My thoughts on the Newtown events and public policy discourse

The events in Newtown, CT last week were horrible. As a father of a daughter who will be in elementary school in a few more years, it struck particularly close to home.

As can be expected, these events began a conversation in the media about gun laws in the United States. As is often the case, I have been frustrated by the simplicity of the arguments and the “black and white,” “all or nothing” portrayal of the policy options that have been discussed. 

I regularly teach my students that politics is very rarely “black and white” but rather that it involves numerous trade-offs between competing desirable values. In this case, gun control laws primarily involve a value trade-off between freedom/liberty and safety/security. I think all would agree that freedom is a good thing and that safety is also a good thing. But in the real, messy world we live in, we are often forced to privilege one at the expense of the other. We can choose to increase freedom and accept less security or we can choose to increase security and accept less freedom.

Empirical evidence strongly suggests that less freedom (i.e. stricter gun control laws) is indeed associated with greater security (i.e. fewer gun-related deaths):

Again, the bottom-line value trade-off involved in this issue is: where along the freedom <–> security spectrum would we prefer our public policy to be?

Yesterday, President Obama hinted at his preferences on this question when he said:

“Surely we can do better than this. … We can’t accept events like this as routine. … Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children, year after year after year, is somehow the price of our freedom?”

Going forward, I hope that our national discussion on this issue focuses on empirical evidence and the appropriate recognition of the legitimacy of differing views on the relevant value trade-offs involved. I also hope that we recognize that this conversation should rightly be focused on our gun laws, but that it should also include a discussion of the related effects of poverty, poor education, and mental health policy. 

I especially hope that we avoid the temptation to demonize those who disagree with us on the issue, and try to show respect for one another’s preferences. To earn that respect from others, however, it demands that each of us avoid the temptation to resort to “bumper sticker” political discourse as we discuss the matters involved. Our society, communities, and children deserve better.

One response to “My thoughts on the Newtown events and public policy discourse

  1. Agreed. I think we should further be mindful of the distribution of risk and feelings about it. Right now non-gun-owners are in a tizzy because they rightly see themselves as accruing the risks of guns without enjoying any of their rewards. Gun owners, in contrast, legitimately accept the risks of guns but also enjoy the rewards of a heightened sense of power, security, and liberty. So not only is the value calculus asymmetric but so is the cost/benefit calculus and its associated feelings.

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