Why California’s Shooting Won’t Add Anything to the Gun Control Debate

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It is both callous and dehuminizing to say that the latest shooting at Santa Barbara City College was in no way unique. Each human life lost was unique, and as such, their deaths were noteworthy and terrible in a singularly audible way, each ringing out painful notes to families and friends. So I won’t say the shooting was yet another toneless and repetitious series of deaths across a nation with far more gun caused deaths than most other western nations. Instead, I will say that in terms of legislative fodder, gun control rhetoric, and inevitable pro-gun backlash, the shooting is highly likely to lead to yet more toneless, repetitious, and ultimately ineffective arguments — on both sides.

What ultimately has been deciding much of the policies on guns in the U.S. has been a mix of voters preferences, politicians responses to their electorate’s preferences, and the disproportionate power dynamic between the NRA/Second Amendment gun rights interests and their opponents. The biggest name — and wallet — in gun control efforts lately has been Michael Bloomberg, with a $50 million contribution to the effort. His purported goal at becoming the NRA antithesis quickly raised skeptical eyebrows, even amongst pro-gun control viewpoints. The NRA is a long standing and deeply rooted organization with an incredible funding and support base, not the easiest adversary to measure up to.

When it comes to gun control, there’s a predictable pattern the United States appears to follow in the case of each successive shooting gaining national attention. I phrase it that way because there are many, many shootings that garner considerably less attention; they are worthy of note, but receive little discussion apart from U.S. statistics. The cycle begins with an event — such as Sandy Hook, or this latest Santa Barbara shooting — then followed by a fear of guns, demands for control, then fear from Second Amendment proponents of a loss of rights, and eventually a legislative push back against any anti-gun policies.

What results is predictable. As The Washington Post’s Danny Franklin — adviser to the White House — pointed out quite recently, since Sandy Hook, most gun laws that have passed through state legislatures have actually reduced gun control. Eventually concern over restrictive measures lead to preventative stances that defy logic; for example, anger at gun retailers who would sell smart guns. Some NRA supporters are also smart gun supporters, but concerns that smart guns might become the rule rather than an option has led to extremes on the far side rather than down the middle. So while reactions like the one shown below from BBC World News stemming from a victim’s father are understandable, the deeply felt sentiment doesn’t translate to effective legislation and policy.

The only useful conversation that is likely to come out of this tragedy — judging from the success of previous conversations sparked by heartbreak — is a conversation on mental health. The suspected shooter of three and killer of three with a knife has been identified as Elliot Rodgers, a 22-year-old. He released a video prior to the spree, viewable on YouTube — but with content that may be disturbing to some — which has led to increased discussion of mental illness awareness and treatment options.

Gun control pressures may be an ineffective strategy, likely to see the same arguments play out with gun control advocates thinking that with this latest proof of the destructive power of guns, maybe this time it will work. Well, maybe it will, but probably not. So how best can we deal with such a highly polarized issue? Psychology and experience both tell us two sides to an issue are far more likely to be pushed to extremes rather than middle ground given enough argument.

A more narrow focus on mental illness and gun control in conjunction could perhaps siphon off some of the other concerns and second amendment rights protections. “We’ve got to look at how we define mental illness, who is denied weapons and who is not, and focus the discussion,” suggested Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) to The Washington Post. He’s not the only one making that suggestion, either.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) spoke on CNN’s Face the Nation, suggesting that a bill that failed to make it through Congress last year could be “reconfigur[ed]” with a greater focus on mental health. “We need mental health resources and that initiative, I hope, will provide a common ground, a point of consensus that will bring us together in the Congress and enable the majority,” said Blumenthal. Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) said that this is a solution he could support. “I think that’s something on which there is agreement and that’s where we ought to be focusing our efforts,” said Thune. Narrowing the focus and approaching gun control from a solely mental health specific angle could well be an equation that works, or is at least worth a try.

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