From the “This is why we can’t have nice things” file: last month a new internet “challenge” broke, with copycat videos being posted of people licking ice cream and putting it back in the store fridge, inspired by a viral Twitter video of a girl doing the same.
With fears naturally high that this would turn into an epidemic, there are reports of some stores going to extreme lengths to protect their stocks of frozen deliciousness, including locking it up and requiring a store employee get involved, à la razor cartridges.
While some might see this as an over-reaction, it’s not that far off from the freak-out over Tide Pods, with many commentators calling for their ban due to the double digit figures of challenge-poisoning incidents. Never mind that over 12,000 people had already had harmful exposures to laundry pods the year before, mostly kids under five.
The fact is, we’re a nation that over-reacts to small things and under-reacts to big things. I have a background in the auto industry, and it bothers me that individual incidents of error in autonomous vehicles have completely wiped out their viability for widespread adoption in many people’s minds, something that even the current 40,000 vehicle-related deaths per year have not seemed to mitigate. In a professional sense I happen to believe that autonomous vehicles will offer an enormous leap in automotive safety, even though I concede that hearing about the details of an incident is naturally bound to activate our threat ganglia more than a stat from the CDC.
Speaking of strangely incongruous panic levels, and the figure 40,000, that’s also the number of gun deaths we have per year, and the ice cream security skeptics hyperbolically point out that it seems to be easier to get a gun than a pint of Chunky Monkey, according to this picture from Twitter.
In the wake of last weekend’s two mass shootings in the span of less than 24 hours, writing any point of view on the incidents seems fraught with the possibility of it disappearing into the wind of history, just as every other piece addressing this issue has seemed to do, with the conversation appearing to go in circles with no perceptible effect of helping the future to be any different from the past.
We continue to see mass shootings, and we continue to be unable to do much about it due to our deadlocked state. They appear to be getting more frequent, as the rapid succession of shootings this weekend certainly demonstrated. But the only effect this pattern seems to be having is to further desensitize us from the violence.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of those who are working overtime to try to get some traction on this issue. I’m grateful for the young leadership that has emerged on this issue, particularly since the Parkland shooting, with the students there displaying the leadership skills that can be gleaned from a high-quality public education. But the flurry of hope that stemmed from their activism seems to have dissolved into a resignation that we’re at loggerheads on this issue, and the breaking of this stalemate doesn’t seem to be in sight.
Indeed, even as most Americans agree that universal background checks should be in place, there’s disagreement over whether the nation’s gun laws should be generally more strict than they are now. If two people were to claim, contradictorily, that most Americans were both for and against banning semi-automatic assault rifles, they could each go to the very same Gallup web page to verify their assertion.
Either way, these shootings keep on happening, and when we keep doing the same thing over and over again, the result is about as predictable as whether or not a journalist will cite the definition of insanity to describe the whole mess.
(Since my initial draft of this article, a bi-partisan proposal to provide fiscal encouragement for state “red flag” laws, allowing authorities to temporarily remove weapons from those who show signs of danger to themselves or others, has been advancing in Congress. It’s certainly a vital step towards addressing the issue, but it has yet to get past Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has not endorsed it, and it would be just one part of the multi-aspect approach that is needed.)
As a blue, I’m frustrated with the Republican approach to the issue, which feels to me like denial of the most basic strategies for having a positive impact. But as a Braver Angel, I’m frustrated with the blue approach to the issue, which feels like a denial of the fact that unless we honestly and directly address the concerns of conservatives on this issue, we will continue to be shut down in the legislative arena.
So let me say this: Conservatives are fearful of an overly aggressive approach to gun control, and I think I understand that fear to a certain extent, especially in the context of our historically poorly calibrated reactions to things. And as a progressive who believes in stricter gun control, I have to be sensitive to those concerns, because they have a genuine basis.
As blues, if we do want to put in place policies that can mitigate the harm being done, our approach to this issue needs to respect those concerns as well. So let me start with a question that seems foundational to everything else.
How can we put policies in place that are likely to address the issue head-on, without curtailing liberties for no proven reason, unless we know how policy actually affects gun violence? The fact, as it now stands, is that we don’t know nearly enough about this link.
In discussing the research available, David Hemenway, Director of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center, wrote, “We know far too little about almost every subissue in the gun discussion. We don’t know whether the federal assault weapons ban—it only lasted 10 years, from 1994 to 2004—had any effect on mass killings. We don’t know the effect of most individual gun laws, in part because the effect is probably small, since the laws are often so minor or full of loopholes.”
He continued, “We lack good data on nonfatal shootings. We know very little about gun theft or gun training, about gun storage or gun shop practices, about the effect of guns on college campuses or guns at work. The list goes on and on.”
Much of this is due to the legacy of the Dickey Amendment, which banned the CDC from using research money to advocate for gun control. While it didn’t explicitly ban the research itself, it has had a major chilling effect on the gathering of data that would be helpful to have right now. A spending bill that President Trump signed last year does offer clarifying language that makes it more explicit that this sort of research by the CDC is not banned, and there’s hope that this is good news for those looking to bolster this area of study.
But this major challenge remains. As we advocate for more aggressive gun control measures, we must bring to the conversation a humility about our ability to predict the effectiveness of those measures. And we must also allow room for the concerns of those on the other side of the conversation, regarding the potential overstep of gun control measures where the gains in safety may not be in proportion to the curtailment of liberty.
The American Declaration of Independence specifies the rights with which we’re all naturally endowed as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” One might reasonably posit that they’re enumerated in this order due to true priority, perhaps since each of the latter might not exist without those enumerated before it. Or, one might suggest that each is equal, and that life without liberty is no life at all.
It seems as though in this particular debate the blues take the former approach, while the reds take the latter. I think it would be helpful for blues to recognize that reds see threats to liberty as just as serious as we—and likely they—see threats to life.
With a more honest and open approach, we may find that the two sides are closer than they imagine, and we may finally see some movement on an issue that has become one of the most pressing of our time.