly publicized shootings.)

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11 Responses to Framing, overinclusion, and underinclusion in the response to the Sandy Hook massacre

  1. Mitchell McConnell says:

    >>> short of disarming everyone

    This is literally impossible. You can only disarm law-abiding people. They cannot even keep weapons out of prisons.

    So to “disarm everyone” is really just a totalitarian fantasy, that leaves government with a complete monopoly of force over most people.

  2. The rate of gun ownership has fallen significantly over the last 30 years (See Nate Silver – link below). I wonder, Heather, whether the drop in gun violence is linked with the large drop in the number of gun owners (rather than the number of guns, which is the stat usually quoted in discussions like this).

    If there is a link, and if the link turns out to be a causal (you suggested as much above), then we should be talking about reducing the number of firearms the way we talk about reducing smoking.

    Everyone talks about how alcohol prohibition failed and the war on drugs on failed, but the war on tobacco has actually been pretty successful. The analogy is not perfect but, 40 years ago, smoking was ubiquitous. There was a powerful smoking lobby that denied any link between smoking and lung cancer and lots of propaganda to go with it. In a couple of generations, smoking has dwindled to a majority hobby to a handful of bitter-clingers. Smoking is unthinkable to most kids these days.

    So many right- and libertarian-leaning bloggers who might, like you, agree that there is a link between gun ownership and gun violence have just thrown up their hands and said “Nothing we can do! There are just too many guns!” (see Douthat, McArdle, Dreher et al) or “even we ban all the guns (which we can’t) there will still be guns”. But we don’t need to ban all the guns.

    There might be enough support to ban some weapons (semi-automatic rifles & large capacity magazines for a start) but more of the focus should be on public safety. Treat it as a public health issue. Restrict advertising. Require warning labels.

    Remove the gag order from the ATF and let them share their stats on deaths by gun brand.

    Remove the gag order from the CDC and let them conduct studies and share the stats for the relative likelihood of a self-injury/ self-protection for gun owner.

    Institute buy-back schemes and waiting periods and close the private sale loopholes.

    Let people sue the gun manufacturers when they exploit the inevitable loopholes like they did last time around.

    Emphasize that ‘legitimate’ uses of guns (hunting & self-defense) are protected – but that they don’t require large magazines or sniper rifles.

    It’s gonna be a hard, long road but I am confident that the journey is possible and worth the effort. There will never, I hope, be a better opportunity.

    Nate Silver on gun ownership:

    (Scroll for gun ownership over time)

  3. tector says:

    Heather, interesting post. But I don’t see how you can address this subject without at least mentioning the Second Amendment, if only in passing.

  4. RandyB says:

    >There simply is no dispute that the U.S. is miles more violent than other advanced countries.

    Canada’s intentional homicide rate is 1.6 per 100k; the USA’s is 4.2. A rough estimate that blacks commit half of those, suggests that everyone else’s rate is 2.4, so it’s higher than Canada’s but ballpark with it.

    In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore asks the (very good) rhetorical question why the USA’s rate is so much higher than Canada’s when the cultural factors normally cited (like violent media) are essentially identical. Then he spends several minutes “refuting” the idea that it’s because of blacks.

    Moore recently made an appearance re-visiting the film and claimed “[Gun ownership] cuts down to the heart of our race problem that we still haven’t resolved.” Steve Sailer, who ranks with our Bradlaugh as a scion of politically incorrect race realism, claims “What blue-region white liberals actually want is for the government to disarm the dangerous urban minorities that threaten their children’s safety.”

    So what gun control comes down to is a debate that can’t be discussed. The two sides agree that a prime part of the issue is keeping our neighborhoods safe from high-poverty, high-crime minorities. But are under the pressure of acceptable social etiquette not to frame it that way.

  5. rightdetour says:

    And where there are voyeurs, there are exhibitionists.

    I do not know anymore than anyone else what motivated Lanza. But on a superficial level, Lanza and previous perpetrators of similar crimes seem to be self-absorbed youths possessing no social skills, enjoying few friends, wallowing in self-pity, and harboring an intense resentment that no one notices them.

    After the commission of their horrific crimes, however, the mainstream media finds them simply fascinating.

    When all is said and done, isn’t this really what it is all about?

  6. Steve Cardon says:

    Well said Mr. Lawrence. Many more children are killed each year by drunk drivers than by Assault rifle toting looney-toones. Why do we not try to ban alcohol? because Liberals and their allies either cannot be bothered to look at the actual statistics and do the math (as opposed to fuzzy ill-informed “logic”), and because those same people arguing for gun control like to drink.

    It is illogical, hypocritical, and dangerous to put arbitrary and illogical curbs on the second ammendment. Unless the government plans to go out and round up all the AR’s and AK’s currently in the hands of private citizens, it is pointless political posturing. We don’t need a vastly expanded black market in weapons brought about by misguided liberal-influenced thinking. We need better verification and background checks for those purchasing. If they feel something must be done, then target the problem. Mental health workers should be required to report cases where there is a potential problem, and the members of those households could be restricted from the type weapons they may keep on the premises… otherwise why not ban cars, and force quarentine on anyone with the flu.

  7. D says:

    People don’t drink with the intent of harming children.

    I don’t follow this debate closely, but it seems sensible to me to limit the size of magazines. This would help not just with school shootings but also with gangbangers, who are terrible shots because they don’t practice at the shooting range. Jared Loughner was only subdued when he had to stop shooting to reload.

    When the 2nd amendment was written, it took several seconds just to load a single bullet into a musket. And I’ll wager the civilian gun violence rate was much lower too.

  8. Steve Cardon says:

    People may not drink with the intention of harming children, yet 1000’s are killed every year by drunk drivers… So if no alchohol were available (or no cars) you could prevent what is a much larger scale of child slaughter (by orders of magnitude) than the relatively few killed by crazy people. So why not ban Alcohol? It is not necessary for survival… It is responsible for all kinds of domestic abuse right? maybe we should prevent people from getting married and/or cohabitating because that offers the opportunity for domestic abuse, or murder. People with the flu are allowed to wander around free in public where others may contract it and die. Many more people (again by orders of magnitude), die from the flu every year who would not if we had more effectively enforced quarantine laws.

    “Gang bangers” mainly buy their weapons (and clips) on the black market (a) because their previous felonies stop them from purchasing at gun stores (b) even if they could, they do not want a paper trail leading back to them if a weapon is either recovered by the police, or a bullet is matched to the weapon. Banning a certain type weapon does not prevent that class of weapon from being sold, it just means there is an increased black market for them. The idea that banning Assault rifles keeps them out of the hands of criminals is nonsensical and does not square with the obvious reality on the ground.

    As for crazy people shooting up public venues, one consistent thing we have found is that they had all seen mental health professionals prior to their respective rampages. Why then were the appropriate agency’s not notified so that these individuals or members of their household would be flagged at the gun store when a background check was run? That would seem a much more reasonable and targeted precaution. Instead, some want to ban Assault rifles, the vast majority of which are legally purchased and cared for by responsible citizens who have no intention of shooting little children… They may, however, give pause to gangbangers trying to break into their homes.

    I have no problem with a legal limit to the size clip one may purchase, others do, I don’t… that is actually a reasonable argument in my view. Assault rifles should not be purchaseable at gun shows. A three day waiting period and background check should be required. Mental health workers should be required to report any suspicions that a person they have worked with shows signs of various mental issues, and those reports should stop those individuals from legally purchasing weapons.

    I should point out, however, that even if no more assault rifles were sold, there are literally millions already in circulation and can be purchase directly from another owner. A buy back program by the government will not succeed.

    At the time the second amendment was written, one concern was that if the government were ever to go off the rails and become despotic and tyrannical, the citizens should have the final means to over throw that government. You cannot accomplish that if you have muskets while the government has assault rifles and better.

    Responsible drinking, responsible car drivers, responsible gun owners, responsible parents of crazy kids not keeping weapons around the house, responsible health care workers, responsible politicians who come up with intelligent solutions to solve problems rather than exploit tragedies to further their own agendas…. These are the solution… not trying to hide all the scissors and knives.

  9. John says:

    “If something is question of rights, “need” does not come into the question.”

    Heather, you already made my argument, so no need to restate it. I’ll point out that pretty soon it will be possible to download a gun schematic on the internet and use a household 3D printer to make one. At that point, any attempt to restrict guns will be even less effective than the alcohol prohibition.

  10. Polichinello says:

    But in any case, do we really need all those guns?

    Of course not, I mean, hey, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.

    I live in a hurricane prone area with plenty of “vibrants.” If trouble comes, I’d like to have a bit more at hand to defend my family and my property than smooth talk and charm. It’s nice to think the police and the National Guard will show up, but they’re only human, and they can’t be everywhere.

    It’s easy to be for gun control when you’re living in some SWPL panopticon, but for the rest of us, there’s very real trade-offs to be made.

  11. tector says:

    I love when people argue “The Founders could not have imagined…” when discussing the Second Amendment. You realize, of course, that you could play the same game, in spades, with the First Amendment (among others), right?

    Of course the Founders KNEW they could not anticipate future developments. So, they created a process by which we could modify their handiwork should it be outmoded–it’s called amending the Constitution. But instead of dealing with this challenging course, those who would circumscribe rights relating to the Second Amendment just act as if they can legislate away such issues–which is why the lack of any explicit mention of the Second Amendment in Heather’s post puzzled me. And still does.

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