The sense of a tectonic shift on gun controls in the US strikes me as a surprising result of the shooting in Connecticut, mostly in a "why this one" sense. I mean, I think we all get that the depth of this tragedy is beyond the others - the number of kids, in an elementary school, obviously - but to suggest that this one is somehow "worse than the others" is to forget how bad what came before really was, and sets up a kind of hierarchy I'm loath to endorse.
But something shifted, and I'm fascinated at the cultural analysis. It's more than the kids. Other aspects of this tragedy, and its timing, have brought the usual defenders of absolute gun rights up short; there's a surprising silence, and an even more surprising amount of grudging acquiescence that staus quo on guns will simply be unaaceptable.
Part of what's tipped, I think, is location, in several senses; most obviously, this happened in the northeast, the bastion of liberals these days, as opposed to the recent examples in, say, Colorado or Arizona. And it suggests that the reactions of shock and horror were tempered by a sense, there, that gun culture is more commonly accepted. In the suburbs surrounding New York City, you get a lot (lot) less of that. And that's repeated along the coast, and coastal cities, from Maine to Maryland.
But I think one other locational aspect is that when you go north or west of the Eastern seaboard, one can forget how un-urban things get, real fast. Here in Northern Westchester, things get clear a mile or two out of town, especially at night: houses in the woods, well removed from bright lights and big cities, and big city notions of all sorts. On one hand, as many commentators have noted, there's a sense of a suburban idylll being deeply disturbed; on the other, Newtown may really be more of an example of exurban, rather than suburban, life, where people really live out in the country, well away from an urban core. That's why the revelations of a survivalist, gun-heavy culture in rural CT may be less surprising than they seem at first blush. Anyone who's driven Route 84 across central Connecticut (and mid-Hudson Valley New York, for that matter) can attest to the odd lines between developed suburbs and truly rural country. And that lifestyle is not so far removed from other rural, exurban existences around cities South and West.
My point is that the tipping point here may not really about northeastern liberals and a sudden "here in our backyard" moment; no one needed to convince most liberals (at least the ones I know and experience round these parts, and in my lifetime) about the need for more gun regulation. And while some have pointed to this tragedy as another "urban vs. rural" tension, I think the real tipping point is that this happened in a semi-rural area which has deeply shaken the "can't happen in our suburban idyll" notions of many exurban dwellers, especailly (I'd bet), women. When the shootings happened in movie theaters and shopping malls (and one did, let's recall, in Newport California, less than 12 hours later), it was easy to separate those areas and activities from home. Strip malls may be dicey... but once you get off the main road and back to your neighborhood enclave.... it's all ok. When the shooting happens in the local area elementary school... that last illusion is shattered. Population density, like other demographic markers, may be the real key here. It's getting harder to find a place to feel safe, even away from others. And that's a tipping point about how closely we want to manage the gun culture.
It's an interesting moment, this shift on guns; like a number of shifts in popular perception lately, I think politicians are playing catch-up with a public that's moved far and fast. That sense of catching up, combined with short memories, may not bode well for sweeping changes, or even modest incremental ones, on guns. But our next conversation on guns won't be like the least 20 years or so, I don't think. And still, we do have the problems around mental health, which are more complicated, and in many ways worse. And, as I've long suspected, it will be easier to focus on the guns and "do something" about them, than to look long and hard at how we deal with deeply disturbed people, especially disturbed young men. I don't think a demographic shift will fix that problem; that only comes when we develop more of a will to tackle the hard stuff. If ever.