Our National Weapons of Mass Destruction

Gun Control - Can We?

2012 has been another year of gun killings, the latest being the mass murder at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. After each mass shooting, gun control is discussed for a while, before anger and anguish peter out. As we write, just days after the tragedy, Senator Feinstein has vowed to renew assault weapons legislation. Will we actually do something this time?

If you look at people's interest via the program Google Trends1, just as a rough proxy, it doesn't look optimistic. On July 20th, a gunman in Aurora, Colorado killed 12 and injured 58 in a movie theater, and on July 21st, the day after the shooting, "gun control" searches peaked. They also increased after the Oak Creek, Minnesota Sikh Temple shooting (6 people killed and 3 injured) on August 5th, and after the Empire State Building shooting August 24, 2012 (2 people killed and 9 injured). But nothing ever happened. Politicians mourned before cameras, tipping their heads to wipe a tear off their cheeks, then did nothing.

Google Trends shows the relative frequency of one or more search terms1.
The graph shows the frequency of the term "gun control" in the US for July and August, 2012.

Of course, in addition to these mass murders, there's the baseline murder rate, the quotidian murders of bystanders, husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, mothers and fathers - thousands of deaths. Chicago had almost 500 murders this year, roughly half the murders of 20 years ago, but much higher than last year despite the 10% lower overall crime rate. Like Newtown, Connecticut, Chicago has struggled to get guns off the streets, and every attempt, from banning handguns and shooting galleries to disallowing concealed handguns, has been fought by gun owners and lobbies, often successfully.

Cord Jefferson described Chicago's struggle with gun violence last summer, and Marc Lamont Hill discussed the multifaceted nature of the problem here at HuffPost. Both suggested that there's a lack of attention to inner city high gun violence because the murders are often associated with black men and gangs. I don't doubt that.

But people's overall attention to gun violence is sporadic, like their attention to climate change. When a hurricane destroys lower Manhattan, do New Yorkers' worry more about climate change than when a hurricane destroys some island in Asia? You bet. What about when familiar, safe-seeming places like movie theaters and schools become frequent targets of mass murderers? Are we more terrorized by deranged people armed with military grade firepower intent on taking out entire pop-corn eating movie audiences than by inner-city murders? Apparently. Then Newtown, Connecticut happens. Who is more innocent and more vulnerable than children, and what place is presumed more safe than a suburban grammar school?

The frequency of the search term "gun control" in the US, 2004 - 2012.(Google)

After a seven year old kid was killed in Chicago last summer, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel warned gangs to "take your stuff to the alley", but "don't touch the children of the city of Chicago, don't get near them". The nation seems to have a similar response to last week's Newtown killings. The Google Trends report for "gun control" after Newtown is off the charts compared to any other gun related incident in Google Trends' 8 year history. The question is, will the concern be sustained enough to force the slower, more tedious task of legislative action?

The frequency of the search terms "gun control" (blue), "climate change" (red), and "kittens"(gold), in the US, 2004-2012 (Google)

Gun control will not solve all the violence, all the problems. But it's a start. We can no longer bide politicians who cower before gun money, wantonly abandoning constituents who then die in deadly fusillades discharged from automatic weapons, or survive traumatically -- the six year old girl who "played dead" under the carnage of her Sandy Hook classmates in Newtown. Journalists should examine their leniency towards the lily-livered politicians who serve up excuses for action.

The challenge will be that we're so easily distracted, and gun makers, lobbyists and politicians bank heavily on our fleeting interest. The trends work in their favor. Distractions come as competing headlines, cute kittens, and as heartfelt, canny, or vicious arguments from people who support unlimited lethal power. We get a barrage of confusing information, some of it deliberately misleading - various headlines yelling that the root cause is violence in the media, or mental illness, or misinterpretation of the Second Amendment, or that the problem is too multi-faceted and big to tackle, that laws don't/won't work, well they work but Australia is different, the NRA wields too much power...All of this mutes resolve.

But when little boys are offering to lead classmates out of a school besieged by gunfire because they "know karate", we must do more than wax eloquently about our seven-year old heroes. Can politicians be courageous? Can they be heroes? Or do we have to go to historical movies like "Lincoln" to see that? Can citizens and journalists muster the guts to hold our politicians the slightest bit accountable for our reasonable safety?


1 Google Trends has been used to make predictions about disease outbreaks, here are some studies. The program has improved significantly since we last looked. Of course it has also been mocked.

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