Discover more from Gideon's Substack
It's Normal to Overreact to Horrible Events
A follow up to my last post about guns
Matt Yglesias has a really strong post-Uvalde piece up that I agree with almost entirely, but which I nonetheless found quite unsatisfying. Here’s his argument in a nutshell:
Liberal Democrats have gotten far more vocally anti-gun over the past decade, and the NRA has suffered from major institutional setbacks. Yet gun ownership is soaring and gun laws in many jurisdictions are getting more lax rather than more strict. That suggests at a minimum that the anti-gun rhetorical strategy has failed and at worst that it has been counterproductive.
While polls suggest that many people favor “common sense” gun control, when even modest restrictions come up for a vote in ballot initiatives they underperform the partisan fundamentals. That suggests that the actual popular support for gun control is far lower than meets the eye, or the pollster.
Most gun deaths are due to suicide, and most of these suicides are committed with perfectly legal guns that no proposed gun control measures are going to get rid of. If we want to reduce these deaths, the focus needs to be on something other than gun control.
Most homicides—like most suicides—are committed with handguns, many of them illegally owned or carried. If we want to reduce these deaths, the focus needs to be less on passing new laws than on enforcing the ones on the books—policing to stop people from carrying handguns illegally. This is precisely the kind of policing, though, that progressive reformers have been fighting to end.
Given all of the above, liberals should suck it up and largely drop gun control from their agenda—and, further, they should stop themselves from indulging in performative outrage even when something horrible like the massacre in Uvalde happens. They should take “a calmer approach to these tragedies” and focus on policing strategies that would stop people from carrying guns illegally in Democratic-run cities without outraging progressives.
Up until the last point, that’s an argument I largely agree with. Indeed, I made most of the same points in my own post on the subject. But I nonetheless found the piece very unsatisfying—and the reason is its utter bloodlessness.
It really is true that, even now, the odds of you or your child being killed in a massacre of the kind that took place in Uvalde is miniscule. For that matter, the odds of being killed by a gun at all are extremely low for people who don’t live in a neighborhood with a high homicide rate. If our emotional reactions were properly risk-weighted, we would easily manifest a “calmer approach” to occasional massacres of innocents.
But that’s now how normal humans work, and it is not how they are going to work. It is completely normal to “overreact” to horrifying but rare events. We do all kinds of things to keep ourselves feeling secure, and a horrifying act of violence that comes out of nowhere shatters that feeling. This is one reason why gun buying goes up after such tragedies—because buying a gun is one way to make yourself feel more secure, even though it likely avail you nothing in circumstances like those of Uvalde.
Yglesias wants liberals to be more rational and strategic. But liberals are just people. Notwithstanding their occasional pretensions, they are not any more rational and strategic than other people. So his own rhetorical strategy of cold rationalism is no more likely to be effective on them than it is on the gun-buying public.
At one point, Yglesias compares gun violence with cruelty to animals, and points out that people who are deeply energized about the latter, even to the point of becoming vegans, are generally much better about speaking calmly and advocating incrementally. He suggests that advocates of reduced gun violence take a similar approach. But I think this is a failed analogy in multiple ways. First of all, vegans are well aware that they are a small minority trying to change an entire culture. If a quarter of Americans were vegans, and veganism was practically the norm elsewhere in the developed world, I think you’d see different rhetoric on that issue here as well. Second, the question isn’t whether vegans are rhetorically gentle in “normal” times but whether they’d be rhetorically gentle in the wake of some high-profile animal-welfare-related catastrophe. If, I dunno, a group of deranged meat-eaters staged a public, brutal slaughter of domesticated dogs and horses, reveling in their fear and pain and bathing in their blood, I have a feeling you’d see some extreme rhetoric. Finally, I think he’s just wrong that there’s no overheated rhetoric around meat-eating! Most of that rhetoric these days comes from climate activists rather than from animal-welfare advocates, but it’s absolutely out there. And while veganism isn’t a tribal marker in the culture war like guns are, there are certainly those on the right who are trying to make it into one—that’s why you hear denunciations of a supposed left-wing plot to ban hamburger and make us all eat bugs! (Which, to be fair, wouldn’t be vegan.)
At the top of his piece, Yglesias complains about the outrage cycle by which people express themselves on social media, thereby drive the professional media “discourse,” and thereby pressure politicians. But this is not special to guns. This is the way everything works these days. The professional media should pay less attention to what happens on social media, and politicians should pay less attention to what anybody in either social or professional media says. If that’s the problem, though, then Yglesias should leave poor ordinary outraged liberals alone and focus his message on media figures and politicians. They are actually being paid to do a job; it’s not unreasonable to ask them to do it rationally.
But it would also be rational for them to address that popular outrage from a policy perspective! So I’m disappointed that Yglesias doesn’t actually address whether any such policies exist. For example, could red flag laws really make a difference? And are they worth the risk they pose to civil liberties? If so, then why not join those on the right who have called for such laws as a response to the recent massacres? If not, then explain why not instead of implying that tackling these rare but horrible events just isn’t rationally as important as tackling more routine gun violence. Because the relative number of victims isn’t what drives people’s feelings about the subject, and for that reason isn’t the only factor that policymakers should consider.
I get what Yglesias is irritated by. He’s irritated by pieces like this. But normal people are outraged by extreme events—particularly when they have been getting more frequent. A rhetorical strategy aiming at asking them not to be outraged is, in the end, no more rational than the delusion that outrage is itself a strategy.