civic responses to Newtown

Bursting into a school to kill children and teachers is evil. It is also the antithesis of civil society and threatens the trust and peace that are necessary for civic life. A true solution is not easy to envision. None of the reforms that has a significant chance of enactment would reliably prevent such tragedies, even if legislation might help at the margins. A real solution would require action on many fronts, by many people. Addressing a brutal threat together is civic work that can help repair the torn fabric. And several different kinds of civic response are available.

One approach is grassroots mobilization in favor of some particular reform, such as gun control legislation. I don’t think serious reforms can pass without mass protest and advocacy. This approach would be divisive, but as long as it is peaceful, there is nothing “un-civic” about divisive politics. Debate and competition are good for democracy. In my view, the most serious limitation of mass mobilization is that no reform package that has been proposed so far would really meet the expectations of the activated citizens. Banning assault weapons would be constitutional and might prevent some violence, but it would hardly block all school shootings. More access to counseling might help some kids, but  apparently no impressive prevention strategy is available today for suicidal teenagers.

A second approach is to deliberate about the issues that Newtown has put on the national agenda. By definition, a deliberation is open to all people and all views. Thus a deliberative response would welcome both gun opponents and gun supporters. It would not aim at perfect consensus but might generate mutual trust, good new ideas, and perhaps enough political will to enact them.

The Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the National School Public Relations Association have “developed a guide for discussion and action on school safety and other issues raised by the events in Newtown.” The guide can be downloaded from the DDC’s resources page. It provides excellent advice about how to organize a deliberation based in a school and suggests four contrasting positions for citizens to discuss. (Each one comes with some supporting arguments and evidence.) They are: “strengthen school security procedures,” “take a closer look at how school systems deal with mental health issues,” “focus on guns, gun safety, and gun violence,” and “focus on approaches that address the emotional development of young people.”

Note that “naming and framing” an issue like this is difficult and important work. Kevin Drum wrote a post entitled, “If You Want to Regulate Guns, Talk About Guns. Period.” The President, however, tried to broaden the topic to children’s safety (which is much worse in inner-city neighborhoods than in suburban schools, but for different reasons). Even though Drum and Obama are on the same general side politically, they named this issue differently. There is no single correct name, but the DDC’s guide would give many people points of entry.

The DDC ‘s guide would work best for highly decentralized, community-based deliberations. Participants could commit to change their own behavior and perhaps influence policies in their schools and towns. If, however, they preferred large-scale political reforms or mass cultural change, they might feel frustrated by not being able to take effective action. Thus there is a case for some kind of large-scale national deliberation in response to Newtown. But reaching large scale would raise the political stakes and would encourage some people to try to derail the whole process. I can envision citizens showing up to deliberative events with unconcealed assault weapons, meaning to demonstrate their civil rights but scaring other citizens into silence. This doesn’t mean that national deliberations are impossible, but they would have to be carefully planned and led by a credibly neutral group.

A third approach is to strengthen civil society to reduce violence. I have blogged several times already about Robert Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Sampson finds that “collective efficacy”–having a reasonable expectation that neighbors will act to address local problems–powerfully predicts whether neighborhoods thrive or decline. In turn, the strength of nonprofit groups and the number of well-connected leaders powerfully affects the level of collective efficacy.

The New York Times‘ Benedict Carey used Sampson’s analysis to write a good article on Monday about the Chatham neighborhood in Chicago. Racially segregated, economically challenged, and threatened by occasional random violence from outside the community, Chatham still has so much collective efficacy that it can usually hold crime at bay. Carey writes, “Chatham has more than a hundred block groups, citizen volunteers who monitor the tidiness of neighborhood lawns, garbage, and noise, as well as organize events.” When an off-duty Chicago police officer, Iraq War veteran, and civic leader named Thomas Wortham IV was shot to death, “residents of Chatham didn’t wait long to act.” They arranged public events that were intended to reinforce collective efficacy and organized crime watches and other practical efforts to suppress crime. They were so effective that essentially no crimes were reported in the vicinity for months after Officer Wortham’s tragic murder. (This example comes straight from Sampson’s book but is retold in the Times.)

How to help more American communities become like Chatham is not an easy question, but it could mean making policies more favorable to civic involvement, changing the culture of local governments and other formal institutions to promote active citizenship, reorienting civic education to teach civic action, and possibly enacting economic reforms that strengthen the kinds of local nonprofits that, according to Sampson and others, boost collective efficacy.

I do not prefer any of the three approaches. Indeed, they are compatible and could be mutually supportive. The same people and organizations cannot lead all three, because leading an advocacy campaign would destroy one’s neutrality as the organizer of a deliberation. But all these efforts (and more) can happen at once. The vision and effort they would require would itself be an appropriate civic response to Newtown.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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  • Great piece.

    I’m helping to organize the March on Washington for Gun Control (  and am very concerned about this aspect of this particular debate >  The “other side” has guns.   As you mention:  “I can envision citizens showing up to deliberative events with unconcealed assault weapons, meaning to demonstrate their civil rights but scaring other citizens into silence”

    Actually, we are getting 100’s of messages from people interested in attending the March who are afraid for their personal safety.

    How can you have a deliberative event when the other side has guns?  How can you have a discussion when the other person could “stand their ground” and shoot you?

    You can’t.

    For me, the gun issue is fundamental to who we are as a nation and who we will become.

    Will we become a more trusting nation where guns are not seen as a way to end an argument ?

    Will we allow true first amendment rights to be as powerful and important as the 2nd Amendment (which is utter bunk)?

    A nation where every school teacher has a gun is not a nation where I want to live or where I want to raise my children.

    What the NRA and the Gun Murder Lobby has done to the civil discourse in this nation is criminal.  The FIC (Fear Industrial Complex) has created millions of angry white men (yes, mostly white and mostly men) who believe that the 2nd Amendment is THE MOST IMPORTANT AMENDMENT IN THE CONSITUTION.

    They say that they will defend their right to have guns to the death.

    America was not, nor should it ever, be a country that is about owning a gun.

    Our founders did not leave England to own guns.

    Indian immigrants from India do not leave their families so that they can own a gun.

    Mexican workers do not cross the desert for a chance of a better gun.

    Shaun Dakin

    • PeterLevine

      Hi Shaun, I agree, but I see a dilemma. On one hand, guns are fundamentally uncivil. Even if guns can address certain problems (such as crime), using them is a strategy that gives up on peaceful dialogue. Moreover, if someone tries to hold a peaceful dialogue–especially in a school–and others show up with guns, that will be deeply disruptive. On the other hand, a lot of our fellow citizens do believe in a very broad right to bear arms. A civic approach to problem solving has to invite them in.

    • Shaun – check out some of the recommendations in the DDC/NSPRA guidebook Peter references in the post.  The guide suggests you may reach a broader audience if you tie a public deliberation into less volatile and less academic-sounding community events, such as potlucks and children’s performances.  People may carry concealed weapons to those kinds of events as well, I suppose, but I think they would go into them with a very different mindset and very different assumptions about what the event will be like. Sadly, “public forums” and “town meetings” convened by government are becoming more and more associated with anger and conflict. The NSPRA guide is suggesting that schools convene community forums to talk about how citizens, schools, organizations and government can work together to make schools safer.

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  • AndreaMorisetteGrazzini

    I agree with you, Mr. Levine,

    Legislation is far from enough. Even it were that perfect bill that could be passed and upheld in public practice, regulatory and adjudicative actions won’t solve all. I also happen to doubt that deliberation alone will work. Certainly change requires much discussion, debate and deliberation. But, we have fallen into a pattern of much talk with little action in this Country. Conversations assuage our desires to do something, but when they are not accompanied by the actual ‘doing’ of problem solving, they amount to little more than rhetorical ramblings. In fact, I wrote about this in my own reaction to the Newtown shootings, here:

    As I note in the piece, I suspect we need all: government remedies and deep dialogues–but most of all, to your point, we need a culture of civic engagement. And there is no question in my mind that, as you note, such efforts must be many, diverse and interconnected, or at least parallel. Most of all they must, as a whole, be meaningfully sustainable. Because surely more problems will emerge that will threaten to divert attentions. Depth and replication of solutions can provide the staying power needed for useful outcomes to emerge and remain effective. This is not to say that focus should be traded for volume of efforts. Focus is critical and is one of the key factors to insure the success of interconnected efforts. Your suggestion that developing a culture where public action and citizen engagement policies are engaged with and through institutions and that we go so far as to teach civic engagement in academic and community education settings would be a very good start. Civic engagement needs to become a habit if we are to sustain the many and simultaneous solutions the involvement of many citizens could. Andrea Morisette GrazziniFounder and CEO, WetheP an e-democracy start-up

    • PeterLevine

       Great piece on your blog, Andrea–thanks for the link.

  • Thanks for writing about collective efficacy, Peter.  Sounds very much like the  concept of “civic infrastructure” the dialogue and deliberation community has been concentrating a lot of energy on lately, but I hadn’t heard the term collective efficacy before.

    • PeterLevine

      It may be connected, Sandy. The measures of collective efficacy are survey questions about whether other people in a community would do things like report an abandoned car or report child abuse.