On the Time for Talking

As I'm sure you wish you hadn't heard, there was another school shooting in Connecticut on Friday, one that was hellishly awful even by the standards of such things. The Internet, of course, instantly exploded with the depressingly predictable standard response. And it's hard to put into words just how depressing it is that there's a standard response to this-- The Onion pretty well nailed it back in July, but amazingly, they managed to do it again this time.

I shut social media down for most of the day-- and, anyway, I was home with a sick SteelyKid-- but the usual flamewar was still in full swing when I came back. On the one hand, you have people of a left-ish persuasion loudly arguing that this proves once again that we need more gun control laws, while those who lean right either double down on their belief that guns fix everything and suggest the arming of teachers they otherwise deride as union thugs, or get huffy about how this isn't an appropriate time to talk about politics.

I'm a little torn on this-- on the one hand, I would be perfectly happy to see much tighter gun control than we have, but at the same time, it feels awfully tacky to be yelling "See! I told you so!" on Twitter while there are parents who still don't know if their kids are alive. The fact that the kids in this case were of an age to be SteelyKid's playmates tends to push me even more in that direction, hence the total social media shutdown on Friday. While I recognize that it's often merely a diversionary tactic, I still think there's something to be said for waiting a decent interval before trying to score political points on the corpses of children.

The usual response to this, offered with varying degrees of indignation, is that we have to talk about the politics immediately, because if we don't, the general public will lose interest. We need to strike while the iron is hot, or at least while the blood is still warm, lest we miss the window of opportunity afforded by the mayfly-like attention span of the average American. I'm not hugely impressed by this line, in part because I think we ought to demand better of our political culture. A big reason why we have such a short attention span as a nation is that our political elites either cater or capitulate to the perception that we have a short attention span.

And, to be honest, I would find this line a lot more convincing if more of the people using it showed any inclination to press the subject for more than a few attention half-lives. Sincere concern about the welfare of the nation might be a good reason to talk about policy in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like this, but when that concern only extends to talking about it for about as long as the average CNN viewer is interested in the story, well...

This is the critical point that I think is lost in this particular kabuki dance. If Friday was the time to talk about gun control in the wake of this latest massacre, then so is Monday. And Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, next Friday, a month from now, a year from now, as long as it takes.

That's what it takes, because that's what it took to get us here. We don't have lax gun laws because a bunch of right-wing Republicans gave angry speeches in the twenty-four hours after some past tragedy. We have lax gun laws because of a systematic effort lasting decades, by people who talked about guns, and wouldn't shut up. They had their weird constitutional interpretations, their macho posturing, their scaremongering about nonexistent crime waves, their odd conspiracy theories, their methodologically dubious social-science studies, the whole package. It took years of effort and millions if not billions of dollars to make the whole idea of gun control so toxic that no politician wants to be associated with it, even as the bodies from senseless mass shootings pile up.

If you really want tougher gun laws, you need to become That Guy. The one who bangs on about the issue non-stop. Who writes blog posts about the subject even when nobody's been shot for weeks. Who writes angry letters to the media and politicians at the slightest provocation (even imaginary provocation). Who gives money to lobbying groups year in and year out. Who forwards on every last bit of hackwork from the think tank of the week. Who clogs your Facebook timeline with re-shared political images slapping stock slogans over splashy photographs. Who keeps going on and on until everyone says "Fine, here, have some legislation, just shut the hell up, already."

That's what it took to get us here, and that's what it will take to get us out. So, fine, by all means, score your political points on Friday. But don't stop scoring them on Monday, because the pro-gun folks sure as hell won't. They might be a little bit quieter for a little while, but a week from now, or a month from now, they'll still be pushing their political allies, when most of the people yelling for stricter gun laws on Twitter will have lost interest and moved on to something else.

(And, more or less on cue, there's this story in the New York Times about the gun culture around Newtown...)

I have a problem with this whole business on another level as well, which is that I can't help thinking that the gun debate is something of a sideshow to he real problem, namely that it seems to be distressingly easy for troubled individuals to make the leap to thinking that killing a whole bunch of total strangers is a great plan. And while the ready availability of guns unquestionably makes that leap somewhat easier, and should absolutely be addressed, a lot of these killers put a good deal of time and effort into amassing an arsenal. I suspect a similar investment could probably be used to make explosives that could potentially kill a lot more people.

Now, there's some evidence from other countries to suggest that guns really do make the problem dramatically worse, for some reason. Maybe blowing people up with a bomb isn't as psychologically appealing to those prone to breaking in this fashion, or maybe the technical know-how needed to make bombs is enough of a filter to keep this from being a major problem because would-be bombers are more likely to blow themselves up.

At the same time, though, I can't help thinking that guns wouldn't be an issue if we knew how to stop people from making that leap. If we could stop being the sort of society where people with major problems are distressingly likely to think "Hey, I could go kill a whole bunch of people!" then it wouldn't matter how many guns we have rattling around. The US is on the high side even for crimes without firearms, statistically, which might be an indication that mass shootings are really a particularly horrific manifestation of a much deeper problem. Everybody keeps bringing up that Chinese guy who attacked a school with a knife, to highlight the difference in lethality. But there's another angle to that, which is that you just don't hear about all that many people in China randomly attacking schools (or malls, or movie theaters...) with knives. Maybe it's just that those stories don't get out, but if weaponry were the whole story, you'd expect more than we seem to get. It feels like we have more people in the US deciding to go on killing sprees than elsewhere in the world.

If those people got help, or at least got noticed before it got to the point of bloodshed, we would all be much better off, more or less by definition. Thus, I'm inclined to find posts like this and this (despite the blowback it's generated), and this from a while back more important than another round of pounding on the NRA. (Though looking for root causes has its own pitfalls, as the pleas to not pin this on Asperger's demonstrate.)

Of course, that's a really Hard Problem. Stricter gun laws are politically implausible, but at least we know how to get that done-- see above. Moving the whole world to a better place... I don't have any idea how to do that. It might not even be possible. And, of course, this is another valid point that is somewhat poisoned by its use as a diversionary tactic by especially cynical gun enthusiasts.) But it's probably something that deserves a bit of thought, and maybe even some discussion. Preferably before the next round of senseless killings.

President Obama gave a great speech Sunday night, and at least for the moment, Democrats are promising action. I hope they follow through, and I hope they succeed, not just on the gun side, but the whole package. But more than that, I hope the people who indignantly insisted on the importance of talking politics last Friday while the horror was still unspooling are still talking about it this coming Friday, and the Friday after that, and for as many Fridays as it takes to move the country in a better direction.


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Hear hear to the post!

(Aside: there's about 3 or so paragraphs all pointing to the NY Times article.)

Goodness knows, I ought to be That Guy (at least on climate science) more often.

By Composer99 (not verified) on 17 Dec 2012 #permalink

If you really want tougher gun laws, you need to become That Guy. The one who bangs on about the issue non-stop. Who writes blog posts about the subject even when nobody’s been shot for weeks. Who writes angry letters to the media and politicians at the slightest provocation (even imaginary provocation). Who gives money to lobbying groups year in and year out. Who forwards on every last bit of hackwork from the think tank of the week. Who clogs your Facebook timeline with re-shared political images slapping stock slogans over splashy photographs. Who keeps going on and on until everyone says “Fine, here, have some legislation, just shut the hell up, already.”

Irrespective of the issue and its merits, I don't know that I want to become That Guy for any issue. I mean, I have some issues that I bang on about a lot, but I at least try to keep myself somewhat honest. I may not succeed all the time, but it sounds like becoming That Guy means I give up trying.

Also, nobody legislates to appease That Guy. The role of That Guy is to persuade everyone that there are 2 sides. Even when there aren't.

I usually hate when progressive types pat themselves on the back for their superior commitment to intellectual honesty, but there's a grain of truth there. Think long and hard about whether you want yourself or your allies to become That Guy.

I'm not especially fond of having more of Those Guys in my various media feeds, either, but I really do think that that's what it takes. A lot of our gun law problems are a result of a difference in the level of committment-- the pro-gun side is almost entirely Those Guys, and they just don't quit, where a lot of left-ish folks view gun control as just one item in a bigger package of liberal-ish goals, and divide their efforts among them all. Since the Brady bills back in the late 80's/ early 90's, there really hasn't been that consistent and vocal a push in the other direction, which is what lets the pro-gun side chip away at sane regulations.

Also, I should note that we have liberals who are willing to be That Guy on other issues-- my social media feeds are full of people with a single-minded dedication to pushing climate issues that rivals the focus of the gun advocates. I find it a little wearying at times, but I do think it's made a difference, not so much in policy and legislation yet, but in making the issue more prominent than it's been, and starting to shift some public opinion. It's not a fast process, but having a bunch of Those Guys around does work.

Besides the intellectual problem with it, if I'm going to be That Guy about an issue, I'm not sure that gun control is the issue. I've been for it and I've been against it, and right now I'd say I'm for some of it and against some of it. At no point have I thought of it as The Issue (in either direction). If I were going to be That Guy about something, I'd pick another issue. The best pro-gun studies and the best anti-gun studies both seem to show that the effect on crime and public safety will be marginal either way. Whether you think that a plausible gun law will curtail crime, or greater CCW availability will curtail crime, you're looking at (in the most plausible studies) a small effect either way. I'd rather pick an issue where I have some reason to believe that success (if it happens) would really matter in a big way.

"If you really want tougher gun laws, you need to become That Guy. The one who bangs on about the issue non-stop. Who writes blog posts about the subject even when nobody’s been shot for weeks. Who writes angry letters to the media and politicians at the slightest provocation (even imaginary provocation). Who gives money to lobbying groups year in and year out. Who forwards on every last bit of hackwork from the think tank of the week. Who clogs your Facebook timeline with re-shared political images slapping stock slogans over splashy photographs. Who keeps going on and on until everyone says “Fine, here, have some legislation, just shut the hell up, already.”

That’s what it took to get us here, and that’s what it will take to get us out."

Another perspective - if you want action which will just about guarantee the status quo for years to come, this sounds like the prescription to me.

Easy for me to say, looking at it from outside the US. However, it's seemed to me for some time that all I see are the two sides each entrenching themselves a bit more each time the subject comes up. (A bit simplistic, granted, but accurate in its essentials.)

To take a specific example - the NRA in particular and gun supporters in general. If you and others like you cannot find a way to begin to talk to such folks, then significant improvement is doomed. And telling NRA members to go fuck themselves (as I've seen in several tweets) is definitively unhelpful.

Difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming? Of course ... but do you want to feel righteous or have some chance of effecting change?

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 17 Dec 2012 #permalink

I don't think at this point anyone can seriously argue against tighter controls on assault rifles and semi-automatics and overly large ammunition clips.

The argument is over. We WILL reinstate the controls. Otherwise people are arguing for the slaughter of six year olds. And that will be unacceptable.

I think I'm the token guy on the other side of this one. But I really really hate being That Guy. So I won't be doing it, certainly not on ScienceBlogs. I've allowed myself one post on the subject for the time being and that'll be that.

By Matt Springer (not verified) on 17 Dec 2012 #permalink

I understand the reluctance to be That Guy, but sometimes the situation calls for it. One example among many: this country made great steps in civil rights for minorities during the 1960s in large part because Martin Luther King was That Guy from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. It is because King was That Guy that we honor him with a federal holiday. Or to take a non-US example: India became independent of the United Kingdom in 1947 because Mohandas Gandhi was That Guy.

Certainly it cuts both ways. Many of the controversial political arguments in this country today are controversial because there is at least one That Guy (and usually several, backed with lots of money) pushing one side of the dispute. That's just how democratic politics works. See the Overton Window.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 18 Dec 2012 #permalink

Y'know, this might be true if lax gun regulation were merely the result of a grassroots campaign, hundreds or thousands of That Guy arguing that they need to have their guns.

But it's not.

As I think everybody knows at this point.

By ScentOfViolets (not verified) on 18 Dec 2012 #permalink

No, it's not the whole story, but it's a big part of the story. And yes, there are moneyed interests who support lax gun laws for financial reasons.

At the same time, though, no amount of money from lobbyists can change the fact that you need a majority of the voters to get anything done. As we saw once again this past November, with all the post-election chortling about how poorly the candidates Karl Rove shoveled cash at fared.

Lots of people talking about an issue, and pushing it relentlessly can and does change the situation, even in the face of wealthy and connected opposition. Look at the situation with smoking-- there isn't a better example of an industry that poured money into politics than the tobacco lobby, but smoking's been banned on airplanes for something like twenty years, now, and in a lot of states you can't smoke in bars or restaurants at all any more. Or look at the changed consensus on drunk driving.

Those are changes in policy that cut directly against big money interests that came about because groups of people latched on to those issues and wouldn't shut up about them. The same thing can happen with gun control, but it requires people to be willing to make it a Thing, and keep talking about it and not shut up. Arguably, it did happen with the Brady bill back in the day, but once that got passed, a lot of people lost interest, and gave ground back to the gun lobby.

MLK was probably "That Guy" in some sense, but not in the sense that Chad outlined when describing (the sad reality of) all too many gun nuts. Those guys are intellectually dishonest. I certainly wouldn't describe MLK that way.

Yes, I think you are right. We have to make the world a better place (despite the 2nd law of thermodynamics). We don't have any idea how to, but I think it's important to state that gun laws may be neither necessary nor sufficient.

By Andrew Tan (not verified) on 24 Dec 2012 #permalink

If anyone actually wanted to do anything about guns they would go after the gangs. It never happens. The other thing you never see in the NY Times is any simple advice like not mixing problem children and weapons. Instead there is blabber about mental health professionals, as if they are part of the day to day mix. What matters is the rules of thumb for parents. 99.999 percent of 'gun control' in america, or any other place, is cultural. It breaks down in the usual places, like wherever you find gang violence, but it also breaks down when demographic upheaval breaks the transmission of successful rules of thumb. There were problem children in the 1950s too - why they did not go on mass murder sprees is the obvious question - and it was not because they lacked the capacity for mayhem.

By Joel Rice (not verified) on 29 Dec 2012 #permalink

I come from the UK, I have lived in the US for 6 months. The UK banned handguns a long time ago, semi auton rifles have always been banned, this has not prevented people from going berserk and killing en-masse, a few years ago a cab driver; having heard he was ommitted form his father will; grabbed a shotgun and .22 rifle and sytematically shot his brother and everyone who had ever ticked him off on a warm sunny day when people were just going about their business, the shotgun laws in the UK allow you to have as many as 10 guns before the person is flagged up, rifle laws are very strict but its reletively simple to own a .22 calibre "verming gun", I agree that smaller magazines and banning auto/semi auto weapons may reduce the number of victims but its scant comfort to the families of the other victims who die. It is fairly easy to own a gun in the US but the vast majority of pleople show a remarkable level of self control (as does law enforcement) when it comes to settling a grievance or infraction with a bullet, banning handguns in the UK did little to reduce gun crime and statistically nothing to reduce the incidents of "gun berserkers" running amok. This is a difficult issue and it will be a war of attrition between the"guys" from both sides who will win, the victims will always lose.

By Jim Borthwick (not verified) on 03 Jan 2013 #permalink