Thursday, January 17, 2013

Misfires: Cynicism on Both Sides of the Gun Debate

When President Obama presented his plans for legislation designed to curb gun violence he shared the stage with several children. They had been invited to the event from across the nation, having written to the president about guns and school safety. They weren’t there for their penmanship; these young people were props in a cynical ploy to sway the gun control argument. Meanwhile, in the audience were parents of some of the children killed last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

In short, the message to Congress and the country at large was clear: do it for the children.

The issue of gun control was MIA during the two-year run up to the presidential election, but suddenly it’s on the front burner, elbowing aside many important discussions concerning the national debt and related fiscal matters. The reason is simple: 20 dead in Newtown, Conn., most of them children. Screaming headlines, heartbreaking video, an angry populace, you get the picture.

This begs the question: Is the president pushing for gun control now because this horrific event demands nothing less, or is he simply using the Sandy Hook tragedy to push through something that’s long been on the liberal wish list?

Message to Washington: Those children did not die for anyone’s agenda.

There have been and remain plenty of reasons in the aggregate for U.S. lawmakers to take up the issue of gun control at anytime. There are of course lingering in the background the echoes of the Aurora cinema shooting and the Virginia Tech massacre. Meanwhile, as of last week nearly 700 others have died of gun violence in this country since the Newtown shootings, according to @GunDeaths).

Yet today’s gun control argument is framed almost entirely by the president and others on his side of the issue by the shootings at Sandy Hook, and by extension the prospect of protecting other children.

Interweaving the fates of the Connecticut victims into the gun debate is an appeal to emotion in hopes of shaming the opposition into silence, or at least casting them as the villains in this heated debate. Invoking the specter of that tragedy also runs the risk of overshadowing the need for facts and a serious assessment of the overall situation concerning the 300 million guns in this country, the insufficient support we offer those with mental health issues, and gun laws that are already in place but not fully enforced.

However, the more the president can tie the need for additional gun control to the Newtown tragedy the less these other things will figure in the debate. Also, the less thinking many Americans will do about the subject. The hope is they’ll follow their hearts, no matter what else is presented to their minds.

The children of Sandy Hook deserve better than being pawns in this debate, and the president should abandon this cynical approach.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association is keeping pace in this arms race of cynicism. The pro-gun lobby has been repeating for weeks that, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This reductionist statement gives us a showdown but no context. What led to this bad guy grabbing a gun? What preventative measures were or were not in place? And who is this good guy with a gun? Do we need one on every corner and in every school hallway?

Real life is more complicated than a slogan. We can’t simply Dirty Harry our way out of every eventuality, or, as the NRA would have, arm anyone with a trigger finger. The real danger in repeating this “good guy-bad guy” mantra is that it takes our focus off any real discussion about how to address America’s violence problem.

Both the president and the gun lobby have thus far resorted to tactics meant to shame and delegitimize the other side and silence any discussion on this important topic.

Gun control is a tough and fraught issue, and the ongoing debate should not be muddied by either side with runaway emotion or empty slogans. If the U.S. does change its laws it must do so guided by knowledge and common sense, and for the right reasons.