When we talk about public safety in America, we talk about a great variety of things. That’s part of why we can’t seem to get public safety right – we are still talking about things instead of talking about people. The human cost of public safety lapses is very painful and very real. These horrific crimes are carried out by human beings against other human beings, and yet we pretend like regulating things is going to solve this problem.
This notion of regulating objects instead of people is a public policy mistake we have made before. That’s why a would-be mass murderer an get on a plane, but your shampoo bottle can’t. Have a felony conviction or two? Come on through the metal detector. Have a water bottle in your backpack? A security agent will be ready to throw it out faster than you can say “Dasani.”
Even in the Benghazi scandal – another tragic failure to keep Americans safe – fed into this government narrative that somehow things (not people) are to blame for violence. The State Department (people) heard an Ambassador (a person) ask for additional security (like security guards, who are also people), and they (again, people) ignored him (a person who is now deceased as a result of this safety failure). This whole mess happens and then, rather than admit that people in our government made a huge error in judgement, or admit that people in Libya rioted unprovoked – they go on a Sunday talk show tour and repeatedly blame a YouTube video. We know now that the YouTube video had nothing to do with Benghazi and was just a convenient scapegoat. When are we going to wake up to the fact that objects are NOT the problem?
Obama’s speeches and policy objectives fall into this object fallacy in a big way. His speech blamed assault weapons, magazines of over 10 rounds, locks, safes, and video games as reasons why we have gun violence in this country. Criminals don’t care if a weapon is illegal. They will find a way to get around a background check. (Maybe they don’t have anything that would show up on a background check…yet. If only we could do foreground checks instead!) For premeditated mass shootings, they will premeditate how to get higher capacity magazines. And as for locks and safes – there’s no way to enforce it without barging into the homes of gun owners just to babysit their guns.
Firearms may be the means by which violence is sometimes carried out, but they’re not the reason that violence happens. Nobody goes on a murderous rampage just because the opportunity is there. Criminals go on killing sprees because they are sick souls poisoned by irrational hatred. It’s much harder to spot one of those than it is to count how much ammo fits in a magazine. It’s tempting to take the easy way out – but it’s also dangerously ineffective.
When Obama does mention humans, his advice was largely reactionary. He advised both emergency response plans and the prosecution of gun crimes. He has asked for research into what causes gun crimes, and for the government to trace guns that are recovered in criminal investigations. (These are four of the Executive Actions he signed following the press conference.) Not bad ideas, quite frankly – but the problem is that they’re ideas for what to do after a gun crime has occurred. That’s not leadership – that’s a scramble to figure out what keeps going wrong, instead of stopping things from going wrong in the first place.
Seven of Obama’s twenty-three Executive Actions have to do with health care. We need better mental health care in this country – I don’t dispute that at all. But the methods Obama signed off on may actually discourage people from seeking treatment. A person may be less likely to go to a doctor if they know that the doctor is encouraged to report any violent tendencies to the government (that’s Executive Action #17). But even if the mentally ill person makes it into a doctor’s office AND is honest about violent tendencies, there’s no mechanism in place to make sure that the doctor reports his or her findings. And even if the mentally ill person gets to a doctor, AND expresses violent tendencies, AND the doctor reports it, AND the government decides that the individual is enough of a threat that he requires a response – exactly what do we think the government is going to do about it? Show up at people’s homes and take their guns when the person in question has yet to do anything wrong? I see huge potential here for this to violate constitutional rights, and minimal potential to effectively stop would-be murderers.
None of this is to say that a solution to public safety crises is impossible. It’s not impossible – free human beings can coexist peacefully in large numbers. (That’s an assumption that America was founded on. Let’s not give up on it now, please and thank you.) The solution here is not likely to come through government. It has to come through families who look out for their own, and get an individual help LONG before his mental illness devolves into homicidal thinking (let alone homicidal action). It has to come through communities that engage ALL of their members in some way. It will come through friends and neighbors who are willing to say something, either to the person’s family or to a trusted community member, when they see someone who seems mentally ill. It has to come through gun owners who take full responsibility – and make it a priority – to keep their firearms stored as safely as possible. None of this is impossible – in fact, these suggestions are things we can all implement starting tomorrow, no waiting on Executive Actions or Congress or government agencies. This is a very human problem with a very human solution.
Angela Morabito | Georgetown University | @_AngelaMorabito