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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