Sandy Hook a year later: Our hopeless gun debate
Each side is too quick to demonize the other
This is where things stand. Twenty sets of parents and six other families in Newtown, Conn., on Saturday will mark the first anniversary of the unspeakable. For them, nothing has changed in the past year. Four seasons have come, four seasons have gone. The tears still flow, and grief that only a parent robbed of life's most precious gift — a child — can know has not diminished, and never will.
This is also where things stand: It has been, by most measures, a very good year for supporters of gun rights, and a year of dashed hopes and disillusionment for those who favor greater restrictions on guns. The PBS program Frontline notes that in 2013:
States passed twice as many gun-rights measures (93) as they did gun-control measures (42).
Those gun-rights measures include allowing people to carry concealed weapons in churches, public parks, and schools, and accepting gun permits from neighboring states.
Gun-rights groups outspent gun-control groups by nearly $10 million in lobbying at the federal level.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook outrage, President Obama embarked upon a months-long effort to push tougher gun legislation through Congress. To no one's surprise, it went nowhere. That Obama failed so miserably no doubt brings extra Christmas joy to gun supporters who detest the president, a man they sneer is nothing more than a filthy "gun grabber."
It has also been a year of "gun fatigue." You may be surprised to know that in the 12 months since Sandy Hook, there have been 24 mass shootings in the United States (defined by the FBI as four or more victims, not including the killer). Most got little attention. Even the worst mass shooting of 2013, September's attack on the Washington Navy Yard (12 victims, not including the killer), seemed to fade pretty quickly. The steady frequency of these killings — an incident every two weeks this year — has numbed us; their shock value is thoroughly diminished.
We're all against the outcomes that illegal or incorrect use of a gun can cause: Violence, suffering, grief. But when it comes to what drives these shootings, the debate over guns has gotten more divisive than ever.
Here's the one thing I've noticed during the past year that has made the discourse worse. We've made the mistake of stereotyping and demonizing the other side. These are complex issues that we're dealing with, and it's important to note that neither side is monolithic in its views. Within each camp, there are subcamps.
For example, I strongly believe that Americans have the right to keep and bear arms, a right that is enshrined in the Second Amendment. Yet I don't have a problem with undergoing a background check prior to buying a gun, and I don't think the government is intruding on my privacy when it conducts one. I just think it's a sensible thing to do and it helps keep my community safe.
Then there is this: I detest the National Rifle Association, its contemptuous scorched-earth policies, and its habit of branding anyone with even slightly different opinions an "enemy."
But gun control supporters should stop demonizing the gun industry. Here's a fact: The firearms industry is a big part of the U.S. economy. It supports some 220,000 jobs, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) — far bigger than the North American payroll of General Motors, dubbed "a pillar of our economy" by Obama when he outlined his 2009 decision to extend the automaker's bailout first announced by George W. Bush.
States that think they're doing good by squeezing gun manufacturers are just pushing those jobs elsewhere, like Idaho, where Gov. Butch Otter says he "openly embraces companies in the arms and ammunition manufacturing sector to expand or relocate to the state." The NSSF claims that the firearms industry contributes more than $33 billion to the U.S. economy; in challenging economic times, that's a pretty big pie for any state to ignore.
The debate over guns, and whether rights should be expanded or restricted will never get anywhere, as long as militants on both sides fail to open their minds.
What happens now? Here's my take:
For supporters of gun rights: Stop getting worked up about "the government" coming to get your guns. Scare tactics only make for good propaganda, drives NRA membership, and has enriched the gun industry immensely, particularly during the Obama years. At the same time, try showing some respect to those who disagree with you; you might learn something from their perspective.
For those who favor sensible regulations on guns, don't hold your breath waiting for tighter restrictions on gun purchases. If Sandy Hook wasn't enough to spark tighter restrictions, then nothing is. But take comfort in this: The long-term trend against gun ownership is slowly moving in your favor. About half of all U.S. households owned guns in the 1970s. This fell to about 43 percent in the 1990s and is about 37 percent now.