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Online, Shaping a Narrow Debate After Newtown Shooting

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, December 18 2012

When President Barack Obama spoke Sunday at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn, he promised to take action to fix what's broken in an American society that could not protect 20 young children and seven adults from death at the hands of a single disturbed person, and could not protect that killer from himself.

"We can't tolerate this anymore," he said. "These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law -- no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society."

But he was really just setting the table for a narrower conversation about gun control.

Most people, or anyway, most people on Twitter, seem to have got that point:


The dominant focus of the national conversation is now on guns and gun violence, an important and historically intractable debate that may well finally reach a new phase after the Newtown tragedy. But it has appeared in the context of a political fight, a back-and-forth between people who have always supported gun control and people who have always opposed it. Other commentators are are seeking to deflect attention to other objects of concern, like violent video games, for the most part redrawing the same lines.

In the breadth of his remarks, Obama specifically included "mental health professionals," "parents," and "educators." But that nuance has been left behind by a national conversation that began far in advance of all the facts coming out about Newtown or about the troubled young man who put its residents in the news. Before Friday had even ended, and even before anyone in the media had correctly identified the killer at the center of the tragedy, activists had begun to circulate gun-control petitions. Dozens of people gathered at the White House to demand action before the sun had even set on that terrible day.

Senseless acts of violence are often followed by a search for fuel to stoke the fires of public outrage. At BoingBoing, Maggie Koerth-Baker compassionately calls this part of the bargaining stage of grief. In the mad scramble after tragedy, as reporters hunt for the story and we all hunt for meaning, the desire to construct a single, tangible villain — one failure to remedy or one simple group to put away — races ahead of truth's deliberate approach.

There is certainly more attention now on simple villains than on complex problems. Here are some of the things that the American public is now asking of Obama's administration, in the wake of the Newtown shootings, on The White House's "We the People" e-petitioning site. The numbers are as of Tuesday afternoon:

In some corners of the web, people are starting a conversation about the relationship between behavioral illness, violence, and problems with how our country responds to both. A point-counterpoint between two bloggers about support for parents of troubled kids did, briefly, become online news in a way one could easily argue was not possible before the Internet. They are reaching consensus and, maybe, forming a coalition that will start a debate of their own. In another corner of the blogosphere, Christine Monnier, a professor of criminal justice and sociology at College of DuPage, and criminology blogger Todd Krohn, both suggest that guns are a central issue, but not the only issue, in a broader conversation about the causes of violence in American society. Krohn argues that the profile of a "spree killer" is a mid-twenties male who has been aggrieved in some way and been "branded antisocial in demeanor" in the years leading up to their crime. Guns amplify the violence, but horrific violence in schools happens even in countries without widespread access to guns. Perhaps voices carrying ideas like these carry farther now than they might have 20 years ago, but the front-page news is still that Adam Lanza was a "ticking time bomb". The New York Daily News named a behavioral disorder in describing Lanza, but did not go to the trouble of confirming prior to publication what, precisely, professionals think had ailed him — as if his mental history was entertainment rather than material to a national debate.

Meanwhile, the public debate has already been framed as if guns and guns alone are worth discussing as the helpmates of violence. The White House has the tools at its disposal to broaden the conversation, but has, at least so far, stopped short of using them. The closest the administration came to doing that online was to send out an email Monday night encouraging Americans to watch video of the president's remarks in Newtown, where he explained the goal his White House would set in the wake of this latest tragedy.

"This is our first task -- caring for our children," Obama said on Sunday. "It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged."

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