Sandy Hook Elementary and Rethinking Civil Liberties

By Carl M. Cannon - December 17, 2012

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Such jarring rhetoric shows how difficult a task it would be to reconcile both sides, but Obama seems inclined to try. What we are doing, he was saying, is clearly not working -- so let’s think about the problem in a more fundamental way. The president was not immune from criticism, however. His allies on the left didn’t want Obama reminding Americans about what Jesus said of children; they wanted him talking about gun bans. And they were incensed to learn from a weekend New York Times article that Obama’s Justice Department shelved all talk of new gun regulations until after the 2012 election.

But the president’s reluctance reflects political reality. As discordant as it seems to big-city liberals, there is no real consensus in the United States for the proposition that more restrictions on firearms will make the country safer.

Supporters of gun rights were quick to point to a case that happened in the last few days 8,000 miles away in central China, where a mentally unstable 36-year-old man was arrested after attacking 22 grade-school children.

But this argument didn’t really bolster the case for gun rights. In China, which has no Second Amendment, private gun ownerships is very rare, and so the assailant used a knife. All the children survived, underscoring just how much more lethal an arsenal 20-year-old Adam Lanza took Friday morning to Sandy Hook Elementary.

Yet one maddening aspect of the Newtown shooting is that it seems that no reasonable precautions would have stopped it. The school itself had a security system, reportedly installed recently by the principal, making access to the building controlled. The gunman simply forced his way in, according to Connecticut police.

Authorities also reported that Lanza shot his victims with a deadly semiautomatic Bushmaster, an assault rifle modeled after the M-16. But he also carried two deadly handguns: a 9mm Glock semiautomatic and a 9mm SIG Sauer pistol, and all three firearms were duly registered by Lanza’s mother, whom he apparently also killed. The point is that even if the federal restrictions on assault weapons envisioned by Dianne Feinstein and Kirsten Gillibrand had been in force, the staff and first-graders at Sandy Hook would still have been confronted by a well-armed and mentally unstable invader.

In other words, this country has a larger problem than the Second Amendment.

One of them, perhaps, is the First Amendment, which empowers Hollywood to feed young people -- even those with deep emotional problems -- a steady diet of simulated murder all through their childhoods. Meanwhile, violent and disturbingly realistic video games are relentlessly marketed to pre-teen and teenage boys. Is restricting such fare also part of what the president had in mind when he proclaimed that “we must change” on Sunday night?

Making this country safer also entails dealing with the mentally ill. Obama had nearly perfect pitch the last few days when discussing the slaughter of innocents in Newtown -- except perhaps once. He alluded to the attack there as the manifestation of “unconscionable evil.” To many mental health professionals, this is not quite right. Although its handiwork can break our hearts, mental illness is evidence of sickness rather than of evil -- and of the limitations in our understanding of how to make such people whole. 

Is this nation really ready to tackle that issue? Because doing so would be expensive, and would entail the rethinking of the steady expansion of civil rights for those with mental health issues.

Civil libertarians on both the political right and the political left often invoke the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in 1755 that those who would trade “essential” liberties in return for “a little temporary safety” deserve neither. But that qualifier is important, and Obama seemed to have that passage in mind Sunday night when he asked, “Are we really willing to say that the carnage visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

But that raises other issues. Are Americans really willing to institutionalize people who have not yet committed a crime, but whose delusions convince their own therapists -- and their own families -- that they surely will? Doing so would be quite expensive, for one thing, and would necessitate a legal infrastructure to ensure the nation wasn’t simply warehousing difficult people.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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