- - Thursday, September 13, 2012


Like clockwork, it has happened. Anytime there is a shooting, there is a call for stricter gun control laws. But in the aftermath of the recent shootings in New Jersey and New York, the calls for more stringent laws ring hollow. New York and New Jersey have laws that are among the strictest in the nation. This highlights an important point in the battle against all violence, including gun violence: We should be more concerned about the cultivation of character than the crafting of laws.

Most people would refrain from shooting someone whether there was a law in place or not. It is the rare person who would say, “The only thing keeping me from opening fire on innocent people is the law.” No, most of us don’t murder because we know murder is wrong — not because the law tells us it is, but because our moral compass does.

By combining data from the Census Bureau and the FBI, we see that in states with the death penalty for murder, the murder rate in 2010 was 25 percent higher than in non-death-penalty states. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, California, where in April a man in Oakland shot 10 innocent people in a college classroom, ranks among the states with the strictest gun laws. Likewise, New York and New Jersey have some of the strictest gun laws in the nation but have a higher murder rate than Ohio and Virginia, where gun laws are among the weakest. The states with the lowest murder rates are Vermont and New Hampshire. Those two states rank among the ones with the weakest gun laws.

Of course, these statistics don’t prove laws are worthless. What they do show is the limited capability of laws to determine outcomes in individual cases or to shape behavior in general. The strength or weakness of gun laws is not to blame; the persons who commit crimes are. What we need to understand is what leads these people to commit such horrific acts of violence.

No law can make people feel connected or empathetic, improve their view of humanity or make them moral.

Laws are insufficient correctives for the depraved soul or mind. Rather, laws punish misdeeds, remind us of what society expects from us and, in some instances, provide a deterrent for those less determined to harm others.

Laws are not useless, but to think of them as the only answer or the best answer is wrongheaded. A new emphasis should be placed on cultivating character, not crafting laws. Such an endeavor does not follow a clear course of action, nor does it satisfy our needs for clarity and immediacy, but it does provide a more productive path forward.

Kyle Scott teaches American politics and constitutional law at Duke University and University of Houston.

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