After a shattering tragedy, it's human nature to try to make sense of what happened. And, when the tragedy involves guns, attempts to make sense of it inevitably turn to politics.
So it is with the horrific elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Friday, which took the lives of 20 children and six teachers and administrators. But the political rhetoric is more likely to promote polarization than lead to solutions.
Each side has its usual talking points. Liberals bemoan what The New Yorker calls "the madness of guns." Conservatives argue that the best way to prevent these tragedies is to arm more teachers -- or that the real cause is that we have kicked God and moral values out of our schools. Still others say that the answer lies in better mental health care, or stricter control of people with mental problems.
But none of the explanations quite add up. The anti-gun crusaders conveniently overlook the example of societies, such as Israel or Switzerland, in which guns are common but killing sprees are virtually unheard-of; or the fact that the United States had a "gun culture" for its entire history, yet mass shootings of random strangers are largely a phenomenon of the past 30 years.
The values crusaders overlook the example of far more godless societies, such as Sweden and England, where deadly violence is rare. And, while current laws make it too difficult to forcibly hospitalize people who pose a danger to themselves and others, many rampage killers never come into contact with the mental health system. It is far from clear that 20-year-old Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, showed signs of any condition that called for psychiatric hospitalization or monitoring.
There is now talk of new legislative bans on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips, measures supported by a majority of Americans. But will these steps prevent another massacre? Sadly, no one knows. Illegal guns and ammunition can still find their way into a would-be killer's hands.
So can other lethal materials. The worst school massacre in the country's history, by Andrew Philip Kehoe in 1927, was carried out mainly with explosives. Lanza, a whiz kid some schoolmates called a genius, may well have been capable of building a powerful bomb with information from the Internet.
Faced with senseless and unpredictable murder, we need to believe that we can do something to protect the innocent -- a passion strengthened by the fact that, for the most part, the risks of daily life have been reduced to a historic low. Losing a child to illness or accident, once common, has become a rare, almost unspeakable catastrophe.
Random mass shootings are in fact incredibly rare, despite media hype; on average, they have claimed fewer than 20 American lives every year since 1982. Such statistics do nothing to ease the grief of the victims' parents and relatives; but people who lose loved ones to smaller-scale violence -- such as the Manhattan parents of the two children fatally stabbed, allegedly by their nanny, earlier this year -- are no less bereaved.
The truth is, there isn't always a way to "do something." Let us by all means have a discussion on better gun control or mental health intervention. But the search for solutions should not lead us to criminalize responsible gun owners, or treat every social misfit as a potential mass murderer. Above all, it should not lead us to paint those who disagree with our prescriptions as zealots indifferent to saving innocent lives. It's said that hard cases make bad law; likewise, terrible tragedies can make bad policy