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Leo Pierson Headshot

On Gun Laws and the Tragedy of Sandy Hook

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In the early morning hours of Sunday, Nov. 18, a young mother was shot to death not 50 yards from my home. On the backside of our block is a new elementary school. And while I was out of town and school was not in session, I was terrified to think about the alternative possibilities.

I've been combing through my emotions these past days since the tragedy at Sandy Hook. My wife and I will welcome our first child into this turbulent world sometime in the next 11 weeks, which gives me added perspective, as I'm already feeling the protective capacity shared by any caring parent. We have shed tears for those children and for their families and loved ones. My stomach twists in anger as I think, "Couldn't this have been prevented?"

I myself grew up with guns. I was perhaps 5 years old when I was gifted my first: a CO2 revolver pellet gun. I also understand, then, something of the tradition of gun ownership and the culture of arms that courses through the historical fabric of our nation.

Truthfully, I don't know that this tragedy could have been prevented, but what I do know is that there has been a proliferation of guns in this country. And the guns in question are not the guns with which I grew up. Nor are they used with the same care, knowledge and respect that were handed down to me informally through family and peers and formally through thoughtful, tested study.

My general thoughts on laws are that they do not function as such unless they are appropriately situated within the social context of a society; that they are right for the times and places in which people actually live. Thomas Jefferson, whose more eloquent words on the subject are etched into the marble walls of his memorial, taught me the base of this lesson when I was still a boy.

Gun ownership rights are meaningfully and appropriately protected by the Constitution, which is perhaps our nation's most hallowed, working document.

But it strikes me that beyond the surface of this debate on rights, we're really talking about gun markets; not gun owners. Markets, however, are not people -- at least not yet -- and so they don't have rights. That which markets do have is the tendency to affect people regardless of one's voluntary entry or non-entry into them. It's what economists call "externalized costs": a cost incurred by a party not involved in the causal transaction.

Gun markets, as with any market, are subject to the regulatory powers of Congress. Yet it is this very institution that continues to fail in its obligation to do as much. Not surprisingly, as with any little regulated mass-market, eventually, the great weight of a market failure will take its broad and tragic effect upon society. When it does, the only response available to a people will be solemn; it will be fear-driven, and it will be reactionary.

But once persons have lost their lives, in this case heroic teachers and small children who were little more than babies, there is no reaction powerful enough to fix that or to bring back those who have been so violently taken from us. There is nothing to be done to heal the visceral eternity inflicted by those costs, by those wounds.

Jefferson wrote: "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws or constitutions. But laws and institutions go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that develops... institutions must advance to keep pace with the times."

From my point of view as a parent, as an educator and as a concerned citizen, our current regulatory gun laws do not suit our contemporary lives. They must advance. They must be proactively fit to the context(s) of our current society.