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Tragedies as Occasions for Discussing Ways To Prevent Repeat Tragedies:

The tragic shootings at Virginia Tech have already led some to ask whether more gun control — or more private gun carrying, including at universities — would help avoid such crimes in the future. They have also led some (for instance, Eric Muller (IsThatLegal?)) to fault those who are publicly discussing such policy responses so soon after the deaths.

It seems to me clear that such discussions are generally sound, even worthy. Using the attention created by a tragedy to try to prevent similar tragedies strikes me as in principle an eminently proper response, a way to allow at least some good to come from the evil. Preventing the tragedy from leading to unsound reactions likewise strikes me as an eminently proper response. (Complaints that legislative proposals triggered by the tragedies "politicize" the tragedies thus strike me as misguided, though of course complaints that particular proposals are practically or morally unsound may be eminently sensible.) But the question is whether we should pause before engaging in such discussions; in Eric Muller's words, "Let's wait at least a day before trying to score political points, shall we?"

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I thought I'd pose the question here (hoping that at least there's nothing wrong with using the tragedy as an occasion for asking this meta-question). I don't think the answer is clearly "yes, wait," the way it is as to critical obituaries of writers whose work one dislikes; responding to death using unpersonalized policy discussion is different from responding to death using personalized criticism of the dead person. On the other hand, I don't think the answer is clearly "no, go ahead," at least as a matter of first principles; perhaps we ought to have a social ritual of grief and condolences first, policy analysis (even of the most cerebral sort) later, and perhaps the very immediacy of the tragedy may lead to unsound first thoughts about the policy questions.

One extra piece of the puzzle: Even if we think that in the abstract the right approach would be to wait a day, should our analysis change because others will surely start talking about legislative responses right away?

The Brady Campaign, for instance, responded quickly (at the latest by 3:30 pm Eastern time the day of the murders) with condolences coupled with a call for more gun control. [UPDATE: So has the Violence Policy Center, as of 7 pm Eastern or earlier.] I first learned of the incident when I got a call from a French news agency that wanted to ask me all about American gun controls, and how the tragedy would likely affect the political debate; I expect that American news outlets will likewise discuss this in the coming hours.

Should this reality, coupled with the plausible expectation that there will be many pro-gun-control sentiments expressed even today, lead pro-gun-rights forces to speak up at the same time as the pro-gun-control forces are? Or would that just be practically counterproductive, as well as in bad taste (assuming that one thinks as a matter of first principles that talking about legislative responses right now is indeed in bad taste)? Two wrongs don't always make a right, but sometimes the right answer for one side is indeed altered by what the other side is doing. (That's why, for instance, advocates of campaign finance reform might both (1) prefer that all candidates fund their campaigns only using small donations, but (2) when their adversaries are getting big donations, conclude that it becomes proper for pro-reform candidates to seek out such big donations, too, at least until bilateral disarmament is achieved.)

In any event, I thought I'd pose this question, and see what our readers thought.

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