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Be Wary of a Gun Safety Commission After Newtown

Michael Lipsky

However intense the calls for gun control reforms are now, they will soon fade in intensity.  The powerful National Rifle Association, which at present refuses to comment on the Newtown shootings, will not remain silent forever. Dana Milbank makes this point in this morning’s Washington Post, as does columnist Richard Cohen.

In expressing concern that delays in taking action favor the status quo these long-time observers reflect on the other massacres which failed to move the country to take significant action. They imagine that memory even of the Newtown shootings will fade, and the gun lobby will again be able to assert its influence. 

In weighing whether concern over delay in moving reform legislation is justified, we might consider the history of a comparable set of experiences—the urban riots of the 1960s.  

After the Los Angeles riots of 1964 (34 people died), Governor Pat Brown of California convened the McCone Commission to study the matter.  It decided that the riots resulted mostly from poverty and discrimination.  Nothing much resulted from the commission’s work. 

After the riots in the summer of 1967, and the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, commissions were again appointed, with similar results.  

Commissions in response to what was called racial violence were appointed not only at the national level but also to come to terms with the 1967 riots in New Jersey, Detroit, and Milwaukee.  The policy consequences of these studies were extremely modest at best. 

Delaying responses and not doing much of anything was the typical American response to the racial violence of the 1960s, as well as the riots in Harlem in 1935.  In our book, Commission Politics: the Processing of Racial Crisis in America, David J. Olson and I concluded that the primary function of riot commissions was to satisfy pressing public demands to do something about the riots while justifying the postponement of action until enough time had passed that the previously prevailing balance of interests could be restored.  

I am reminded of these conclusions as politicians cautiously pick their way through the admittedly complex politics of curbing gun violence.