December 19, 2012
By Tuesday, the argument over gun control had almost vanished from my Facebook feed.
Gone were the passionate gun-related posts that had dominated Facebook since Friday, when a man walked into a Connecticut grade school, pulled the trigger on a semi-automatic rifle and left 26 people dead, 20 of them children.
Four days later, the usual Facebook fare had resumed. Ironic quotes. Personal health updates. Holiday recipes. Links to YouTube songs. Photos of Christmas trees. Debates over Instagram.
Out in the country, far from Sandy Hook Elementary, another national trauma was subsiding. We weep, we vent, we return to the holiday shopping.
It's only human nature not to dwell in fear and grief.
But as I watched fudge recipes scroll past, I couldn't help but wonder: What does the Facebook shift bode for the "tipping point" that Sandy Hook supposedly represents?
Over and over since Friday, we've heard politicians and the media use the term. Sandy Hook was our "tipping point," the awful moment that would accomplish what wasn't accomplished after all those other awful moments now condensed to such shorthand names as Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora.
Yes, this fresh outrage would power a fresh courage. Yes, we would finally tighten gun and ammo laws.
And it might happen.
Since Friday, lots of politicians, including Chicago's mayor, have renewed the call for a ban on assault weapons. The White House press secretary has said President Barack Obama will be "actively supportive" of new gun legislation.
But tipping points are often exaggerated.
"'Tipping points' are mostly myths," said Tom W. Smith, who directs the General Social Survey conducted by the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. "The idea of something that fundamentally determines a new direction is extremely rare."
Events do shift social currents, he said, usually a little at a time. Think of the civil rights movement or the gay rights movement.
And there is some "vague and undocumentable sense," he acknowledged, that Friday's killings could alter public policy.
"But the Aurora and Virginia Tech shootings didn't budge public policy," he said, "so one should be cautious about possible changes."
But here's an interesting fact. While some polls suggest that most Americans are against gun control, Smith's data show that most Americans have favored more gun restrictions since well before Friday.
We're not talking comprehensive gun bans, but there is solid support for some restrictions on guns and ammunition.
"There is majority public support for much tougher, very specific measures on kinds of guns, kinds of people getting guns, kinds of magazines," he said. "The majority aren't in favor of assault weapons or high-caliber magazines. Nothing new about that."
Which brings us back to Facebook.
The forces against gun regulation are organized and productively vocal. The rest of us? We can deplore mass shootings on Facebook every now and then, and worry about the larger problem of the everyday shootings in places like Chicago's poor neighborhoods, but lawmakers don't feel as squeezed by us.
Now is a moment when we might be heard.
"The fact of the matter is," Smith said, "the president could put forward a fairly vigorous program of targeting high-capacity magazines which would be widely supported in the general population."
Since Obama won't be running for re-election, he doesn't put himself in jeopardy.
"And if he's worried about weakening the position of the Democratic Party," Smith said, "this is not an issue that will do that."
Let's hope the politicians hear this, before too many people go back to focusing on fudge recipes.
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