Newtown stirred emotions but offered few lessons


A man hugs his daughter while visiting a memorial to the victims of the recent shooting in Sandy Hook Village in Newtown, Connecticut, December 16, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • With something as rare as a mass school shooting, the circumstances are unique and preventing them is nearly impossible.

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  • The urge to "do something" is natural, rooted in compassion. But Congress probably can't do much useful here.

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  • Our culture could do more to address the mental health issue. But where is this line of argument heading?

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They were 6 years old. Most of the victims in Newtown were the age of my oldest daughter. When I realized this on Friday, my urge was to go home and hug my kids. And not let them go.

When I got home, I dropped to the floor and held all my kids tightly -- as if I could make them safer. But rationally, I know two things: First, my kids are and were safe -- at home, at the playground, at school. Second, I can never make them perfectly safe, and trying to do so is folly.

We all would like to ensure this never happens again. We can't. But that's because of the good news: Despite the impression from media coverage, mass shootings are extremely rare -- fewer than 200 Americans are killed each year in a shooting involving more than two victims. Also, schools are amazingly safe. With something as rare as a mass school shooting, the circumstances are unique enough that preventing them is nearly impossible.

The urge to "do something" is natural, rooted in compassion. But Congress probably can't do much useful here. First, consider Congress's last big gun control push -- the assault weapons ban. It basically outlawed scary-looking guns, and had no effect on gun murder.

Next, recall Congress's shoddy history of disaster-inspired legislation -- Sarbanes-Oxley and the Patriot Act, for example.

On the local level, we'll see new school security measures. Past crimes have given us the sort of security present at Sandy Hook Elementary School: Any visitors need to ring a doorbell and be buzzed in over a video intercom. Friday's killer circumvented this by shooting out a glass wall.

What could have prevented that? Are we going to put bars on all our large windows now? Do we need a metal detector and armed guards in combat gear in every elementary school? To make sure this never happens again, we probably would need to.

The psychic costs of turning first-grade classes into prisons, of course, would be even greater than the monetary costs of this sort of security. Even so, I would pay those costs if I thought they were necessary to keep my children safe at school.

But my children are already safe at school. "Research by Cornell and others shows that school-age and college-age kids are not only safer," an NPR story reported in March, "but far more secure on school campuses than anywhere else."

Even with Friday's killing, 2012 will see fewer homicides at school than the typical year when I was in middle school, according to FBI data. And the data suggest that Newtown was a terrible aberration. The trend since the early-to-mid-1990s is distinctly downward.

A horrific event with a gut-churning body count does not constitute a pattern. Legislating from one incident is often counterproductive. Yes, some laws might have prevented the Newtown massacre, but that doesn't mean they would always save lives.

For instance, many gun control advocates want to outlaw magazines that hold 30 or 100 rounds. This is a moderate policy, and maybe a good one. Perversely, if it had been in effect earlier this year, the Aurora, Colo., movie theater killer might have killed more people: His 100-round magazine jammed that night, as large magazines tend to do.

That fact about Aurora isn't an argument for keeping 100-round magazines legal, but it reminds us that what happened in Newtown is not necessarily the basis for good policy.

Conservatives, eager to look for a solution aside from gun control, have begun speaking vaguely about "mental health." Our culture, and maybe our government, could do more to address the issue. But where is this line of argument heading? Simply more funding? There's no correlation between education spending and educational achievement. Should we expect government mental health programs to fare differently than government education programs?

Or, when we speak of "doing something about mental health," are we talking about closer surveillance of those who might have mental illness? Or do some want government to pre-emptively detain those deemed mentally disturbed? That ought to worry civil libertarians on both the Left and Right.

We will never eradicate evil, and so we will never make school shootings or gun massacres go away. We have made them extremely rare. This ought to bring comfort to the rest of us, even as it brings no consolation to Newtown.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at [email protected] His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on

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