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.

AP Photo
Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, center, signs legislation April 4 that includes new restrictions on weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines, a response to last year's deadly school shooting in Newtown.

Four long months have nearly passed since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. And yet Congress has yet to approve any new gun legislation – despite the personal pleas for action by the families of victims in Newtown, Conn.

Why the delay?

One reason is that Americans remain intensely divided over many of the gun issues. Lawmakers are locked into blocs of competing views among voters, creating a stalemate in forging a compromise. Even when polls show a majority favoring a particular solution, that doesn’t sway key lawmakers.

But another, rarely mentioned reason is that the issues surrounding guns are complex. Gun legislation remains complicated because the causes for gun violence are varied. And other issues are complex: Who can tell if a person is dangerous? What is the role of violent video games? What is an assault weapon?

As President Obama stated after the Newtown shooting: “We know this is a complex issue that stirs deeply held passions and political divides.” And Rep. Mike Thompson, chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, admits to the difficulty in crafting solutions. The California Democrat says that he has worked “with virtually everyone imaginable” on reducing gun violence while respecting the Second Amendment. And yet he found one thing to be clear about gun regulation: “It is a very complex issue, and in order to make any meaningful progress, it’s gonna take a complex and very comprehensive solution. You push one place, it takes you somewhere else.”

It is not only elected officials who confess to being stuck in the thicket of issues over how to balance the public’s desire for protection against a constitutional right to bear arms.

The Supreme Court’s 2008 decision that recognized a fundamental gun right left open many unknown loopholes. In a 2010 ruling related to guns, Justice Steven Breyer highlighted the “highly complex” issues and posed a series of questions:

“Does the right to possess weapons for self-defense extend outside the home? To the car? To work? What sort of guns are necessary for self-defense? Handguns? Rifles? Semiautomatic weapons? When is a gun semiautomatic?... Who can possess guns and of what kind? Aliens? Prior drug offenders? Prior alcohol abusers?”

Perhaps a new approach is needed, one that addresses this complexity first.

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.

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.

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