Are gun politics too complex? Simplicity would help.
As the Newtown families plead for Congress to act, lawmakers – and President Obama – admit to the complexity of gun issues. Scholars on simplicity offer some ideas.
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A number of scholars have noted that Americans face an increasing number of choices in their daily lives, often leading to a “learned helplessness,” or a certain apathy to act. The latest book on the topic – “Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity,” by Irene Etzkorn and Alan Siegel – offers some useful insights.Skip to next paragraph
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The authors say complexity is “wreaking havoc on business, government, and finance” but that this can be countered by promoting three principles of simplicity: clarity, transparency, and empathy.
Clarity means making rules easy to understand, short, and intuitive. The authors note that the typical credit-card contract in 1980 was about a page and a half long. Today it is 31 pages. Applying this to gun rules means that Americans should not be asked to figure out how they might pass an onerous background check or have to read a long manual on what an assault rifle is.
Transparency means being open and honest about the underlying reason for a rule. Any gun laws should not need interpretation by courts or bureaucrats. The authors note that the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education was less than 4,000 words. Today’s rulings can be tens of thousands of words.
Empathy means making rules that are useful, support action, and respect the user’s time, or as the authors say, “building humanity into everything you do.”
They point out that the US Constitution is six pages long while the US tax code is 14,000 pages. Gun laws should be seen as easy to engage and relevant to daily life.
Other scholars who advocate more simplicity in public life may have different approaches to the gun debate. Another new book is “Simpler,” by Cass Sunstein, who was President Obama’s overseer for all new federal regulations. New rules need to be “meaningful and helpful” in order to be simple, he writes.
Reducing the post-Newtown debate down to its simplest elements might go a long way to bringing a consensus. Note that a few states, such as Colorado and Connecticut, have passed gun laws, perhaps because lawmakers at the local level brought clarity, transparency, and empathy to the debate.
Americans have often been told to “simplify, simplify,” from Henry David Thoreau to Steve Jobs. That doesn’t mean being simplistic. Many issues are hard. But lawmakers who do their job well can cut through the clutter. The folks in Newtown deserve it.