It’s been three days since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., and America is still in a daze.
We see it everywhere. At coffee shops, people sit at tables, talking uncomfortably, stifling tears. At malls, shoppers meander while the Christmas music drifting from the speakers sounds flippant, even mocking. At Sunday mass, burly men dab their eyes during the homily.
We’ve endured a string of shootings lately, from the movie theater in Aurora to the mall in Clackamas. But this one hit harder, bringing a collective grief and loss that hasn’t been felt in America since 9/11. News anchors keep telling us that Newtown is the second worst school shooting in our history, after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. But really, it’s the worst. Most of those killed were children, six- and seven-year-olds, shot three to 11 times with a semiautomatic rifle. The scene was the most disturbing that Connecticut’s veteran medical examiner had ever seen.
After a tragedy like this, once the dead have been mourned, everyone starts searching for answers. What we really want is an answer -- a culprit, a policy, a single bogeyman that can be slain with an easy solution to make sure This Never Happens Again. Some commentators skipped the mourning part altogether and jumped right to the blame game. Mere hours after police headed to Newtown, ghoulish ambulance-chasers at MSNBC were wondering if Democrats would accrue “political capital” from the shooting.
Opportunists aside, the desire to take action after a tragedy is human and natural. But what exactly can we do?
Some have suggested blaming the video games. Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, was reportedly a gamer who would attend Local Area Network (LAN) parties to compete against his friends. That means he likely played first-person shooter games, which position the player’s view behind a gun as he blows through enemies with abandon. These games are available to any child with a parent willing to blithely ignore the Mature Audiences rating. And with technology evolving, video game violence has grown more gruesome than ever. (Big NFSW warning if you click those links.)
It’s easy to see how games could have caused Adam Lanza to dehumanize the children at Sandy Hook Elementary. But surprisingly the bulk of research shows that video game violence doesn’t correlate with actual aggression. A recent study did find it alters brain activity in young men and another concluded that it desensitizes players to images of violence. But the sort of conclusive link that would justify government action just isn’t there. In fact, gun violence has actually decreased as exposure to video games has increased.
Other observers say it’s time to do something about mental health. But that “something” is still rife with question marks. Connecticut already increased its mental health budget by about 6% between 2009 and 2012, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And spending is the easy part; identifying future killers and getting them off the streets is much harder, and often raises concerns among civil libertarians. The ACLU, for example, complained and ultimately killed a proposed “Assisted Outpatient Treatment” (AOT) law, which would have allowed for Nutmeg State's mentally ill to be forcibly treated. Connecticut is currently one of six states without AOT.
But even with such a law, would Adam Lanza really have set off any alarms? He was a loner, a social drifter who experienced periods of extreme disconnection from the world. But he was also an honors student who was later homeschooled and started college early. Other than maybe his mother, it’s hard to imagine anyone flagging him as a certifiable threat.
Finally there’s the alleged silver bullet of post-shooting panaceas: gun control. Wasting no time, congressional Democrats are preparing to reintroduce a ban on so-called assault weapons at the start of next year’s legislative session. But according to the Brady Campaign on Gun Violence, Connecticut has the fifth tightest firearm regulations in the nation and “strong gun laws that help combat the illegal gun market, prevent the sale of most guns without background checks and reduce risks to children.” Assault weapons are already illegal in Connecticut, as are many semiautomatics.
That being said, we conservatives must acknowledge something: Adam Lanza was able to kill so efficiently because he was armed with a killing machine. The Bushmaster rifle could fire up to six bullets per second. It allowed him to blast his way into the school.
Driving the point home, a thug stabbed 23 people with a knife outside a primary school in China on the same day as the Newtown shooting. Not one was killed.
I’m not arguing for more gun laws. I don’t know what the solution is. Guns are interwoven into our society, used for both good and evil. (The Clackamas mall shooter was confronted by a man with a concealed weapon.) But Adam Lanza had the ability to kill 26 people because he had a semi-automatic weapon. The debate over guns in America will proceed from that stone-cold fact.
Automobiles kill more people in America than guns. Alcohol kills more people worldwide than violence. Should we demand more regulations on our cars and booze? Or should we blame the drivers and drinkers? What’s the proper balance between security and safety? How much privacy are we willing to sacrifice? These are the debates that we’ll have in the coming weeks.
But what about the all-encompassing culprit and all-encompassing remedy we all want to find? Video games, mental health, and guns are too complex to blame. So then what?
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy identified it on Friday. “Evil visited this community today,” he said at a press conference in Newtown. And evil it was. The sort of evil that can produce an Adam Lanza doesn’t spring from lax gun laws or violent video games. Its roots run deep into our culture. And it’s indelible; anyone who suggests they can end evil is a dangerous fool.
Newtown is being called a “close-knit community” and a “small New England town” where “nothing ever happens.” These are all clichés that get tossed around after tragedies. But as someone who grew up just outside Hartford, I can assure you they’re completely true. Outside of its cities and casinos, Connecticut is a bucolic state lorded over by old Congregationalist church steeples, out of reach of the blinding glare of New York and the mad politics of Boston. There’s a reason so many horror movies and novels are set in New England villages. The juxtaposition of tranquility and evil is irresistible.
But evil really did visit Newtown on Friday. And its presence raises questions bigger than gun control; questions of God, morality, cultural decay. These aren’t political matters and Washington can’t fix them.
Maybe we’ll acknowledge those questions, labor to answer them, and bring about real change in the wake of Newtown. Or maybe we’ll pass a few obligatory laws, pat ourselves on the back, and declare mission accomplished.
But whatever happens, it must wait. Right now, the daze remains.