Emotion and Reason in the Gun Debate

You may have heard the story of Caroline Sparks, the 2-year-old Kentucky girl who was killed this week when her brother, all of 5 years old himself, took the rifle he got for his birthday and shot her in the chest. I suppose we should be thankful this kind of thing doesn't happen even more often; as a Kentucky state trooper told CNN, "In this part of the country, it's not uncommon for a 5-year-old to have a gun." I'm sure that when gun-rights advocates heard the story, they said, "Oh geez, here we go again." They'd have to deal yet again with people being upset when innocents get killed with guns. They'd have to explain that as tragic as Caroline's death is, it doesn't mean that we should change the law on background checks. After all, that 5-year-old boy got his gun from his parents, not at a gun show.

Whatever you think about gun advocates, could they be right on this point? Sure, it's a little rich coming from people who are constantly stoking fears of home invasions, fascist takeovers, and utter societal breakdown to justify our current lax gun laws. But do we get into trouble when our arguments about public policy are based on emotionally vivid but unrepresentative individual stories? Maybe.

Let's be clear about one thing: The horrifying story of Caroline Sparks' death tells us, if nothing else, that certain corners of gun culture in America are f-ing nuts. Anyone who has known a five-year-old understands that giving one of them a functioning firearm is utterly insane. Don't give me any line about instilling proper respect for guns in children; at an age when a child doesn't have the dexterity to tie his own shoes, and lacks the impulse control to conclude that putting Krazy Glue on his lips might not be such a great idea, he shouldn't be allowed within 20 feet of a gun, supervised or not. Stories like this one may not be common, but they aren't all that unusual either. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010, 62 American children aged 14 and under were killed by accidental discharge of firearms; 25 of those were under age 5. Two hundred and nineteen kids 14 and younger were intentionally murdered with guns, including 54 younger than 5. So Caroline Sparks wasn't the first, and she won't be the last.

Nevertheless, her story and others like it may not speak directly to whether we should have something like more comprehensive background checks. Gun rights supporters are fond of saying that expanded background checks wouldn't have stopped the Sandy Hook shooting, and strictly speaking that's true, since Adam Lanza got his guns from his mother, and since she wasn't an ex-felon, nothing in the law prevented her from amassing an arsenal of military-grade weaponry. Furthermore, the 26 people who were murdered in Newtown accounted for only about a quarter of one percent of all the Americans killed by guns last year. Preventing more mass shootings, and limiting the death toll in those that do occur, is a reasonable goal. But it's only a small part of our real gun problem.

Of course events like Sandy Hook aren't representative; that's why we pay so much attention to them. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a decision in a case about potentially dangerous speech that "eloquence may set fire to reason," by which he meant that people can get riled up for perfectly sound reasons. In the same way, if one shocking event rouses us from our stupor to have an actual debate, and perhaps some policy changes, on what no one can deny is a genuine problem, then what's the harm? It isn't as though in the heat of the moment some kind of crazy piece of legislation was rushed through Congress without anyone bothering to figure out what was in it, making sweeping changes to our laws with far-reaching implications, like the USA-PATRIOT Act. Sandy Hook spurred a debate, stretching over months now. Everyone has had ample time to make all the reason-based arguments they can come up with and critique those of the other side.

Gun advocates may be embarrassed when stories like that of Caroline Sparks come to light, but deaths like hers are the product of the culture they have worked so hard to create, where we put guns in as many places as possible and people are dumb enough to think that it's perfectly fine to give a rifle to a 5-year-old. Little kids shooting toddlers may not, in and of itself, say anything about whether we should do something like expand background checks. But that's because our current policy choices are so absurdly constrained. Those stories do help us understand the profound sickness coursing through our national bloodstream, where we've come to accept that an endless slaughter, with a couple of dozen Americans gunned down each and every day, is just the price of "freedom." And yes, that's worth getting emotional about.

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