Contrast their response with what has been much more common in the media (on both sides of the political spectrum). I wish it weren’t so common to use tragedies like this one to advance a political agenda. It’s unseemly and smacks of opportunism. That said, I admit I’m hopeful that propriety won’t stop the developing head of steam to remove the Confederate flag from in front of the South Carolina Statehouse. Whatever else that flag is supposed to represent, it’s also a big, government sponsored middle finger to something like 28% of the state’s population.
A more important objection to folks who use tragedies like this to advance a political agenda is based on a presumption that political responses to relatively rare albeit tragic events will just make things worse. Various factors work together to get the policy through the legislative process despite plausible concerns about unforeseen and unintended bad consequences.
First, in the wake of such an event, natural emotional reactions – sympathy for the victims and fear related to being one – are running high. Second, this fear is all out of proportion to the probability of the event recurring. We’re just not that good at risk analysis. Limited, anecdotal evidence tends to weigh heavily in our evaluations of risk. And modern news reporting makes us think that certain kinds of events happen with a greater regularity than they really do. Third, elected politicians are subject to this same psychological pressure, but also a great deal of political pressure to respond. Would you want to be the one asking questions about the expected costs and benefits of, e.g., the Patriot Act after 9-11 or Caylee’s Law, let alone the one voting against them? Would you if you were contemplating an upcoming reelection campaign? Constituents want their representatives to DO SOMETHING, and a vote against the law is viewed as a vote against freedom or children or whatever. Sometimes bad, not-very-well-thought-out policy is good politics.
So here’s policy truism #1:
Laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea.Many have used the Emanuel AME tragedy to argue for stricter gun control. I’m agnostic about the effectiveness of gun control generally and, specifically, about whether proposed changes to existing gun control laws would have prevented Roof’s murders. But I’m fairly certain that racial minorities will disproportionately suffer under a stricter gun control regime.
Last year, 48.6% of people convicted under federal firearms legislation were black. The racial disparity in this category of federal offense is greater than any other. Most proposed changes to firearms legislation would crack down further on illegal possession and sale of firearms, which comes with the need for police, agencies and prosecutors to exercise a great deal of discretion in how to go after these activities. Given the extent of violations, they can’t go after everyone. And we probably shouldn’t expect them to enforce new laws in an unbiased way when they already don’t enforce existing laws in an unbiased way.
New firearm offenses also mean new reasons to stop and search people that police tend to suspect of criminal activity or who present easy targets. In the end, there would be more people in prison, and that tends to mean more black men in prison. So the question isn’t whether it's broadly possible to have effective gun control without more and worse civil rights violations. The question is whether that's what we'd actually get.
Here then is policy truism #2:
The fact that a policy, if expertly tailored and benevolently administered, would make things better isn’t a good reason to implement it.
Department of Philosophy