What should we take from Newtown? We can fail to understand. We can mourn. We can sit in our homes, huddling in fear. We can call for reforms in our gun laws, in our mental health system, in the video game industry. We can turn our schools into fortresses. We can make sure that every teacher is packing. We can lift all gun bans. We can ban all guns.
But we can’t bring those children back from the dead. Now we must decide what changes will be implemented to prevent something like this from happening again.
I have seen a vast outpouring of grief over the past month. Our collective empathy has proven to be powerful. We wept for children that we never knew, because we can imagine with painful clarity losing those that we do. We busied ourselves raising money, knitting stuffed animals, or posting on Facebook.
But in time it will fade. All tragedies do. It will fade from our collective consciousness and lose its sense of urgency—as have all other shootings, terrible accidents, and weather-related disasters. Though we are capable of great empathy, we are only capable of so much and for so long. Of the slew of possible reforms and legislation that have been proposed, how many will still be on the table a year from now?
If we want to create policy in the light of tragedies such as Newtown, we must find a way to continue our emotional involvement with them for a long time after they happen so that policy changes are not dropped, conduct a less emotion-based analysis to determine what changes would be most effective, and ensure that we include changes that will not be restricted to the specificities of the particular incidents. Such a measured approach would allow us to take advantage of the motivation for change that comes after tragedy, but not let our emotions drive us to make hasty or thoughtless decisions. After all, such incidents do not tell us much that we do not know, but instead provide an emotional impetus for action. The Newtown shooting has exposed potential weaknesses in the safety of our schools, our mental health system, and of course, our approach towards guns. However, that these weaknesses exist should have been a surprise to no one given our current discussion of healthcare and the mass shootings that happened earlier in the year.
Though specific incidences can often spark great change, the kinds of changes that are implicated by the Newtown shooting are changes that can neither be made quickly nor easily. This is one of the problems with policy-making in response to periods of national emotion. Policy changes may never materialize, or they may address only very specific aspects of the current crisis—for example, measures that will only address schools and not gun violence in general.
There is a further problem with making policy in response to high-profile incidents: Though these crises are flashy, they may not lead to the most effective policy. From a utilitarian perspective, the policies that are implemented in the wake of tragedy may provide emotional catharsis, which is certainly important, but will not necessarily save the most lives. Newtown has brought up much concern about mass killings, but victims of mass killings only represent one percent of homicide victims in the United States. If we want to prevent homicides, then focusing on preventing mass shootings will only be widely helpful if it prevents homicides or gun violence more generally.
We could also say that we want to save as many children’s lives as possible. In the 5 to 14-year-old age category, both car accidents and cancer cause several times more deaths than do firearms. If we want to protect our children, we should probably be more worried about seemingly mundane laws pertaining to traffic safety than about guns.
This is not to say that gun policy is not important and that we should not seek to prevent mass killings. It is likely that addressing the roots of the Newtown incident will also help us to solve larger societal problems. However, we must seek to keep our empathy for the victims and their families while placing the incident in a larger context.
Emotional reactions to the tragedy can provide a motivation for change, but we must let that change touch wider issues and continue after our newspapers have moved on to the next story.
Maya Fraser is a third-year in the College majoring in sociology.