Whether an assignment or massive legislation, it goes without saying that anything rushed will be of poor quality. As simple as this statement may be, it appears that Congress has yet to figure this out.
Let’s be honest here: a lot of really terrible things have happened recently. From Sandy Hook to Hurricane Sandy to the ever-looming issues present in the U.S. economy, the latter part of 2012 was a pretty bad year. For many Americans, there is a growing fear that things outside of our control are harming us when we are least prepared for it, and that fear is beginning to erode away at our confidence as individuals and as a country. Every time some new disaster appears, our confidence (and our money) is whittled away, making us feel more and more helpless in the face of disaster.
Legislators at both the federal and state level are busy waving the legislative pen around like an imaginary sword, trying to fight off the mental dragons of fear and uncertainty. The sad irony is, of course, that what they are doing is nothing but another form of so-called security theater: that is, it feels effective and safe, but it is anything but actually safe. It’s simply exploitation of the politically useful fear of the American public.
Take, for example, the Obama Administration’s recent gun control proposals. The Administration’s proposals—which recommend everything from requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales to providing mental health counseling services in schools—could, at least in some sense, be seen as an admirable attempt at fixing worrisome issues within the current gun control regime. The problem is, these proposals are not the kind of fixes that would have ever prevented the Sandy Hook disaster. There is absolutely no proof that, had these laws been in place before the shooting at Sandy Hook, Adam Lanza would have been stopped from doing what he did.
Sure, the Obama Administration’s proposals sound helpful—phrases like “increased criminal background checks” always sound scintillating and powerful. But such proposals would have done nothing. Like it or not, the Obama Administration is using Sandy Hook as a bootstrap to justify new impositions on Second Amendment liberties—even though there is truly no connection between the new proposals and the tragedy other than a sense of fear.
Of course, many Republicans are equally guilty of this kind of reactionary, bootstrapping legislation. Ever since the NRA accused violent video games of fostering violence in America, certain Republican legislators have been aggressively pursuing anti-entertainment policies in the wake of Sandy Hook. For example, Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah has recently proposed a bill that would not only make the (currently voluntary) ESRB ratings label on videogames mandatory, but that would also impose severe penalties on retailers who sell, rent, or attempt to sell or rent Adults Only (“AO”) rated video games to minors. Yet again, there is absolutely no proof that this would have prevented Sandy Hook and no proof that it would have any substantial effect on violent behavior. Instead, such legislation exploits the sense of fear and dread that emerged from Sandy Hook to enact policies that impinge upon the liberties of the American public.
The big problem with legislation like the examples above is that it has a ratcheting effect upon the liberties enjoyed by American citizens. When emergencies are used as bootstraps for unwieldy but plausibly helpful legislation, legislators may slowly but surely encroach upon the liberties of American citizens while avoiding criticism or serious debate. As more and more emergencies arise that scare the American citizenry, legislators are given more and more chances to move the proverbial ball down the field. The net effect, of course, is that the average American walks away with less freedom than he had before.
It’s time for a reality check: there will always be emergencies and horrible events that we cannot prevent. No matter how advanced and educated we are as people and as a society, certain horrible things—hurricanes, shootings, and the like—will occur, reminding us of the fragility of both our own lives and of the fragility of the society we have built around us. This is, of course, scary. But the answer to this fear is not to buckle to asinine legislative ideas and the mob mentality of post-emergency reform movements. Rather, we must learn to adapt and to recover where we are harmed, and we must learn to bond together rather than point the finger at anything and everything we find harmful in society.
Kirk Sigmon is a graduate student in the Law School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.