Eternally Surprised By Tomorrow

A pile of guns are displayed at a news conference after an annual Gun Buyback Program which netted 1,673 firearms over the we
A pile of guns are displayed at a news conference after an annual Gun Buyback Program which netted 1,673 firearms over the weekend, marking a four-year low shown at the Los Angeles Police headquarters in Los Angeles on Monday, May 14, 2012. A local supermarket chain donated $200,000 in gift cards to give out in exchange for the guns. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

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The future has its surprises. Even the most farseeing among us, even the seers of the U.S. Intelligence Community, are -- for better or worse -- regularly caught off-guard by what tomorrow has to offer. Take the murderous acts of two disturbed young men. No, not Adam Lanza, but Jared Loughner wielding his Glock semi-automatic pistol with its 33-round extended magazine, and James Holmes with his "semiautomatic variation of the military's M-16 rifle, a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, and at least one .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol."

The attempted assassination of a member of the House of Representatives in Tucson in January 2011 and the mayhem and killings in a movie house in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012 shocked the nation. Each time, the president comforted an unnerved public, while a downsizing media leapt at the opportunity to focus on a single eyeball-gluing event for days on end (undoubtedly the cheapest way to go). When it comes to the coverage of slaughter-by-gun in America these days -- from teddy bear memorials to religious services, first responders to final burials -- you can almost do it by the numbers, with a rolodex already filled with grief counselors, psychologists, gun experts, religious figures, and the like.

If you had to guess, you might have said that no two events were more likely to put the issue of guns and gun control back on the American agenda -- and of course you would have been wrong. Afterwards, if you had read the experts and the pundits, you would have known that the issue of gun control was as dead as any of the victims of those massacres and off the American agenda for years, if not forever. The polls assured us of the same. The conclusion seemed clear enough: American innocents could die en masse at the hands of disturbed guys with access to powerful weaponry and the public would still prefer fewer controls on weapons.

All that held true until a disturbed young man, who had killed his gun-hobbyist (possibly gun-obsessive) mother and then employed a rifle that the New York Times described as "a semiautomatic... that is similar to weapons used by troops in Afghanistan," massacred 20 small children, a school principal, and five staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, a (gun-loving) Connecticut community.

Once again, we had days of obliterating media coverage, with the usual experts, pundits, and rites, including a community in shock, grieving, and pulling itself together, and of course President Obama comforting its citizens with "the whole world watching." Once again, mindboggling facts about gun-selling and gun-ownership in this country began making the rounds: there are only 14,000 more gas stations than federally licensed firearms dealers in the United States (143,839 to 129,817); more than nine times as many dealers as McDonalds (14,098); and by conservative estimate, 3.3-3.5 million of the AR-15-style rifle used by Lanza have been produced for domestic use since 1986 in the U.S.

This time, however, something different happened, something no one had expected or predicted, that, in fact, everyone knew was inconceivable: the polls showed sudden, spasmic surges of support for stricter gun laws (an overnight 18% rise in the latest CBS poll, for example). Suddenly, gun control was on everyone's agenda, a ban on assault weapons on lips all over Washington (and backed by the president), and movement in the air. In such a heavily armed and fear-ridden country, all of this may not, in the end, add up to a hill of beans (or ammo) in policy terms, but it remains striking nonetheless.

Looking ahead, the lesson is simple enough: when it comes to 2013, take the predictions of the pundits with a grain of salt. Ignore everyone who knows that the usual will be the norm and make a New Year's wish for the surprises that, looking backward, litter history.