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There are things that are simply too terrible.

Guns, criminal justice, and a national agenda 

Guest Commentary

On January 21, Barack Obama begins his second term as president. While for many Americans that milestone brings a sense of optimism and anticipation, there is also concern, growing out of a disappointment over opportunities not addressed in his first term. In this space in the weeks leading up to that milestone, three Rochesterians will address key issues that need to be on the agenda of the president and Congress.

Our guest columnists: RIT Criminal Justice Professor John Klofas, on the issues of gun control and criminal justice; Rochester Mayor Tom Richards on the needs of cities; and the Rev. Marvin McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, on poverty. Mary Anna Towler's Urban Journal column will return in mid-January.

There are things that are simply too terrible. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, qualifies. The nation, and the world, now wrestles with how to make sense of it and what to do. I choose to be optimistic, largely because there seems to be no other choice. To think that the world we live in will not change now is simply unbearable. The only question to be considered is how we move forward.

Nothing in the long presidential campaign that we just closed would seem to prepare us for this question. There was almost no mention of crime and justice. How could candidates who sat through a string of mass shootings avoid any mention of the problem of guns in the United States? Between the end of 2010, when the Republican primary came into full swing, and the November election, there were nine mass shooting incidents in the US, including the one in a Colorado movie theatre. In the wake of Sandy Hook, the candidates, the press, and the rest of us should all feel shame for the failure of our democratic process.

But presidential campaigns may be the wrong place to look to for sound policy proposals. Ever since Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater added crime to the national political agenda in 1964, Republicans and Democrats have fought for the title as toughest, not smartest, on crime. Our brand of political discourse has almost always meant more crime laws, more drug laws, more prisons, longer sentences, and of course, flirtation with state-sponsored death. As a result, the population of prisons and jails grew from 350,000 to over 2 million in less than 4 1/2 decades. Today, with budgets in mind, we are now trying to undo those indulgences.

So the question remains: How do we move forward? There is reason for optimism. As in the past, forces outside electoral politics can drive the agenda. It happened with drunk driving. On that issue, there has been sea change in American attitudes and behavior. It started with victims, their family members, and concerned and sensible citizens demanding to be heard, and it began with the death of a 13-year-old girl and the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980. Since then, yearly drunk driving fatalities have fallen by more than half.

It also happened with domestic violence, something only whispered about until the early 1970's. The feminist movement changed that, and the battered-women's movement grew from a handful of shelters across the country to producing major legislative changes in social policy, criminal justice, and health care. Although the concept of "legitimate rape" did make its way into the recent political campaign, that ended well enough, with electoral defeats of its defenders.

In important ways, our problem with guns looks like those two issues before the public outcry. Domestic violence advocates and drunk-driving reformers created change that overcame longstanding culture and tradition. While there was little political will at the start, that deficit was eventually overwhelmed by public will.

There are also other, even more current reasons to be optimistic. Crime policy has almost always been promoted as a statement of unimpeachable values, just like gun values. It has been especially true when it comes to drugs. Yet in the same election season where the pols sat still on crime, two states voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and others joined the now 18 states where laws support its medical use. Regardless of how the US Department of Justice responds to this state-by-state insurrection, it is a powerful statement of disaffection. It says loudly that marijuana is the people's business in the same way tax increases, spending cuts, and guns are.

There is also other evidence that a populist push can take on the toughest, most complicated issues. The concept of "mass incarceration" has moved out of the specialized lexicon of left-leaning academics and into the mainstream. With that has come a growing awareness, and, for some, deep concern, that the US leads the world in the rate at which nations imprison their own citizens. That, in turn, has forced many to confront the raw fact that incarceration rates for minorities are more than seven times that of whites. This may turn out to be the first time since the Attica aftermath that the clash of criminal and social justice has come under such wide public scrutiny.

Intolerance for the idea that the cure for crime can have toxic side effects, just as our Second Amendment rights may, is also behind the ongoing controversy over stop-and-frisk policies in New York City. There the issue is brought sharply into focus by the reality of urban violence and its devastating effects in poor, largely minority neighborhoods. It is mostly in those neighborhoods where police made nearly 700,000 stops in 2011. Ninety percent of the time, those stopped were black or Latino, and only two percent of the time were guns or other contraband seized.

Opponents argue that those outcomes don't justify the practice. Supporters say the neighborhoods want it; it is crime prevention that matters, not arrests; and on that, NYPD has led the nation. But increasingly the case is being made to look beyond both versions of the policeman's view of the world. A human rights issue is being raised in which the exigency argument is itself biased – an unacceptable-under-any-circumstances compromise applied only in poor neighborhoods. If the public dialogue can handle that issue, there is certainly room for a vision beyond the narrowest interpretation of the Second Amendment.

So optimism in the wake of Sandy Hook need not grow only out of the need for psychological comfort. It does not take a leap of faith to be optimistic. Perhaps electoral politics do not show a way forward, but we have done it before, and we have continued to demonstrate our ability to deal with the most complex and difficult questions. Guns cannot be the American exception to sensibility and reason.

John Klofas is professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

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