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Events can open policy windows that bring mixed results

The thing about polarizing policy debates is that they are often effective at gridlocking the status quo rather than moving meaningfully in any direction. Regardless of how thoroughly, convincingly and strategically an advocate for shifting a given policy stakes a position and aligns support among those who make policy decisions, there are a number of other stars that must align before movement occurs. Too often, crisis begets action.

The most recent example of this familiar policymaking story is the gun-control debate that has ensued since the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Not a breath was taken between the body count’s confirmation and discussion beginning across the country at local, state and national levels as to how to ensure such a horrific act cannot occur again.

This event threw open policy windows across a spectrum of issues: public safety, mental health, and at center stage, gun control.

Suddenly, lawmakers had the political capital to expend on changing the status quo. So outrageous a moment has that effect on the policy process. It does not necessarily deliver sound policy, though. In a rush to be responsive to shocking events that cannot, must not, ever happen again, the methodic long-game that advocacy groups have been executing can often get muddied with elements that may soothe worries but not be as effective as a more considered policy approach.

The gun controls President Barack Obama is proposing – a ban on certain assault weapons, a 10-round cap on magazines and universal background checks – are a good place to start to counter the widespread availability of weapons that can wreak the sort of devastation as that at Sandy Hook, or in an Aurora movie theater last summer. They do not, however, take the comprehensive, measured approach to the conundrum of how to minimize the occurrence of gun-related violence. The gun controls are necessary, but also reactionary.

It is a trade-off that faces many policy-selection processes: The opportunity to take action arises out of crisis, and the ensuing policy suffers as a result, either in not going far enough, or in overreacting – to limited or even negative result. Some other examples that are still reverberating through Americans’ daily lives include the airport security measures that resulted from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the reforms that came after the 2008 financial meltdown.

The precipitating events that opened each of these policy windows had such widespread and profound effect on Americans’ collective psyche, it is not surprising that the policies that came after were somewhat reactionary.

That may be happening to some degree with the reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting, but there is reason to be hopeful, too.

While the gun-control debate is taking center stage, there is a multidisciplinary effort to address the whole range of factors that can trigger such events, and the vulnerabilities that expose innocent people to their violence.

Nationally, and at the state and local levels, there are discussions and promises to devote more resources to mental-health services, so that would-be shooters might have a better chance of receiving crucial help.

School officials and law enforcement, as well as first responders, are considering how to improve the safety of their buildings and how to keep people safe from such crimes.

It is as comprehensive a discussion as there has been in recent memory and could produce some meaningful and well-conceived policies. They will not, though, mean the once and future end of the tragedies that prompted them.

That does not mean we should not try to diminish their frequency or their effect.

It is true that banning certain weapons will not stop a determined madman from his course. But if doing so saves five or 15 lives while not compromising Americans’ Second Amendment rights, then what is to lose? It is a start, and if Sandy Hook has drawn one universal response, it is that we must do something, and now.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.