During an interesting exchange on the twitters, I was tested by the New York Times’ Jesse Wegman to come up with a solution to the gun epidemic. His challenge began with a quasi-snarky twit:
@ScottGreenfield Okay. Since you’re the arbiter of common sense, what common sense measures do you propose (besides a gun in every pot)?
— Jesse Wegman (@jessewegman) June 14, 2016
After explaining that I was anything but the “arbiter of common sense,” a misapprehension of my view that “common sense” is what people (or newspapers) use to avoid the real labor of thinking, I went on to challenge the underlying premise of his question.
It’s not that we don’t want solutions, but learn that law never provides a perfect answer to all harms humans create.
We already have imperfect solutions. They’re called criminal laws.
During the course of our twitter engagement, others thrust themselves into the discussion, usually with simplistic and uninformative twits reflecting their pithy solutions. The battle line is clear to most people, either you hate guns or love guns, and any excuse will do if it serves your cause. That’s the nature of what passes for discussion these days, as the notion of principled support for constitutional rights is entirely unfulfilling to a society that demands answers.
The problem is that the use of the word “perfect,” albeit slightly hyperbolic, is also mostly true. Any crack in the system that allows someone, regardless of what motives or infirmities drive him, to kill 50 human beings, wound another 49, is unacceptable and must be closed. If it can still happen, then we have not yet found the right answer. But it is out there. It must be. There must be a solution.
If we were to repeal the Second Amendment tomorrow, there would still be someone who will commit an atrocity. And then there will be calls for yet another solution, because we do want a “perfect” solution. Nothing less will satisfy our desire for safety, plus identitarian concerns for whatever group may be targeted.
But my reply to Jesse’s very reasonable statement that he’s not seeking a perfect solution wasn’t meant to be snarky, even if it came off that way. Since Hammurabi, we have sought solutions to eliminate malum in se crime. While small minds will reel at the idea, murder for pedestrian reasons is just as horrible as murder for political reasons. Or crazy reasons. Or no reason. Many will disagree, because they’re so absorbed by the righteousness of politics, but the dead person is dead either way. His friends and family lost their loved one either way. There is no good murder.*
And since Hammurabi, society has devoted its resources to ending such harm. And has failed miserably to accomplish the dream. It’s not that the tools in place for centuries are necessarily poor choices, but that our species has demonstrated an ability to find ways to accomplish harm when it’s bent on doing so, no matter what impediments, theories, arguments, rationalizations we come up with.
So we try to find an answer, only to find that our answer doesn’t work to the extent that the harm we are trying to eliminate happens anyway. And when that happens, guys like Jesse pose snarky questions to guys like me to trick me into giving up my “common sense” solution. Because I’m the arbiter, you see.
We’re a nation with laws upon laws upon rules and regulations, plus some more laws, most of which is enacted with good intentions (or at least publicly sold that way). And yet, tragedies like Orlando happen. The latest push comes with a cool name, almost always a sign of problems ahead, closing the “terror gap,” with a simplistic suggestion that sounds infinitely reasonable to anyone who understands nothing about the law. And, as is its wont, the New York Times cranked out an editorial in favor.**
On Wednesday, Senate Democrats began a filibuster to force a vote on gun-control legislation. If Congress is serious about the threat of terrorists using guns, there are several steps it can take right away.
First, support reasonable efforts to close the so-called terror gap, which would make it harder for suspected terrorists to get their hands on a gun. In December, Congress considered legislation by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and Representative Peter King, a Republican, that would have given the F.B.I. the ability to prevent gun sales to people it had reason to believe might be connected to terrorism.
The King/Feinstein bill is a travesty, and only someone with eyes wide shut wouldn’t recognize that it was a dog and pony show of failure, much like the inane “no-buy” list. This is where Jesse’s “no one is claiming there is a perfect answer” retort is revealed as, well, not entirely accurate.
We are replete with imperfect answers, each one chipping away at rights that would otherwise deeply concern civil libertarians, except those who abandon all principle the moment it conflicts with their feelings. And because we’re up to our eyeballs in imperfect solutions, Jesse wants more solutions until we achieve whatever level of perfection will satisfy those who will demand more when the next tragedy occurs. They will never be satisfied, because there will always be a next tragedy.
It’s understandable the people of good will find it intolerable that tragedies like Orlando happened. They shouldn’t be faulted for wanting to do something to prevent it from ever happening again. Only a deeply twisted person would shrug off mass murder. But that doesn’t mean there will ever be a solution. And the efforts to impose one, at a time when emotions blind us to consequences on our civil rights and the collateral tragedies, such as police killings, are an ineffective paean to blind empathy at the expense of freedom and reason.
We already have imperfect solutions. There will never be a perfect solution. At least not through the bludgeon of law. That so many refuse to tolerate this, to accept the frailties of humanity and the limits of law, will not change this, but merely compel us to keep trying until there is no liberty left.
*For the thinking challenged, note the use of the word “murder,” which distinguishes it from the more benign word, “killing.” Murder is unjustifiable, so don’t conflate it with justifiable killing.
**The editorial is a putative attack on the NRA, as the force that prevents America from “reasonable gun control.” The NRA is a liberal stalking horse, and the editorial attacks a strawman organization because it’s already despised by those favoring gun control. Addressing civil rights having nothing to do with NRA is far harder, and raises much of the hypocrisy inherent in the conflict. The NRA is low-hanging fruit, so the Times chows down.