Last week, I wrote about my own experience as a student in a school experiencing a shooting. In that piece, I opined that asking children to direct us in any sort of policy debate – particularly one which has the potential to infringe significantly upon a fundamental civil right – is probably unwise. One of my commenters (thank you for reading, as always) took some issue, saying, “The damn adults who should have been working for decades to find ways to protect these kids have FAILED. It heartening to see these brave young adults take it upon themselves to actually try to DO something.”
Two questions are key here – first, is it even true that adults have “done nothing,” or that our children are increasingly less safe in our schools? Second, what does “something” mean? “Something” is not a strategy or a plan. There is always room for improvement in public safety matters, but all sorts of really, really horrific things have historically been done by various governments in the name of public safety or national security. “Something” is not always better than nothing.
Framing the debate
Understanding what we’re even arguing about is critical. Like most of the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment does not grant a right, but rather protects an “unalienable” one we already have. The right is not just to possess a gun for the sake of it, but rather to defend ourselves, both as individuals and as a population. Self-defense is so fundamental to our liberty that even if you kill someone, you are actually presumed to have been acting lawfully – the government has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you weren’t defending yourself. Because this right is illusory without the means to effectuate it in a world where bad guys have weapons, the right to defend ourselves includes the right to be armed.
Indeed, such incidents of armed self-defense happen hundreds of thousands of times in this country every year. And among the lessons of Parkland is that armed government agents can’t always be relied on to be there when you need them.
Fundamental rights can in some cases be limited – the First Amendment doesn’t protect you if your “speech” involves defrauding investors by lying to them, for example, and I prosecute people for unlawful possession of firearms all the time. But I would no more give up my guns wholesale than I would enforce a law banning criticism of the president, or one mandating racial segregation. Politicians willing to carelessly disregard one right will certainly do so with others in short order. And as a practical matter, the science doesn’t back up any actual gain in public safety as a result of most proposed infringements on the right to keep and bear arms.
We as a nation have always recognized that protecting those rights – while the right thing to do – can be risky. We let Nazis and Communists advocate for their respective tyrannies, even when violence and even murder result in the ensuing clashes. We let violent criminals go free if their various due process rights are violated – or we don’t catch them at all when law enforcement takes care to respect their boundaries. After 9/11, where men without guns murdered 2,977 people and wounded 6,000 more in a single day (vastly more than have been killed in school shootings in the last several decades), millions of people nevertheless denounced the USA PATRIOT Act and other measures taken in an attempt to prevent another, similar attack.
The gun debate is just another extension of our centuries-old American philosophical struggle to balance public safety with protecting individual liberty, civil rights and even convenience (think how dangerous cars are). But to find this balance as best as we can, we have to be able to accurately weigh various factors on either side of those scales.
We’re safer than ever, and so are our schools – we just refuse to admit it
I keep seeing people on both sides referring to school shootings as an increasing phenomenon. My friends on the right love to proudly grouse, “We didn’t have all these shootings back in my day, when we went to school with Jesus.” On the left, we hear deliberately and grossly misleading statistics like “18 school shootings this year alone!!!” from political activist groups like Everytown USA who don’t let little things like integrity get in the way of emotionally manipulating voters.
But school violence isn’t new. It happened at my school a generation ago in a state very at ease with Jesus. The deadliest attack on a school in American history happened in 1927, where 44 people, mostly children, were killed by an electrician who wired the school he helped to build with explosives. The Laura Ingalls Wilder novel Farmer Boy contains a storyline about older boys physically attacking the teacher so school would shut down for the year, a plot point based on a real incident at a school Wilder herself attended when her family briefly lived in Iowa.
Accurate statistics are hard to pin down, because of varied definitions of terms and equally varied agendas. But when amalgamated, the data shows that school shootings are down significantly since the early 1990s, and correlated far more with economic distress than other social factors or rates of gun ownership.
These downward trends mirror broader national numbers. Since the early 1990s, violent crime has essentially been cut in half in the US, even as gun ownership rates have increased. If you look at our entire history, the murder rate has trended sharply downward since 1700. State-by-state, murder rates simply don’t correlate with regional politics or rates of gun ownership – look at D.C. versus Idaho, or Alaska versus Vermont.
In short, adults have been “doing something.” And it’s been working.
But it feels like it’s getting worse!
So why do we stubbornly continue to believe crime and violence is increasing, when the facts tell us the opposite?
Part of it, I think, is our political tribalism. We like to blame our social ills on the “other side,” fairly or not, and if we don’t have enough social ills to blame people for we’ll make ‘em up. Certain political activists have no problem stoking and exaggerating those feelings for their own monetary and electoral gain. Exhibit A is the aforementioned Everytown USA’s lie about “18 school shootings.” Any activist group willing to lie to you about the scope of a problem is without a doubt not telling you the truth about the scope or full intent of their “solutions,” either.
Another part of it is our increasingly connected world, where an incident across the country is in our face, and feels so local. There is a limit to how much any one person can absorb tragedy and human misery. Believe me – I deal with dozens of criminal cases in any given week, and just one deputy DA’s caseload in one small county is often emotionally overwhelming. In a sense, social media is giving us all a bad case of compassion fatigue.
The good news is this: The vast majority of those on the right, including NRA members and Second Amendment-friendly politicians, are not indifferent to suffering children because they want to line their pockets. And the vast majority of gun control advocates do not secretly cheer every time there’s a school shooting, because now they can hustle a few more fundraising dollars or smugly signal their virtue. (There are a few on either side – don’t be one of them. Memes are not arguments, people.) I believe that we generally assume other people act the way we ourselves would in their place, and so if you believe either of these loony conspiracy theories, it says far more about you than it does about your political adversaries.
So your answer is that everything’s OK, and we shouldn’t do anything?
Not at all. Every crime or every tragedy should invite reflection and review – what can we do better to prevent similar incidents in the future? The truth is that almost all of us want the same thing – an increasingly safe and free society, and to find the right balance between safety and liberty. Violent crime is as old as the first sons of Adam (literally or figuratively), and we will never eliminate it completely – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway. Each incident should teach us more about how to mitigate or prevent our societal ills, rather than give us an excuse to retreat behind our ideological Facebook memes about how stupid or evil our political opponents are.
So with a perhaps more accurate understanding of the scope of school violence and the balancing act necessary to further limit it, let’s look at the pros and cons of some proposed solutions next week.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]