Common Sense

Addressed to the inhabitants of Harvard

It’s a luxury to indulge in the visceral—and I suggest that you and I take advantage of it while we can. I hope you, as I did, saw the breaking news update on the Umpqua Community College shooting, read a few early takes on it, and sat there in front of your computer, senselessly—your lower jaw hanging open in a soundless scream. I hope you questioned your most deeply held beliefs about gun control, about your politics in general. And I hope while the blood of those nine victims cooled, yours boiled.

I hope all this because we can afford to do it: As much as we like to think otherwise, a college education—Harvard, no less—is rightfully an inquiry into Platonics. We engage hypotheticals, and strive for the ideal. When we do talk about something concrete, like public policy or a cultural practice, we’re encouraged to pay little heed to those pesky limits of plausibility. We factor out the real world.

But in a blink of an eye, we become a part of it.

There will come a time soon after we graduate when many of us reach a political ascendancy where our thoughts will matter in earnest—where the imperative to just “do something” will require us to elaborate and put forth an agenda of what to do exactly. This will necessitate rational thinking that above all appreciates that policy issues are immutably complex.

And while we don’t have to think about this yet, the current players in our political landscape can’t afford to have their heads in a cloud. If our reductionist national response to the Oregon shooting is any indication, though, their heads aren’t coming down anytime soon.


A mass shooting like this one has, right on cue, inspired unproductive rhetoric that seems to suggest that the solution to gun violence has been under our noses all along. Unbelievably, in his official statement, President Obama first admitted, “We don’t yet know why this individual did what he did,” but then prescribed “common-sense gun legislation” without entailing what this magic antidote would be.

It’s sad that this must even be pointed out explicitly, but for the sake of not being misinterpreted: The goal of both proponents and critics of gun regulation is to reduce mass shootings. Only one side, though, is willing to admit that it will take more than common sense. The other will likely bumble around for a few minutes before admitting to not having any proposals when asked: “With [all due] respect, what is your plan?”

A fair policy debate emerging in the aftermath of this tragedy should take the mens rea of the perpetrator seriously (as it should the state of mental health in this nation altogether). It should also be founded on the fact that gun control in a nation with 300 million firearms and a well-established gun culture necessitates different methods than gun control in a country with a fraction of this number. It will then examine how criminals don’t acquire guns in the way most Americans do, how shooters evade tough background checks, and how mass shootings account for a small fraction of gun violence in this country. Once we lay the cards on the table, then we can get somewhere beyond empty impulses to do something about the problem. Then we can strive for the ideal.

I too am angry about the tragedy that unfolded in Oregon, and I too want to find solutions to a problem that keeps surfacing too many times to merit inaction. But if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on leaders who understand the complexity of the American gun problem and can separate their policy ideas from their visceral reactions, rather than on leaders who chalk it all up to a dearth of common sense.

Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.