The “Complicated” Causes of Gun Death (Part I)

13 March 2018

Imagine, hypothetically, we live in a country that has had a series of apartment building fires, where dozens of people burn to death each time (in other words, imagine that what happened in the tragic Grenfell Tower event happens often).

Suppose also that certain materials were consistently used in most buildings that caught fire. Those materials caused the fires to spread rapidly and more lethally than they otherwise would. Yet the legal restrictions on these materials are extremely lax. It turns out there is an organization—the Materials Rights Association (MRA)—which contributes millions to the campaigns of politicians who keep those laws lax. The MRA reaps huge financial rewards due to the lax laws, because cheap building materials, even if highly flammable, are desirable to its member builders.

Citizens call for elected politicians to tighten the laws and at least make it harder for builders to build with those flammable materials. Buildings are going up like dry kindling with people inside. Regulating the materials would significantly reduce fire-related deaths. But that group of MRA-funded legislators blocks the legislation every single time.

When citizens in town halls confront those who block the legislation, what do those legislators and MRA advocates say?

Three patterns emerge.

  1. It’s complicated. There are multiple factors in fires…”

  2. “Critics of these building materials don’t even know the difference between a building’s cladding and its exterior siding.”

  3. “This is not a materials issue. It’s an arson/electrical wiring/fire alarm/… issue.”

In town halls around the country, the MRA-funded politicians weep crocodile tears about the lives lost. They talk about doing things about arson…and electrical wiring…and about arming each home with a fire extinguisher. According to them, those are the real problems. They say it’s important to understand the difference between cladding and siding. And they repeatedly say, “it’s complicated.”

When this group of politicians says that “it’s complicated,” many people’s ears perk up. Aha, some citizens think for a moment, it sounds like they’re trying to understand and solve the problem. When those politicians and MRA advocates criticize their critics for not knowing the difference between cladding and siding, the critics and would-be critics feel slightly ashamed of their ignorance, like they need to go back and do research before they are allowed to speak again. Ordinary citizens then become hesitant to speak themselves, because—after all—they are also not sure of the difference between cladding and siding. And when the MRA advocates say, “this wasn’t a materials issue…it was arson!” or “this wasn’t a materials issue…it was wiring!” or “this wasn’t was Y!”—most people aren’t sure how to respond, because in every case there was something like arson or wiring that started the fire. So, they think, maybe it is an arson issue after all.

The display of emotion and appearance of attempts at a solution (“Arm everyone with fire extinguishers!”) allows the MRA-funded politicians appear caring. Maybe there are two sides to the issue after all, people think. Maybe having tougher arson laws is the right thing to focus on. Maybe law-abiding builders shouldn’t be punished for bad electrical wiring or arson.

As time goes on, something terrible happens: the supporters of the MRA-funded politicians and the supporters of their political opponents begin to regard each other with disdain. Not just the politicians—citizens themselves. The mutual resentment takes on a life of its own, so that among the citizens themselves it becomes hard to talk across factions about the issue of building materials. Conversations devolve into shouting and insults. Memes appear all over the internet that insult members of the other faction, that imply they are stupid, and that advocate for or against the MRA. And with all this faction, some builders even go out of their way to use the flammable materials even more, just to show whose side they are on.

And in this hypothetical country we live in, there was a time for a short while when major building fires were in a slight lull. We were ever so slightly complacent, when to our surprise—it’s always a surprise—a building clad and sided in MRA-supported, flammable building materials caught fire and rapidly burned. This time seventeen people were unable to escape and died in the fire; dozens of others were injured. Fourteen of those who died happened to be students, and three happened to be teachers who tried to save the students. The fire happened on Valentine’s Day. And it occurred in the otherwise idyllic suburb known as Parkland, Florida.

And again, the same voices emerged.

“It’s complicated.”


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 -- 12:08 PM

Sounds like the MRA is much

Sounds like the MRA is much like that other constitutional advocacy group with near-identical initials? The key similarities between those organizations appear to be ideology and deniability, with a dollop of, uh, complacency. Some may truly believe that it is complicated. Attorney friends of mine might counter that with: 'it depends'.