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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Another Policy Debate We Should Be Having

It's being reported that Adam Lanza, the gunman who killed his mother Friday morning at her Connecticut home before driving to an elementary school and gunning down another 26 people, including twenty children, ended his rampage by taking his own life.

Thank God.

Suicide is an ugly thing, but it was a fitting end to this incomprehensible monster. First, because it is, by its nature, a very cowardly act. Second, because no one else had to be the one to end Lanza's life.

Taking a life, even when it’s totally justified and necessary to save others, can be a nerve-racking experience, so I’m glad that no one was put in the position of having to take Lanza out. For all we know, he wanted to be brought down in a hail of gunfire. 
Even if Lanza had not died by his own hand, it's good that the survivors and the families and friends of the people he murdered will not have to endure his continued existence, as the surviving victims of other mass shootings (e.g., those perpetrated by James Holmes in Aurora and Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood) must.

Think about what it would have been like for the bereaved families of those Lanza killed, knowing that the man who visited this unimaginable horror upon them still walked the earth, living, breathing, while they laid their dead to rest.

Had Lanza lived to be prosecuted, he would not have faced the death penalty. Connecticut abolished capital punishment earlier this year. (Oddly enough, the law, passed by a Democrat-controlled state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy (D), did not apply to the sentences of the eleven inmates currently on death row in the state.)

I'm not one of those death-penalty proponents who believe that deterrence is the only justification for capital punishment. There are some criminals so dangerous that life imprisonment alone is inadequate to eliminate the threat they pose to society. (One good example is the case of Gary Tison, an Arizona man who was sentenced to life in prison for killing a guard but managed to escape with the help of his family and later murdered six others before dying of exposure in the Arizona desert.)

Suppose Lanza were still alive. Suppose he was tried for and convicted of murdering everyone he had killed. Even if he spent the rest of his life in prison, the length of his incarceration wouldn't come close to the sum total of all the years he took off the lives of his victims. (The same, of course, could be said if he were sentenced to death and executed, but at least then he would have been subject to something comparable to the heinous acts he committed--having his life ended prematurely, against his will.)

The Sandy Hook massacre has, predictably, evoked calls for government action to prevent future mass shootings or at least reconsider our gun laws. But Connecticut already has some of the strictest gun-control laws of the U.S., and they didn't do a damn thing to prevent the most deadly shooting at a grade school in our country's history. What's more, the firearms Lanza used apparently belonged to his mother Nancy, who by all accounts was a responsible gun owner. Should we forbid the purchase or ownership of deadly weapons by anyone with a potentially dangerous relative? 

The efficacy of gun-control laws is debatable, as are the deterrent effects of the death penalty. I for one am willing to discuss both. Never mind the issue of whether it’s appropriate to make earnest policy arguments in the wake of such an atrocity; the debate has already begun. Those who abstain from policy discussions so as not to be seen as politicizing a tragedy risk not having their voices heard.

The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote in his concurring opinion in the 1927 case of Whitney v. California, "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, [then] the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence." If you see or hear someone making a false or fallacious statement in furtherance of what you regard as bad policy, then don't silence yourself out of some obsolete sense of decency. As another right-wing genius once said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

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