In the wake of a school shooting in Florida, social media has predictably been chocked full of memes suggesting that we react by enacting sweeping gun control legislation. One of these memes, which has now been shared over 65,000 times on Facebook alone, argues that we should leap to action to end gun violence as we have in response to other high profile incidents in the past:
I single out this meme in particular because all of the events described are actually cautionary tales about how not to make public policy following high-profile incidents.
First, The so-called “Mansfield bars” installed on the rear of trucks actually didn’t do much of anything. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tested them a few years back and found the ones on the market tended to buckle easily and provided virtually no protection. It was pretty much all about appearances. Only recently have Mansfield bars been engineered to be genuinely effective.
Secondly, Tylenol has long since relented on safety caps and now offers its product with an easy-open cap for households without young children. Although there was certainly a net safety gain from using child-proof caps, including them on all bottles was an overreaction that caused major problems for the elderly. Noted 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney observed grimly that “[t]hese caps on medicine bottles may have saved the lives of some children, but there’s no statistic on how many adults have died in the middle of the night because they couldn’t get the top off a bottle of their medicine.”
Thirdly, the meme is simply wrong about ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which was the material used by Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Nearly ten years later, ammonium nitrate fertilizer was only restricted in two states. Several years later, in 2007, Congress passed legislation for ammonium nitrate to be regulated by Homeland Security, but those regulations have been slow to be implemented. As of 2015, the regulations had not been finalized (and have not since, to my knowledge). Today, you can still buy ammonium nitrate off of Amazon.
Finally, there’s little reason to think that taking our shoes off at the airport has been making us measurably safer. Scientific American has called it “dumb” and not based on science. Security experts universally mock it. According to one such expert quoted in Vanity Fair, Bruce Schneier, “[i]t’s like saying, last time the terrorists wore red shirts, so now we’re going to ban red shirts.” It’s an inconvenience that does nothing to improve airline safety.
In short, every single example cited in the meme proves the opposite of what is seeks to prove. Each of them is a time when people started screaming that we needed to do “something.” It is true that, at least sometimes, a major, high-profile incident can indicate that policy reform is needed. However, the process of creating good public policy does not occur quickly, and some problems simply can’t be fixed by the heavy hand of government.
When we act abruptly out of a perceived need to react in some fashion — any fashion — we wind up taking our shoes off at the airport for no reason. We end up putting cheap bars on trucks that bend like paper clips. We end up giving pill bottles to elderly people that they can’t open. Basically, we end up reacting badly.
Those who suppose gun control have their own policy sawhorses that they want enacted. Most of them have nothing whatsoever to do with reducing mass shootings, but they would at least be doing “something.” By pushing these policies now and after every major mass shooting, they are exploiting the tragedy for raw political gain. They are hoping we will act first and think later.
We have a word for that: shameless. “Thoughts and prayers” sound effective by comparison. The laudable endeavor of preventing tragedy deserves better.
Owen Courrèges is an attorney living in New Orleans. He has previously written for Uptown Messenger, the Reason Foundation, and the Lone Star Times.