The Connecticut General Assembly and Governor Dannel Malloy have proposed and passed a legislative package addressing gun control, school safety, and mental health care. Are they controversial? Yes. Are they motivated by a horrific act of school violence? Yes. Do they provide a prime opportunity to improve public policy? Absolutely. The latter is what is missing from the national conversation.
Since the massacre in Newtown 111 days ago, gun control advocates have begged for policy solutions. Gun rights advocates have argued that legislative proposals will not work and thus should not be implemented. Connecticut offers something for everyone. First, this legislation is the most comprehensive, aggressive policy response in the United States since the tragedy. This move will please those clamoring for tighter restrictions on guns, for safer schools, and improved mental health care.
Second, gun rights advocates should see this as an opportunity. If gun owners, conservatives, libertarians, NRA officials and others truly believe such legislation will fail, these laws give them a chance to demonstrate it. If their convictions are firm and true and these laws will only lead to more violence, there will be proof. If their fears that such laws will make honest, law-abiding citizens the defenseless victims of criminals and an expansive government, the Nutmeg State will show us. For those in favor of unfettered access to firearms, you should let Connecticut prove your point.
Yet, there is an alternative scenario. One that is more plausible. One that is more likely. The Connecticut legislation may be a success. It may limit—not stop, but limit—crime, keep some weapons out of the hands of dangerous offenders, keep schools and other public spaces safer, provide better preventive mental health care, assist law enforcement in their investigations, and still allow citizens the ability to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights. This scenario terrifies the most extreme elements of the gun lobby. It threatens not the Constitution, but their own existence.
The Connecticut legislation will offer a test. With scientific research, statistical analysis, and policy experience, we will see whether rhetoric reflects reality. We will see whether policy succeeds or fails. It gives us a chance to ask and answer questions that plague this debate. Yes, researchers have asked these questions already. Some of the best work on the topic comes from Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Daniel Webster and his colleagues at the Center for Gun Policy and Research. Moving forward, this legislation provides an experimental setting, Connecticut provides the most public of profiles, and time will provide the data.
Surely, some will bemoan the move as an infringement on the 2nd Amendment. And these laws allow courts to rule on the constitutionality of such restrictions—another opportunity for gun rights advocates fearful of constitutional violation. But, in reality, Connecticut’s move today exemplifies one of the most beautiful attributes of the American Constitution: federalism. Federalism lets states within bounds to implement laws separate from the national government. It allows for an evaluation of policies and their effectiveness. States do this with law enforcement, budgeting, taxation, health care, tort reform, marriage, drug policy, and in a whole host of areas. My colleague, Jonathan Rauch, recently explained that these different laws in different places tell us much about what is good policy and what is bad. We can improve our laws, ignore the bad, embrace the good, and let evidence, not talking points, inform future policymaking.
In many ways, Connecticut has done the impossible. It brought together leaders from both parties to come to a compromise based on evidence, testimony, empirics, and, yes, emotions. Democrats and Republicans together passed legislation in an effort to keep safe my friends who are teachers, my family members who are students, my brother-in-law in law enforcement and my fellow Nutmeg State brethren.
Gridlock did not win the day in Connecticut. Solutions did. Now, time will tell us exactly what gets solved.