Laws Can’t Fix What Only Character Can

What Laws Can’t Fix

Laws never permanently fix social problems. And perhaps the proof lies in the numbers. There are millions of laws on the books. Conscientious folks don’t behave themselves merely because of them. And the bad actors among us have always either ignored them or found a way around them. (See: Another Aggressive Personality Primer.)

Laws can’t fix the rise in senseless violence, either. But in the wake of tragedies, like the mass shootings in Uvalde, TX, and Boston, it’s natural to hope so. We so desperately want solutions that we’ll look almost anywhere for them. Sadly, however, for too long we’ve largely looked in the wrong places, unwittingly ignoring where the core of the problem actually lies.

Crucial Lessons from History

You’ve heard it said: There’s nothing new under the sun.” And there’s great truth to that. You’ve also likely heard: “Those who fail to heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.” And if there’s anything that our long history of trying to manage people by force, punishment, and freedom restriction should have taught us it’s that these things alone can’t keep us safe. What we need is a dramatic change in culture. And that must necessarily start with some changes of heart.

History teaches us that some things are new and others are not. Feeling mistreated or bullied is not new. Feeling misunderstood is also not a new phenomenon. Nor is feeling estranged from or rejected by one’s peer group. Dealing with emotional conflicts and suffering mental health issues are also not new things. These are ages-old aspects of the human experience. But it was once extremely rare for a person struggling with any of these things to wantonly and indiscriminately kill, without compunction.

It’s fair to take issue with the number of instruments of violence available and the ease of access to them. But history and a wealth of personal and professional experience has taught me that focusing too much on such things is a recipe for further disaster. I’m one of those adult children who actually thought it was “cool” to hide behind bushes along with my friends and shoot cap guns at one another. But not one of us entertained even the remotest thought of actually hurting one another, let alone killing another, even when we believed we were the victims of foul play. Something big has changed, alright. And it’s not human nature!

What Needs to Change

Human nature has not changed. And the stresses and challenges of life are as they have always been. What’s changed are the dominant values in culture and the devastating effect those changes have had on everyone’s character. Merely passing more laws can’t fix what’s happened to us or adequately address the reasons it’s happened. What’s happened is that in a culture of pervasive entitlement, too many folks enter young adulthood lacking healthy internal resources and controls. If a person lacks the will to pay attention to a yield sign, bite their tongue when tempted to say that hurtful thing to their partner that they know will damage the relationship, or refrain from making a vulgar gesture when someone offends, how can we expect them to exercise self-control when it seems the world has abused them so badly that they want to lash out?

What needs to change is the attention and importance we afford character. Sure, it matters how well a student is mastering their academics. But it matters more how our children are doing at mastering themselves! Fostering and shaping character was once the PRIMARY task of all those involved in mentoring children. We expected character, too – of everyone! We held folks of poor character in low esteem. And we didn’t indiscriminately afford such folks power, no matter how much they promised to serve us. Once, you actually had to prove your worthiness!

Not everything needs to revert to ways of the past. We are all better off without some of our past misguided ways. But character will never go out of date. And if we don’t restore its importance soon, things will probably get a lot worse before they get better.


I’ll keep sounding the alarm and drumming the beat about character. It’s my life’s work and passion. I did my best to embody it all in Essentials for the Journey. And you can hear more about this topic by accessing the latest Character Matters podcast.

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One thought on “Laws Can’t Fix What Only Character Can

  1. Uvalde is a tragic case study in failed character, except for 19 fourth graders and two teachers (and one spouse). From the troubled teen gunman to the authorities who showed an inclination to lie in its aftermath, it’s disturbing all around. As for the young shooter, multiple guidances in his life obviously failed. As for the public officials who knowingly misled and prevaricated, that’s an adult choice — a conscious, rather cynical decision to falsify and conceal. The lack of accountability in response to the incident and response to the public defies comprehension. This mass incident also turned into a mass character failing — excluding a schoolhouse of students and their teachers and their parents.

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