After a tragedy—particularly a preventable one—we often collectively demand that the government “do something.” It’s a natural response. Most people don’t want bad things to happen, and most people want the people in positions of authority to take reasonable steps to prevent them.
Sometimes you will find me bellowing right along with the “do something” crowd. After every debacle at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, “Metro”), especially those that result in deaths or injuries, you’ll find me questioning why the local, state, and federal authorities with oversight responsibility for the agency didn’t do anything to prevent it. But, in these cases, the authorities in question could have done something, should have done something, and had the legal authority to do something. That is not always the case. And furthermore, the “something” I wanted them to do was something that made sense . . . you know, like checking the ventilation systems or complying with decades-old recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). “Something” must be defined.
Other times, the drive to “do something” can be counterproductive or inappropriate. Consider, for example, what happened when we demanded that our federal legislators “do something” about the methamphetamine (meth) epidemic. There was, and there still is, a real problem. Cooking meth is dangerous, and people who produce it in their garages and basements have an unfortunate habit of blowing up their houses. And of course, the abuse of meth itself has significant costs to the individual abusers, their families, and our society. And there are things that our local and state governments can do to combat the problem. This is not a federal issue.
For the sake of discussion, let’s put aside the federalism concerns and imagine that the federal government has a legitimate authority over drug policy. We told our congressmen to “do something,” and they did. They crafted and passed a bill called the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005. As a result, though the problem of meth abuse has been mostly unaffected, you now have to show identification and be placed on a government list if you want to buy cold and allergy medicines that include pseudoephedrine decongestants, and you are only allowed to buy an amount limited by law. Why? Because pseudoephedrine can be used to make meth. Now, every cold and allergy sufferer is presumed to be a meth cooker.
Good going, Congress. We told you to “do something” to respond to the meth abuse crisis, and you did! The problem is that you did something stupid, unconstitutional, and harmful.
Similarly, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we demanded that our government “do something” about airport security. So they nationalized the private security industry and created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which promptly began to impose idiotic security theater at every airport in America. If you like taking off your shoes for no reason, removing your laptops from your bags for no reason, trashing your water bottles for no reason, and having nude photos taken through your clothes for no reason, you can thank the United States Congress. We said they should “do something.” They did.
My point is that we need to temper our instinctive demand that our legislators “do something” whenever there is a tragedy. We should use our brains. Sometimes it makes sense for them to “do something,” and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they have the authority and responsibility to “do something,” and sometimes they don’t. Some problems cannot be solved by government policy. Some other problems could be solved by policy changes, but only at too great a cost to the innocent. For example, we could completely eliminate murder, assault, rape, and torture if we put every person in the world in solitary confinement. Would the cost be worth it? Of course not.
And so it is when it comes to the debate about firearms. After every tragedy that a madman commits with a gun, we face calls for eliminating or significantly restricting the right to keep and bear arms. We saw it after the massacre of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. We saw it again after the recent horrific shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Some believe that, in the face of such horror, our Congress must “do something.” I sympathize. But what should they do? What are we proposing? Does it make sense? Is it worth the cost?
If you think that it makes sense to show an ID to buy cold medicine or be photographed nude at airport security checkpoints, then by all means, keep demanding that Congress “do something” about gun violence. Otherwise, use your heads.
Do you think that the hundred-thousand Americans who use firearms in self defense every year should be disarmed because of what some psychopath did in Connecticut or Nevada? Are their lives worth less than those of the victims of these wanton acts of violence? Do you believe that every citizen who desires to have a means of defense should be presumed to be a criminal in the same way that we presume every cold or allergy sufferer to be a meth cooker, or every traveler by air to be a terrorist? Do you believe that everybody should be punished for the sins of the few? Is that the American way? Is that just?
Lots of people say that Congress should “do something” about mass shootings. But the problem of violence can’t be solved by Congress, and the availability of guns does not correlate with violent crime. If it did, the U.S., which is far-and-away number-one in gun ownership, would rank first in murders . . . but we do not. Our murder rate is not even in the top one-hundred among the nations of the world. No, violence is a sign of a sickness in our country and in our world that cannot be cured by laws. After all, violent crimes are already illegal. That didn’t stop them.
No law can stop a madman from being mad. No law can stop him from seeking and finding the tools to do evil. If we take away his guns, he will use a truck (as we just saw, tragically, in a terrorist attack in New York, New York). If we take away his truck, he will use a machete. If we take away his machete, he will use a kitchen knife.
Most of the laws being proposed would have little-to-no effect on these madmen, but would harm me and millions of other Americans who have committed no crime. There would be a great cost for little or no benefit. So let’s not “do something” about gun violence until we can define “something” rationally and intelligently, and show evidence that the particular “something” will actually help solve the problem without unduly harming the innocent.