Responding to Newtown
When confronted with the murder of children, the only reaction is anger, shock, and grief. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, America has been reeling.
We want to protect our fellow Americans, our families, and ourselves. We want to understand the causes of violence and meet the challenges before they turn into tragedies. On this, we can all agree.
To be effective, the response to Newtown cannot be a hasty “Do something—anything” response. That’s why Heritage experts have taken the time to consider the complex problems involved.
In a new report, senior legal fellow John Malcolm and director of domestic policy studies Jennifer Marshall acknowledge:
The serious work to make society safer and stronger after events like the December 2012 Newtown massacre requires that constitutional and complex cultural factors be taken into consideration and that policy be based on a serious study of all of the evidence.
Their report unpacks that statement, bringing key principles into each of the issues.
Constitutional concerns. Malcolm and Marshall write: “The constitutional right to keep and bear arms is an individual right that is fundamental to a free society, which depends, ultimately, on personal responsibility.” The Second Amendment is a safeguard for liberty and security, and Americans’ right to keep and bear arms has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Any policy must be consistent with the Constitution.
Complex cultural factors. All individuals need to be known and cared for in relationships—a family, a neighborhood, a circle of friends, a house of worship or other community group. This is essential to thriving as a human being. The family especially shapes a person’s experience deeply. If that first community of security breaks down, it is important that others in these circles of support step in to help. Malcolm and Marshall point to transformative programs led by community leaders who are directly impacting gang violence, at-risk adolescents, and struggling families.
Federal policy responses to such intensely personal issues would be unwise. A national, one-size-fits-all prescription is not the answer. From school security to mental illness, these issues are best handled at the most local and personalized level possible.
Policy based on evidence. Any policy response should be based on factual research. As Malcolm and Marshall note, gun control laws do not correlate with decreased violence, and gun ownership does not correlate with increased violence. “If gun control were a panacea, then Washington, D.C., Oakland, and Chicago, which have very strict gun control laws, would be among the safest places to live rather than among the most dangerous.”
We also have evidence that severe, untreated mental illness is frequently a characteristic of mass killers—and that federal involvement in mental health services has not worked well. The authors conclude: “Given the weak track record of federal mental health programs, states should exercise primary responsibility for determining appropriate mental health services, which will entail eliminating restrictions currently imposed by the federal government.”
As the White House continues to roll out details of its plans, it is important to remember, as Malcolm and Marshall put it, that “Not all problems can be solved with government action, and if government action is required, any federal action, including executive orders, should be consistent with our federal system of government, respect for state sovereignty, and the separation of powers.”
They also have this message for Members of Congress: “[E]motional appeals cannot be the sole basis for action. Policymakers should avoid a rush to judgment on prescriptions that violate first principles, that ignore the real root of these complex problems, or that disregard careful social science research.”
There is no simple solution to the problem of violence. And there is no immediate antidote to the anguish of those who lost loved ones in Newtown. We must make sure that in the days to come, we exercise sober judgment.
Read the report: “The Newtown Tragedy: Complex Causes Require Thoughtful Analysis and Responses” By John Malcolm and Jennifer A. Marshall
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