Gun Control, Sandy Hook, and Dylan Hockley

The other day, a friend of mine – who I respect and love dearly – commented on Facebook that he was tired of hearing about Sandy Hook. He lamented that policy was being driven by emotional ploys, and that the media was manipulating public opinion.

Now, this friend is a reasonable individual. We have pretty pronounced differences in opinion when it comes to matters of public policy, and gun control is no exception. He’s not opposed to all forms of regulation; he just thinks we need to be smart about it. I can get behind that.

But I bristled at dismissing the Sandy Hook stories as part of our dialogue on gun control. It was the same reaction I had when people voiced similar frustrations in the wake of Aurora, or the Sikh Temple shooting, or the Virginia Tech massacre, or the Tuscon shootings… or any of the other dozens of mass shootings.

The thing is, if we exclude these personal stories, all we’re left with is data. Data isn’t necessarily bad; indeed, it’s a critical part of effective decision making. In this instance, there is data which suggests gun control, when implemented carefully and consistently (consistency being the key), can decrease gun violence. Such data is frequently (and sometimes, to some extent, with merit) criticized and dismissed by those opposed to increased gun control. The problem is that these debates over data points remove us from the reason we’re having the conversation to begin with: human lives.

Rachel Maddow had a truly fantastic segment at the beginning of her show the other night on the impact of the Sandy Hook narratives on the Senate’s approach to the gun control debate. Watch it. It’s not long, and it’s important. And the rest of this post won’t make much sense if you don’t.

I cried when I watched it live. I’ve cried every time I’ve watched it since. Part of that has to do with the fact that my daughter is on the autism spectrum. She has one of those weighted blankets at Nana and Papa’s house for sleepovers. When the world gets to be too much for her to process, a hug is the only thing that works. And Dylan…

I can’t even write about it. I’ve tried, for days, and the words come out mangled by grief. There is no way to gracefully express the kind of heartbreak associated with this story.

Once again, I am reminded of the importance of narrative. In the wake of past mass shootings, the reaction has been predictable. It starts with disbelief, and is quickly peppered with political statements. Then there is outrage over the existence of those political statements. Eventually, with the feeling that it’s a lost cause, the conversation fades into the background. The reason that a shooting which took place in December is still in the spotlight in April is that these parents aren’t letting us forget about it. These courageous families have put their lives and sorrow and pain on public display. It won’t bring their children back, but it might help someone else’s child, and that’s why they keep fighting. Regardless of where you stand on the gun control debate, most will cede that it’s an important conversation to have. The fact that these narratives are forcing us to have it makes them important, as well.

Whether the conversation would proceed was in question for a stretch there. After all, the NRA was scoring the vote to even hear the debate on the Senate floor. Let me repeat: they are evaluating whether or not Senators are effective defenders of gun rights based on how quickly they shut the conversation down altogether.

(As if I needed another reason to hate the NRA. Seriously, any group that actively works to PREVENT DISCOURSE is not an organization worth supporting. For being such huge fans of the Constitution, it seems like the Second Amendment is the only part they think has value.)

Now, I’m not saying that we should pass policy based on narratives alone; that’s gotten us into trouble on more than one occasion. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place in our policy making approach. In this instance, it was the collection of narratives from Sandy Hook that forced us to move forward in the gun control policy debate. It was stories like Dylan’s that made the difference. Dylan was taken from the world much too soon, but even so, his contributions to our well-being may, in the end, be beyond measure.

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17 comments

  1. I am out of the loop for all this controversy, so I thank you for your post and the link. I cannot comment specifically about the debate, but I can say that those families, and families before them who expose their lives for the greater good, are an inspiration.

  2. Yeh unfortunately, the Aurora, Virginia Tech, or Sikh Temple shooting was not enough to get gun control law to be written, it had to take the killing of predominantly White Middle Class children for this to happen.

    And the gun control laws (last I check aren’t really effective) Because the majority of people who die by guns are living in areas of inner New York City, East L.A, Atlanta, Detroit, Southside Chicago and so on. From gang violence or innocent bystanders of crossfires.

    Mass shootings are relatively uncommon. So I’m not sure how this new law is suppose to prevent a mass shooting or even another bombing.

    1. It can’t prevent another bombing. And it may not prevent another shooting. What the background check compromise does do is require background checks for weapon purchases online or at gun shows. Does that prevent all gun violence? Of course not. But what this DOES do is close off two additional means for individuals seeking guns for ill purposes.

      I get the argument that those who are interested in criminal activity may not be all that worried about breaking the law. In some cases, that’s just accurate. But there are others where it might not hold true; for students, in particular, the internet and gun show background checks are important.

      I WILL say that I’m really annoyed about the friend loophole in this rendition, and I want to see an amendment that would inflict MAJOR consequences for straw purchasers. In a world where those provisions are in place, and we continue our efforts to collect and destroy illegally obtained weapons, I think we’ve got a good chance of greatly decreasing the amount of available weapons for criminal activity. It’s not possible to eliminate it, but the dynamics of supply and demand are on our side in this scenario. If there are consequences for straw purchasing, odds are the same folks doing it right now – people who don’t really have to worry about the aftermath – may not be as interested anymore. Between this and the background checks, the supply of weapons goes down relative to demand, driving up price. This serves as an additional discouraging barrier for the hesitant would-be offender. All of that gets compounded if we’re still taking weapons off the street.

      It’s not perfect. But it’s a start.

      1. Yeh but the key is enforcing the law and imposing consequences (universal consequence as the punishment for owning an illegal weapon in NY is different than say FL) that are major.

        And the new law needs to address the flow of illegal arm sales. And It still doesn’t the Adam Lanzas of the world who, wouldn’t be able to apply for weapon on their own, but still have access to weapons from either a family member or friend. Thus, still a legally obtain gun used for mass killings.

  3. Without discounting the value of narratives or questioning the fervor if anybody, I would point out that allowing something to come to a vote is about more than just discussion. The legislative system is adversarial; if you’re opposed to a measure, you do your best to block it any place you possibly can.

    1. I’ll agree that the legislative system as it stands today is adversarial; I won’t agree that it SHOULD be. It drives me just as crazy when I see Dems blocking debate on bills I dislike.

      1. The judicial system is adversarial, so it stands to reason that the other two branches would be as well. Though they do seem to get carried away at times.

        Still looking forward to your response to my earlier comment. 🙂

  4. I’m one of those people who, like your friend, have expressed annoyance towards still hearing about this tragedy. I wanted to respond here and explain why a little, to perhaps shed a little light on an opposing view for you.

    For context: I’m a gun control advocate with a strong belief that gun ownership is a right, not a privilege. I argue that gun legislation cannot be handled as easily as things like car registration because driving a car isn’t guaranteed by the Constitution. I want good gun control laws, but not restrictions put in place for restriction sake. Like your friend, I think we need to be smart about it. I want a national database and a restriction against criminals. I also want to be allowed to own a gun if I so choose (I don’t.).

    I think continuing to use the Sandy Hook tragedy to frame the debate, or even to spur emotional response, is a bad idea.

    First, I have a problem with the immediate response. Less than an hour after the news struck that a tragedy occurred, I wrote this passage in a debate forum I’m a part of:

    “Using tragedy to promote a political agenda is disgusting. There is no reasonable explanation for people to jump on this as a framework for their gun control argument, whether pro (if the teachers carried guns this wouldn’t have happened…) or con (if gun control regulation was stricter this wouldn’t have happened…), except to exploit the emotional response people are having to this tragedy. The police haven’t even put everything together to make a complete picture yet, so how can anyone else?”

    I had to write that because my newsfeed was completely full of anti-gun defenders demanding a call for action. Many demanded complete gun control – a.k.a. disarmament. There were dozens upon dozens of posts describing the events, explaining what happened and why, detailing the weapons used, etc. NONE of them were right. Not a single one. Why? Because nobody had the correct information – not even the police.

    Problem is, all those people posting felt that emotional narrative was more important than facts.

    Second, I feel like this has muddied the dialogue on weapons as a whole. The ridiculous amount of confusion over what weapons the shooter used cannot be described as anything but a mess made worse by irresponsible journalists and their fervent followers demanding attention be paid to their words even though their words were irresponsibly flawed.

    How can we have a discussion on gun control when the press refuses to do their homework or act responsibly? How can we trust a narrative to be part of the discussion when the narrative is constantly being told in so many different ways?

    Third, why are so many people using Sandy Hook to discuss mental health issues in a way that vilifies the mentally ill? One of the most prominent arguments I’m hearing from gun control advocates is that we need to make sure society is safe from the mentally ill. This really pisses me off. According to the US Department of Justice, in the last 30 years there have been 595,781 homicide victims in the USA. Studies suggest the number with mental illness of that count is roughly 23%, or 137,030 individuals. In that same period there have been 63 shooting with 5 or more victims, with a total number of dead of less than 600.

    Why is this narrative consistently being used to frame the mentally ill as a danger to society when society is much, much, much more of a danger to the mentally ill? Where are the 136,430 other narratives that should be used to frame the problem of mental illness?

    Fourth, I don’t believe either side of the aisle is attempting to discuss Sandy Hook for anything besides their own political agenda. FOX News cherry-picks quotes and facts from the narrative to further their defense against gun control as much as MSNBC cherry–picks quotes and facts to further their own anti-gun control position. I respect Ms. Maddow, but I wonder why I can’t find a single reference to Newtown parent Mark Mattioli in any of her discussions on the issue (perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough). If we were really being responsible about this, wouldn’t we be giving at least a little airtime to the people we’re supposedly having this discussion for, even if they have a different opinion? Unfortunately, it seems the media doesn’t care as much about the opinions of the victims as it does the opinions of the victims that benefit their own political punditry.

    Finally, and this one is purely personal, I’m really disgusted by the most recent backlash against Glee by the Newtown parents because they dared air an episode on school violence without first contacting the Newtown parents and warning them. Seriously, are we supposed to be having this discussion or not? Should everyone that wants to add their voice to the discussion have to contact the parents directly? Was FOX really to blame when they not only ran advertisements explaining that the episode would air but pre-empted the episode itself with a warning? What about the fact that the school Superintendent also warned all of the parents via email? Or the fact that the information was all over the internet.

    My problem is that, at some point, this debate needs to become rational. At this point, I can’t see much that’s truly rational springing from continuing to use Newtown as a framework, especially when both sides are intentionally ignoring information from the other side. Why don’t I hear stories from pro-control pundits informing the public of the large numbers of crimes prevented by a gun owner (I’ve read at least 20+ news articles about situations like this since Dec 2012)? Why don’t I hear stories from anti-control pundits detailing the underhanded ways people go about getting their hands on weapons? Because neither side wants to use this narrative to further the debate, they only want to use it to demand people think the same way they do.

    This was a tragedy. I get that. I can list dozens of tragedies that happen daily. Every 13 seconds, someone dies from hunger. More than 25% of American school children are suffering from malnutrition. 6,744 people die every day in the US, many in horrible, gruesome and tragic ways. 151,600 people die worldwide every day, many in horrible, gruesome and tragic ways. Every day, people in America are being forced out onto the street, causing them to lose their jobs and creating a situation where they can’t take care of their children, much less themselves. Every day people are dying because of prescription drugs that don’t work or do more harm than good, because of poverty or crime caused by poverty, because people don’t seem to care about tragedies they don’t get told to care about by talking heads.

    Why is Newtown so much more important than these others, and if it is so important, why isn’t anyone giving the debate the respect it deserves? Why shouldn’t I get annoyed when I keep seeing stories about Sandy Hook, but each and every one of those stories is one-sided and, often, erroneous? Why shouldn’t I be annoyed when, from my perspective, the irresponsibility started from the second someone heard the story and hasn’t stopped? What good is a narrative when it is being leveraged for a political talking point instead of being used to be genuinely illustrative?

    1. Thank you for the well-reasoned response. I think you’d be surprised by how much we agree. The disagreement (I think, at least) largely comes from a misunderstanding over what my argument for narratives means.

      I agree that a narrative framework is a poor approach to public policy design. In fact, I explicitly state, “I’m not saying that we should pass policy based on narratives alone; that’s gotten us into trouble on more than one occasion.” Narrative-driven policy making can be dangerous; narrative complemented policy making is a different animal altogether. It calls on us to layer our narratives with contextual conversation about the facts.

      You are absolutely correct that this is not how the conversation always plays out. I’ve seen the kinds of commentary you’re talking about, and it’s not any better than narrow perspectives presented in the data debates. So yes – a narrative framework is bad. That does, however, mean that inclusion of narratives in a broader examination of the issues has to be bad. It’s about responsible, considerate argumentation.

      I also agree that the way this conversation has unfolded has been problematic in terms of mental health. My sister works in mental health crisis care. Her rage on this subject has been palpable. Demonization of the mentally ill only increases social mistreatment and the stigma associated with seeking necessary care. That being said, measured conversation about mental illness, decision making capabilities, and their impact on responsible gun ownership can be relevant when done with tact. Please don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that someone with a mild case of depression should never be able to buy a gun. If someone has expressed and demonstrated violent/homicidal intent, however, would it not make sense to restrict their access to weapons? Maybe not for life – maybe we need a system of appeals for individuals who have sought treatment and are in a better place – but to ignore the risks in these situations doesn’t seem prudent. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t think shutting down the conversation is the solution.

      Further, while punditry may have focused on mental health, when I reference narratives in this case, I’m talking about the stories being told by the families. Truth be told, pundit commentary on this subject has a lot of problems, many of which you reference. These problems, however, are not limited to the gun control debate, and not limited to the presence of these narratives. I recently wrote a post on this subject – it may be of interest to you: https://rantagainsttherandom.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/about-that-evil-media-bias/

      Re: Glee, the reaction you’re describing is a bit over the top, particularly given the advance notice to the community. My frustration with the episode, and the frustration I’ve encountered since, has revolved around the way the episode framed the threat of gun violence in schools. The show is supposed to take place in today’s world. In today’s world, we’ve just gone through a very traumatic national event with the Sandy Hook shooting. So when there are gunshots in a school, and the students are (rightfully) terrified, and Jane Lynch’s character says, “I haven’t seen this level of overreaction since Janet Jackson showed her saggy funbag on the Super Bowl”… yeah, I can see how people take offense. I know it was a means of advancing the plot (given Sylvester’s history with her sister, etc.), but it wasn’t a tactful writing decision either.

      And yes, there are a LOT of other problems we face as a nation. Hunger, poverty, discrimination – it all sucks. That doesn’t make the gun control issue any less significant.

      At the end of the day, the point I’m trying to make is that narratives are not uniquely bad. They can be used in ineffective or problematic ways, but that doesn’t mean they should be excluded from the conversation. I’ve frequently encountered narratives related to successful self-defense stories. Those are important as well, as long as they’re layered with data about the frequency of successful self-defense with a firearm. It’s about including the narrative, not excluding data.

      1. Thanks for the quick response! I think you would be surprised that I think that we probably agree on nearly everything.

        My intention wasn’t to refute your points on the importance of narrative in discussion, just to provide my perspective on the issue. I find it incredibly important, too. I only wanted to illustrate why I’m fed up with this particular narrative. Unfortunately, I think its inclusion has been so flawed for so long that the discussion is now being hindered by the focus. As for your overall point – I agree completely.

        Sadly, you’re correct when you say:

        “Truth be told, pundit commentary on this subject has a lot of problems, many of which you reference. These problems, however, are not limited to the gun control debate, and not limited to the presence of these narratives.”

        I’ve read the article you reference and I applaud it. I also applaud your response to me, because I feel like it goes a long way towards offering more perspective to others that may stumble on or be pointed to this article and have one or more of the opinions I share.

        I wish more of the media we’ve mutually agreed are partially responsible for continual messes were able to offer exchanges of this caliber. I don’t think either of our posts were pushy – we both stated our cases and an understanding was reached. (“At the end of the day, the point I’m trying to make is that narratives are not uniquely bad.” – you made it brilliantly). You were able to not only offer credence to my perspective (an unmitigated positive in any debate), but you did it in a way that comfortably reasserted and added definition to your own point.

        I know you have a lot to do, so I’ll just leave you with this: Keep up the good work! Your voice is an important tool in constructing meaningful dialogue – at least from my perspective.

        “Every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right.” ~Ani Difranco

      2. Thank you for the kind words, and the substantive discourse! I’m a big believer in engagement, and I’m glad you feel comfortable doing so here. The only way we can help things get better is by talking about them.

  5. I just realized I quoted myself and didn’t leave a link to the fuller context, so I wanted to drop that off. http://teamugli.com/2012/12/found-on-a-forum-concerning-the-connecticut-tragedy/

    In retrospect, I realize a bit of what I wrote there is flawed, however I thought it would help illustrate my own personal bias on the issue. (example of a flaw: when I said that ‘Canada … [has] almost no gun control’, my perspective was that although there are plenty of laws on the books, provincial governments have every right to completely ignore them – and some do. It’s not a real rule if it doesn’t have to be followed. Unfortunately, that’s bad logic and in a genuine debate I should do better than that to adhere to the universal definition of ‘gun control’.)

    Note, everything I said still stands. I agree with you completely, and I’m not posting this to belabor any point. I’m just posting it because I realized I had mirrored the original forum discussion on my own website (making it easy to find and thus reference) and because it was an emotional response written concurrently with the revealing of information so it was apropos to point it out to a blog that included “Rant” in the title, especially when the topic is our perceptions of a particular narrative and its influence months later.

    Honestly, I should have linked to it originally, but it’s Sunday and I don’t have anything pressing to do so I woke up, smoked a bowl and went disc golfing and then typed that, meaning I wasn’t as cognizant as I would have liked. I’m going to go play another round of disc golf because I need to work off unfriendly additions to my person that winter hibernation has bestowed upon me. Point is, this lunch conversation, as serious as the topic is, pushed my great lazy Sunday to a wonderful ‘nother level. Thanks again!

  6. Nice work! I am sure there are many people who are faced with the same problems I recently had. I couldn’t find You’ll forget about paperwork when you try PDFfiller. a form can be filled out in 5-10 mins here http://goo.gl/gm7jaQ

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