Diary

Bush Was Right, Stuff Happens

Jeb Bush is right. Stuff happens. It’s more tactful to say tragedies happen, but Bush was right. Tragedies and crime are part of the human condition. There are steps we can take to curtail those tragedies, but the solutions are imperfect and come with serious negative tradeoffs. Politicians can’t fix everything perfectly. It’s about time we acknowledged this reality.

Bush’s remarks — inartful as those two words in a longer, thoughtful statement were — were much better than Lindsay Graham’s response to the Charleston shooting. Graham’s niece had gone to elementary school with the shooter. She always thought he was strange. Graham told reporters, “I bet there were some indicators early on that this guy was not quite there. Just being able to track people – put them into systems where they can be deterred or stopped.”

Graham’s plan to stop shootings is to “track people” who are “not quite there.” This isn’t surprising coming from Graham, who has never met a citizen he didn’t want the government to monitor. Maybe his niece could decide who isn’t quite there and Graham can give their names to the NSA.

Graham’s response to the shooting was authoritarian musings. Graham’s instincts are much more threatening than Bush’s. Yet, it didn’t cause a stir.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 9 million Americans struggle with serious mental illness. A vanishingly small fraction become violent. How does Graham propose to track them and identify the ones who are dangerous? Perhaps society would be safer if they were all institutionalized. Politicians often push their agendas by saying, “if it saves just one life” it must be done. But, I wouldn’t want to live in the society we’d have to create that can cast a police net wide enough to catch all the potentially dangerous people who “aren’t quite there.”

While Graham proposes tracking America’s weird kids, President Obama would repeal the Second Amendment. That’s what he means whenever he says “Australia.” Australia confiscated its citizens’ guns. Obama doesn’t have the nerve to directly say he supports confiscation, so he just talks vaguely about “Australia.” “Australia” is a dog whistle to the anti-gun crowd.

Would a confiscation program reduce homicide rates? No, according to studies of the Australian program. Maybe it would stop some of these mass shootings, maybe not. But we know it wouldn’t reduce the overall crime rate. In fact, as gun ownership has increased in America, gun homicide rates have gone down.

But even if we could wave a magic confiscation wand that lowered homicide rates without increasing other crime rates, should we? The Second Amendment is in the Constitution for a reason. An armed citizenry is an important check on the government and would-be tyrants.

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, who was appointed to the Court by the Constitution’s architect, James Madison, wrote, “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”

If you don’t think tyranny is a threat in the United States, you’re forgetting about the Jim Crow South. Frederick Douglas insisted, “the liberties of the American people were dependent upon the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge-box.” He was right, as Southern states would use gun control laws to disarm blacks.

If we used a magical confiscation wand, we’d lose what the Founders knew to be an invaluable right of free people to defend themselves from tyrants.

But, there is no magical confiscation wand. Confiscation wouldn’t ensure less homicides. It hasn’t in Australia and it wouldn’t here. Tragedies would continue to happen.

We could install bulletproof glass in every school. We don’t. We could have several armed guards at every school (because the shooter could take out one armed guard). We don’t. We could end recess where students are outside and more vulnerable than in the school. We don’t.

Why don’t we take these steps? Because tragedies happen and we know that we can’t stop them all. We know that we could make the tragedies less likely, but we’re not willing to make the tradeoffs. We’re calculating the risks and making a decision. Of course, we don’t say any of that. God forbid it was acknowledged. It’s a cardinal political sin to say anything like that. It’s true, though.

Tragedies do happen. Sometimes people use the colloquialism “stuff happens” to describe this fact of life. Jeb Bush’s full remarks were thoughtful and considered. They should spark a serious conversation, not a media and Twitter struggle session.