By Michael Arnone ’15
Like so many, I have found it difficult to justify the violence at Sandy Hook Elementary that has shaken the nation. There is no easy way to bring closure or provide explanation for such a heinous crime—and I believe that attempting to do so would be a fruitless effort. But while the grief that has been inflicted on Newtown, Connecticut is beyond words, it has also provided an opportunity for national change.
The United States is a gun country, and firearms are deeply ingrained in our national culture. Guns have been a part of our society since the earliest days of colonial America—as has gun-related violence. At the same time, a deeply-held belief that Americans are entitled to bear arms to defend themselves has evolved. A tension exists between the two: the right to bear arms versus the need to protect society from anarchy. Extensive arguments have been made on both sides, and the aftermath of the violence at Sandy Hook Elementary has been greatly colored by proponents of each. Such debate is necessary and appropriate—indeed it is critical in a representative democracy—but moral implications must also be considered, implications that transcend legal arguments.
The gun violence at Sandy Hook Elementary, while one of the deadliest such events in American history, is certainly not unique. In the last two decades alone, schools have been witness to horrific acts of violence—Columbine and Virginia Tech come to mind—tragic reminders of how devastating a gun can be in the hands of an unstable individual. Pundits and policy makers alike point to varying causes of such terrible events, ranging from the ease with which guns are available to under-funded social services for the mentally ill. And while the specifics will vary, most can agree that gun violence is an unfortunate quality that is inherent to our society—a society with competing visions of the role firearms should play. Determining how guns have become such a facet in American culture, however, is a task for the historians, but determining where we go from here is a task for the policymakers.
The “what now” question has particular gravity in light of the violence in Newtown, Connecticut. The rawness of this tragedy has forced Americans to re-examine the role firearms have in our society and it has reasserted gun control as a salient issue on the national agenda. Given the increasing regularity of public shootings, more stringent gun control legislation is certainly necessary. And while it is regrettable that the issue has only been reconsidered because of such a horrific act, it must not be thought of exclusively through the lens of that event. Gun violence has always been abhorrent, what is more disturbing, however, is the lack of meaningful legislative action to curtail such violence.
The issue then is not should we have more stringent gun control legislation, but at what point will acts of gun violence become so repugnant as to force reform? A law cannot change America’s long history with guns or alleviate mental illness—both will always have a place in our society—but a law has the power to prevent another Sandy Hook. And I would argue that the violent deaths of twenty children should be more than enough to spur action from our legislators and policymakers. Even the simplest of actions would go a long way toward curtailing gun violence, such as closing the “gun show loophole,” which allows 40 percent of legal firearms to be sold without a federal background check, or reinstating the ban on assault rifles like the Bushmaster AR-15 used on December 14th. These are not new ideas; however, many have been floated in the past, only to be scuttled by the gun lobby. The events at Sandy Hook, however, have reasserted the need for new gun control legislation over the concerns of groups like the NRA.
Despite the senseless nature of this tragedy, it offers a silver lining: its shock has the potential to compel real, lasting reform, rooted in the moral position that the deaths of twenty children cannot be in vain. In the wake of Sandy Hook, gun control becomes an issue transcendent of legal debate, elevated from partisan politics—it becomes a distinctly moral question of right and wrong sharpened by the victims’ youth. Now is the time to prevent the next tragedy, and as Washington is consumed by the fiscal cliff and other highly partisan debates, it is critical that energy be devoted to passing gun control legislation. Otherwise the tragedy at Sandy Hook, like so many acts of violence before it, may become the new normal—the dangerous new standard of how much violence we can accept