A newly reelected President Obama won applause in November for his assertion that “we are not as divided as our politics suggest,” that “we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.” Though he may have been technically — literally, as Joe Biden would say — correct, his sentiment was also wrongheaded and naive. Liberals and conservatives may live in the same country, but they inhabit different realities — or at least they view the same reality through very different lenses. To a liberal, the woman at the grocery checkout using food stamps to purchase baby food is a struggling single mother; to a conservative, she’s a welfare queen mooching off the 47 percent to support her irresponsible, unmarried lifestyle. To a liberal, a multi-million dollar paycheck for a CEO is a gross sign of income inequality; to a conservative, it’s a reward for hard work and moral rectitude. Nowhere, however, is this divergence on starker display than in the reaction to the Newtown shooting and the predictably unchanging, talking-past-each-other nature of the debate on gun control. We all saw the same footage of crying children, stricken parents and angel-adorned memorials. But people of opposite political persuasions came away with very, very different lessons.
Much has been made of the fact that, hours before Adam Lanza rampaged through a Connecticut school, a similarly deranged young man in China attacked an elementary school. The difference? The Chinese attacker was armed only with a kitchen knife, and managed to injure — not kill — 24 people. A similar number of potential victims, yet in China, no one died. Strict gun control laws mean that, “basically, unless you are a well-organized criminal gang, you normally do not have access to guns and modern weapons.” As Voice of America reports:
It was the latest in a series of violent attacks on students in China that has led to soul-searching and increased security outside educational institutions. But nearly all of the incidents involved less deadly weapons such as knives, meat cleavers, or hammers, and there has been nothing that approaches the scale of Friday’s tragedy in the U.S.
The contrast between these two tragedies prompted commentary from both the left and the right that spotlighted the degree to which we are simply talking past one another. Like abortion, gun control is an issue on which we will never agree because from the same reality — an unwanted fetus, a string of deaths — we draw completely divergent lessons.
The differences between the conservative and liberal reactions is on sharp display in two opinion pieces. The first is from a liberal writer at Slate:
The day of the Newtown massacre, another lunatic attacked a group of helpless school children, in the Henan province of China. There, because the assailant wielded a knife and not a gun, the result was 23 children and an adult with nasty injuries, but no deaths. This follows an established pattern. China, like the United States, has experienced a spate of mentally disturbed men attacking school children. But without easy access to guns, Chinese maniacs seldom succeed in killing many.
James Fallows says much the same thing at The Atlantic:
Twenty-two children injured. Versus, at current count, 18 20 little children and nine eight other people shot dead. That’s the difference between a knife and a gun.Guns don’t attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again — and again and again.
Now the second example, this one from mental health advocates E. Fuller Torrey and Doris A. Fuller, writing for the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page:
But better gun control will do little to prevent many mass killings, such as occurred last week in Newtown, Conn. Even if you ban guns completely, there are many alternative weapons available for use by untreated severely mentally ill persons who are so inclined.
Knives, for example. On the same day Adam Lanza killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Min Yingjun stabbed 22 children at an elementary school in central China. Similar assaults using knives killed about 20 and wounded more than 50 children in China last year. Almost all the attacks were carried out by severely mentally ill men. So maybe we should ban knives.
The liberal takeaway is that, though crazy people obviously exist the world over, we can take steps to ameliorate the threat to society from such craziness. Public policy, specifically the availability of firearms, can change outcomes. Of course we’ll never end violence — even the Brady Campaign doesn’t present gun control as a panacea — but we can prevent it from being so hideous.
Conservatives look at same event and, with considerably shakier logic, see crazies all over and just throw up their hands, concluding that there is nothing to be done. Perhaps this is unsurprising: It is the natural extension of the belief that government policy is not only fundamentally ineffective but dangerous to market-based freedom of choice. (Freedom, in this case, being the freedom to wield a gun.) As political scientist John Sides writes in one of his blunter blog posts (it’s not the sort of thing he says in, oh, a Times interview), “if you think that people are poor or people commit mass atrocities because of who they are as individuals—lazy, crazy, etc.—then there is less reason to want or expect the government to do something about it.”
To prove their point that the government shouldn’t “do something about it,” Torrey and Fuller stretch logic and common sense to their limits. In a reductio ad absurdum, they equate knives with guns and conclude that, because a killer will always be able to get his hands on a letter opener or a potato peeler, there is no reason to ban 30-round magazines. Like most conservatives, they look at the carnage in Newtown and do little more than shrug. They talk about increasing access to mental health care but brook no chatter about decreasing access to guns. The thought process seems to go: Well, that proved you’ll never get rid of nutcases, so no use bothering to try to ameliorate the dangers.
Strangely, though conservatives like to point out that the world has no shortage of violent psychopaths, they often fail to mention that other countries’ violent psychopaths are rarely able to do as much damage as can be inflicted by an American with an assault rifle. In a Washington Post column, Fareed Zakaria weighs in on the red herring of the focus on mental health, writing that the U.S. gun homicide rate is 12 times that of other developed countries, and a full 30 times that of France and Australia. “So what explains this difference?” he asks. “If psychology is the main cause, we should have 12 times as many psychologically disturbed people.” Harold Meyerson, also in the Post, makes the case in harsher language:
I’ve never heard even the staunchest gun advocate make the case that Americans are inherently more homicidal than everyone else. They repeat ad nauseum that people, not guns, kill people; but they don’t argue that there’s something about Americans that make them kill more than their counterparts in other nations.
Homing in on the same discrepancy in homicide rates that Zakaria cites, Meyerson continues caustically:
Want to argue that we have 32 times the rate of dangerous mental illness that they have in Australia? That Americans are characterologically 16 times more murderous than Spaniards or Germans? I thought not. But in America, people who snap are a hell of a lot more likely to have a gun close by.
Rare is the conservative who writes, as Ross Douhat does in an uncharacteristic display of reason and relative compassion, “It’s possible that thanks we’ll end up with a set of reasonable new rules and restrictions that actually do something, at the margins, to keep the deadliest weapons out of the hands of the most troubled of our fellow citizens.” Emphasizing the deadliness of guns does not win many friends on Fox News, where the talking heads, like the WSJ writers, deliberately and obtusely refuse to differentiate between knives and guns. The Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, explained his willingness to consider arming classroom teachers with the pat assertion that, “People that choose to commit crimes are going to find the means in some way.”
Please. Just as a bazooka is not a BB gun and a Ferrari is not a moped, a Bushmaster AR-15 is not a Cutco sample. It’s not that conservatives don’t recognize that being stabbed is a lot better than killed; rather, they prefer willful blindness to addressing the role that the availability of weapons plays in the number of casualties. Would Torrey and Fuller rather have their kid in the hospital or morgue? Their rhetoric seems to say that it’s all the same; the dangers equal, as if we shouldn’t prohibit people from bringing C4 on a plane because, hey, they’ll just attack with Tweezers or forks. (Responding to this very argument, Nicholas Kristof retorts that, obviously, the difference is lethality: “That’s why the military doesn’t arm our troops with forks.”) Ignoring the magnitude of a threat is ludicrous, tantamount to concluding — as no conservative would ever do — that we may as well give Iran a nuclear weapon because it can already throw rocks at Israel. It’s a bizarre, pernicious sort of logic, because it leads to the conclusion that there is nothing to be done. Conservative pundit Ben Domenech typifies the despairing, it’s-the-way-of-the-world style of many right-wingers:
In the real world, there is no law that can make the murderously insane sane, or remove all weapons from their grasp. The tweaks that have been attempted in the past in our nation and others have proven insufficient time and again. And no step which disarms the law-abiding will help.
No, of course you can’t “remove all weapons.” But you can remove the ones that fire up to six bullets per second. You can remove the ones that allow one man to kill 26 people in less than 10 minutes — a feat that is much, much harder to accomplish with a knife. And, contra Domenech, you can devise “tweaks” that substantially reduce violence. In 1996, following a mass shooting that left 35 people dead, Australia banned nearly all semi-automatic rifles and shotguns and instituted a massive buyback program. There has not been a single fatal mass shooting in the country since. By contrast, of the 25 deadliest mass shootings of the past fifty years, 15 took place in the U.S. No other country, as Molly Redden notes at The New Republic, lays claim to more than two.
Yet the best conservatives can come up with are sarcastic zingers about banning knives, cars, or other potentially dangerous everyday objects. How mature. And, for the 26 victims and their families in Newtown, how sad.