Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

19 December, 2012

Many Solutions to School Shootings, Most of them Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

By Aaron
19 December, 2012

"There is always an easy solution to every problem - neat, plausible, and wrong."
- H.L. Mencken
In the five days since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I've managed to resist writing anything - even in the form of tweets or Facebook status updates - about the massacre. My silence on the matter stemmed not from any lack of gut reaction, but rather from my own sense that an airing of my gut reactions would add nothing to the surfeit of other people's gut reactions currently clogging the webosphere. With this piece, you can now add my thoughts to that glut.

In the wake of such awful events, most folks seem only too ready to rush forward and announce that if the world had only heeded their advice in the first place, we wouldn't be in this mess and that, in the case of Newtown specifically, 26 people would still be alive. Thus did those already predisposed to tighter controls on gun ownership immediately shout, "see, we told you so." Thus did those who advocate for fewer restrictions on gun ownership, and who believe that a prevalence of firearms serves to prevent crime, yell, "see, we told you so." Not surprisingly, such an environment encourages the political class - ever-hungry for attention - to insist that we "do something" and do it right away. 

Amidst this din, those of us who struggle to simply make sense of such horrific actions tend to just keep quiet, both because we're not exactly sure what to say about the matter and because our voices wouldn't rise above the ruckus anyway. In the aftermath of events such as those in Newtown, few people care to hear from those whose first reaction is uncertainty and circumspection.

After a few days of reflection, however, my reaction to the events at Sandy Hook Elementary has come to rest on two essential points. First, if it's human life we wish to preserve, school shootings are scarcely the place to start and, second, there is very little - either in practical or legal terms - that can be done to prevent such awful statistical oddities.

As I wrote following the shootings earlier this year in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, we should remember that, on the whole, the world has become a remarkably safe place to live - a fact which does nothing to comfort those who've lost loved ones to violence, but which should temper our reactions to such events. Moreover, I worry that policymakers, in seeking legislative responses to events like those in Connecticut and Colorado, will fail to place such events in their proper context. Writing earlier this week, Diego Basch gets right to this point:

I would start by measuring the magnitude of mass shootings as a problem. How does it compare to other issues such as preventable diseases, regular crime, terrorism? I searched for data, and found out that in the past 30 years, 543 people have been killed in 70 mass shootings. That’s an average of 18 deaths per year. For comparison, three times as many die from lightning strikes.

The New Republic article linked in the previous paragraph states “I can’t say exactly why mass shootings have become such a menace over the past few years, and especially in 2012.” Given the low numbers, it’s likely that it is just a random fluctuation without statistical significance.

To put things in perspective again, half a million Americans die every year from tobacco use. Two hundred thousand die from medical errors. Those numbers are large enough that it’s possible to track changes with statistical significance, and evaluate the effect of public policy. There must be a fair amount of low-hanging fruit. For example, it’s feasible that a 100% tax on the price of cigarettes would save thousands of lives ever year. Why is this not attempted? Probably because the special interest group that controls tobacco sales is powerful enough to stop it.

For mass killings, the numbers are already so low that the logical question would be: is it worth doing anything to try to reduce even more the chance of mass killings? What could be the undesired side effects of implementing policies to that effect? For example, let’s say that someone came up with a vaccine that guaranteed that a child who received would never be a mass killer. However, one child in 100,000 dies from an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Clearly the vaccine itself would cause more deaths than mass killings, so it’s a net negative if we are trying to minimize unnecessary deaths.

And if it's the death of children, in particular, that you're keen to prevent, I might also mention the obscene numbers of kids killed by U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.  Are they merely collateral damage, an unfortunate cost in the pursuit of some larger goal? If so - and, yes, I realize that this is veering away from my main topic - what is that larger goal and how will you know when it has been achieved?

But back to the topic of school shootings. Suppose you believe that, regardless of the low-hanging, life-saving fruit mentioned in Basch's piece, events like those at Newtown nevertheless deserve special attention and resources. What, specifically and in concrete terms, would you propose to do? As ever, calls for sweeping general action ("ban guns," "provide better mental health services," "secure schools") are cheap and easy, while few care to soil themselves with the details and actual costs of implementation. Writing at The Daily Beast, Megan McArdle takes on just this problem and concludes - correctly, I believe - that there's not much we can do to prevent another massacre like the one in Newtown. More likely, whatever action policymakers take will provide only a false sense of security:

There's a terrible syllogism that tends to follow on tragedies like this:

1. Something must be done

2. This is something

3. Therefore this must be done.

. . . and hello, Gulf War II.

It would certainly be more comfortable for me to endorse doing something symbolic -- bring back the "assault weapons ban"-- in order to signal that I care.  But I would rather do nothing than do something stupid because it makes us feel better.  We shouldn't have laws on the books unless we think there's a good chance they'll work: they add regulatory complexity and sap law-enforcement resources from more needed tasks.  This is not because I don't care about dead children; my heart, like yours, broke about a thousand times this weekend.  But they will not breathe again because we pass a law.  A law would make us feel better, because it would make us feel as if we'd "done something", as if we'd made it less likely that more children would die.  But I think that would be false security. And false security is more dangerous than none. 

Truth is, as Coyote Blog points out, if we're to live in a free American society shaped by America's culture, we're bound to accept certain risks. Where gun habits are concerned, America may eventually evolve into Switzerland (with its widespread firearms and relative lack of violence), but conscious action by policymakers cannot transform America into Switzerland. 

As with most social challenges, then, the "solution" lies not in Big Ideas or with bureaucrats in  Washington but rather in ourself and our own communities. So, if you own a firearm, get professional training on how to safely handle it and, when not handling it, be sure to keep it locked away in a safe place (why didn't Adam Lanza's mother have hers in a safe-within-a-safe?). Take care of your kids and, if they show signs of mental illness, get them the help they need. If you're worried about crime in your neighborhood, form a neighborhood watch group. Get to know your neighbors, not for purposes of snooping (well, okay, for a little snooping) but for purposes of mutual aid. 

Will any of these steps prevent every last lunatic from shooting up the local elementary school? Certainly not, but neither will any of what's presently being proposed on Capitol Hill. 

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