Passing laws in the wake of tragedies

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the wake of the Aurora, Colorado tragedy, we heard a lot of media types and politicians call for stricter federal gun laws.  In the wake of the 9/15/08 financial crisis, we heard a lot of talk about stricter financial laws.  In both of these circumstances, laws were already on the books to prevent these tragedies, but that didn’t stop politicians, and broadcasters, from calling for more laws.

“It seems perfectly reasonable that we pass “new” laws in the wake of the latest travesty that appears to have poked holes in our current laws on the books.”  This is the M.O. of populism.  It is a very popular premise, for it gives the illusion that those politicians, and media types, that call for new laws care more.  The lawmakers, in particular, are supposed to protect us from tragedies such as these, and when these tragedies occur we look to them for action.  They gain the appearance of “doers” when they call for something to be done to protect the people, even if such laws already exist.

Bill O’Reilly: “If you go to flight school, the FBI knows about it, but not if you purchase a machine gun.”

Jason Chaffetz (R, UT) said O’Reilly’s assertion was “absolutely not true.”  Chaffetz said, “Anyone who buys heavy weapons has to get a tax certificate from the ATF and pass a background check.

O’Reilly countered by pointing out the gun show loophole in the law, to which Chaffetz responded, “You can’t just buy a bazooka.”{1}

“How did this tragedy happen,” the emotive politicians and media types ask, “if, as you say, there are already such laws on the books?”  It’s a tough argument to refute in the short-term, when emotions are high, but gun rights advocates will often respond that in a free nation of 300+ million, you’re always going to have some nuts that are impossible to stop.  Gun rights advocates will tell you that you could have a million laws on the books, covering every possible situation a lawmaker could conceive, and you would still have nuts do what they did at Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, et. al.  “Well,” say the emotive politicians and media types, “those laws obviously are not tough enough to protect us.”

The most adamant gun rights advocate has their heartstrings pulled when they see the scenes of chaos and tragedy.  Some of them may even have the same immediate, knee jerk emotional reactions to such scenes, but they maintain a logical restraint when it comes to more actual restrictions on American freedom in the long run.  This restraint stance doesn’t sit well with the millions of concerned citizens that are affected by the scenes of a tragedy.  It doesn’t appear sympathetic in the same manner that the emotive responses do, and it can leave one with the impression that gun rights activists are cold-hearted when they say that there are already laws on the books to stop such a travesty.  It can also leave many constituents with the belief that the politicians who exhibit restraint are doing nothing.

This perception of “doing nothing” does not gain a politician many new voters, and it does not gain a broadcaster many new audience members.  As a result, many politicians and broadcasters—who previously exhibited sympathy for gun rights—will say that this particular case is an exception to their rule.  They will make mention of the idea that there must be a loophole in previous laws for this particular tragedy to take place.  They may not believe such a line, but they feel it necessary to throw it out there so they appear sympathetic.  The problem with this stance is that good law should not be developed based on individual exceptions to the rule.  This is where a lawmaker, or a broadcaster, should exhibit restrain in the face of emotionally charged events.  They usually don’t, of course, for logical restraint is not sympathetic, and it does not make for good, provocative TV for the broadcasters or the politicians, and there will be little net gain in the way of followers.

“With freedom comes great responsibility,” is a line from the movie The Transformers{2}.  What does this line mean in the wake of the most recent tragedy?  It means that we will always have tragedies and nutcases that test the limits of a free country, and a nation of laws, but it is our responsibility to preserve the freedom that those who came before us achieved with their blood, sweat and tears, so that those who come after us know the freedom that we knew.

We attempt to protect our citizenry from harm with laws, but we also need to protect them from the well-intentioned people seeking to take away our freedom with more laws.  The latter is more difficult on a philosophical basis, for it requires that we see past those best intentions to the unforeseen, long-term consequences.  It may also get us labeled cold-hearted SOBs, but if we are to maintain our freedom we must weather some mighty storms that challenge the ideas and ideals we have of what a free nation is.  It is also challenging in that it requires us to look evil in the face and tell it that we will not allow it to invade and change our way of life.  We will prosecute evil to the fullest extent of the law, but we will not allow it to pervade and damage our sense of freedom.  It is challenging because those who espouse such notions have to weather the “but it didn’t stop this!” emotional reaction that populists feed into.  It’s difficult, because it appears as though the emotional types that want some acknowledgement that something needs to be done appear to care more.  The “free society” arguments fall flat to these people because “it didn’t stop this!” but in a truly free society there are always going to be nuts that test the limits of the system.  If we create new laws in the face of every tragedy will be less free, which will in turn give the event’s tragic impact on our society more weight.

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