WASHINGTON — The intercom had been switched on. "At first we heard a bunch of kids scream," said a therapist at Sandy Hook Elementary School, "and then it was just quiet and all you could hear was the shooting."
It is the silence that seemed particularly haunting. The methodical silence of the killer. The unnatural silence of children. Even the apparent silence of a bystander God.
But among those not directly affected, the silence did not last for long. We attempt to regain control of lurching events by explaining them. And we explain according to our pre-existing beliefs. The religious see a God-shaped hole in American society. Those concerned about mental health see a nation inattentive to the broken. Those committed to gun control see a Bushmaster .223. Those who despair of a violent culture see a "first-person shooter" emerged from a video game.
One way we try to beat down death with a stick is by turning helpless horror into a familiar cause.
It is discrediting to any cause when its advocates steal someone else's grief for their own ideological use. But in this case, the search for the political implications of tragedy is unavoidable. It is the primary purpose of government to protect the innocent from the evil. At Newtown, Conn., none could be more innocent; none could be more evil.
When making public policy, we do not design a nation from scratch. There are perhaps 270 million guns in America and more than 11 million people who suffered from severe mental illness in the last year. Yet the violence produced at this intersection is relatively small. The mentally ill account for 3 percent to 5 percent of violent crimes. The toll of mass killings in the U.S. — those involving four or more victims — averages about 160 a year.
But it is not only the numbers that matter. One hundred and sixty fatal lightning strikes each year (there are actually an average of 54) would result in a campaign of public service warnings. The same number of deaths produced by the intentional poisoning of baby formula would produce a national panic and manhunt. Mass murders — targeting public places, colleges and now kindergarten classrooms — are closer to the second category. They take a disproportionate share of the innocent and a disproportionate share of our sense of safety.
They also usually involve technology that seems wildly mismatched to sport shooting or self-defense. The Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic combat rifle has a 30-round magazine. The bullets used at Newtown, observed Connecticut's chief medical examiner, "are designed in such a fashion the energy is deposited in the tissue so the bullet stays in" producing a "very devastating set of injuries." Such clinical language is necessary when contemplating images beyond nightmares.
It is sometimes argued that public policy is useless in this area because it would not have prevented this specific killing or that one. But this is not the threshold for government action. The relevant question is: What policies could reasonably be argued to reduce the likelihood and severity of such incidents over time?
As in matters of public health, the goals are risk and harm reduction. This would involve better services for the severely mentally ill, who are now more likely to be found in a prison than a hospital — as well as more stringent requirements on mental health professionals to report possible threats. It may impose increased security burdens on schools. And, yes, reasonable gun restrictions are needed.
comments on this story
Governing often involves the difficult balancing of rights. Here, the status quo is currently so unbalanced that proposed adjustments don't even come close to crossing constitutional lines. Measures such as banning assault weapons, restricting gun show and Internet sales, limiting magazine size and ammunition purchases, and requiring more reliable background checks are fully consistent with the Second Amendment, which is not the right to keep a military arsenal. A nation that prohibits the civilian ownership of shoulder-launched missiles is already on a slippery slope — where all responsible governing takes place.
These efforts require humility. They offer the hope of marginal gains, not ultimate safety. And there is no adequate political reply to the moral obscenity of burying a child — caused by a mass murderer, by a drunk driver or by gang crossfire. But this does not mean we are helpless when it comes to the safety of children in our charge. The first, necessary response to the unacceptable is not to accept it.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.