Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech Murders: The Debate Begins

The murders at Virginia Tech hit home with me. I spent several long stretches of time in Blacksburg back when the Public Choice Center was still there -- Jim Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, David Friedman, Bob Tollison, Geoff Brennan -- there were many interesting and brilliant economists there, and in a beautiful Georgian mansion in the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I still treasure these memories. Now my thoughts are with the victims, their families and friends, and the stricken community of Blacksburg.

Of course the bodies were still warm when renewed calls for gun control were heard around the world. The Prime Minister of Australia, who came to office on an anti-gun platform after a similar incident there, denounced the incident as another example of the evils of the American "gun culture." It probably was too early for him to know that the murderer was in fact no American, but, as reported by the Va Tech chief of campus police, a resident alien. But of course the Prime Minister's point was about the guns, not the culture. The guns are the problem, was the idea.

In a way, this is obviously true. Those people were killed with a gun. What may be a little less obvious, though, is that guns might be part of the solution as well. Notice that not one of the thirty three murder victims was armed. Is there any doubt that if even one of them had been, the outcome would have been less horrible than it was?

This a particularly poignant question, because in 2005 there was a bill in Virginia that would have allowed students with concealed-carry permits to bring their guns on campus, but it died in committee. (Hat-tip to historian David Beito here.) The victims of this atrocity had been deliberately disarmed by their own government. Adding horribly to the irony of this is the fact that one Larry Hincker, a Virginia Tech spokesperson, praised the death of this bill:
"I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions," Hincker said on Jan. 31, 2006, "because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus.
"Feel safe," maybe. But isn't being safe more important?

Notice that these shooting sprees are only ever seem to occur in places like schools, playgrounds, fast food restaurants, post offices. Why is there never a huge murderous rampage in a bar? Bars are full of people with poor impulse control. They have been working for hours at reducing their impulse control, shrinking their profit-horizons, and trashing their ability to distinguish right from wrong. Why don't you ever see the headline, "33 Killed in Saloon Rampage"?

There is a pretty obvious answer. The people in a bar may not be the nicest or most rational people in the world, but they all know that the bartender probably has a gun and a baseball bat behind the bar. They also know that he (or she!) would be happy to use them in order to maintain good order and public peace.

These killers go into schools and playgrounds because they feel safe there. Don't you think it is time to interfere with their government-given sense of security? If an armed professor or student had brought the Blacksburg killer down, it would have saved innocent lives immediately. It would also have given the next insane murderer reason to pause and go elsewhere, or maybe just to either seek help or keep his evil thoughts to himself.
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For the above picture, my thanks to Jonathan Wilde over at Catallarchy.

Added later: The above post was written immediately after it was revealed that the shooter was a "resident alien" and I did not yet know that he had lived here since the age of eight.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your example of the lack of shooting sprees in bars is a bit ironic, because although you are correct that we don't hear about shooting sprees in bars, there are probably a great deal of people every year killed or seriously injured as a result of drunken individuals having access to firearms. If we were to arm the general populace, or increase the amount of persons significantly who carry guns, it is probably true that these type of premeditated rampages would decrease, but it seems that would be greatly offset by the number of other murders and shootings which would result.

Strcprstskrzkrk said...

Dear Prof. Hunt

You ask (rhetorically, I presume) "Is there any doubt that if even one of them had been [armed], the outcome would have been less horrible than it was?" You also seem to promote the idea of a 100% armed campus...I wonder what the outcome of that would be?

Elsewhere you write that "We shall try to show that a complete ban on the private possession of firearms is impermissible on either view" and I can only feel gald that I live in a country (the UK) where such a ban is, thankfully, in place.

Surely the logic of your first statement could equally be "Is there any doubt that if none of them [including the shooter] had been armed, the outcome would have been less horrible than it was?"

Yours
David Sorfa

"Q" the Enchanter said...

"Why is there never a huge murderous rampage in a bar?"

I think the more likely answer is that the bar isn't filled with the objects of seething, psychotic resentment (the way the office or the classroom is likely to be).

I also doubt very much the possibility that the barkeep has a weapon on hand is salient in the minds of those who are stopping in for a beer.

On the point of arming citizens as a way of preventing gun crimes, I think it's very hard to say how that would shake out in the real world: Yes, knowing that someone in the room might be carrying a gun might be a deterrent in many cases; but then more people with guns makes it more likely that a person momentarily convulsed with undifferentiated rage will be able to act on it with a very efficient killing instrument. On the whole, then, I'm very skeptical a right-to-arm policy would have a net positive deterrent effect.

Peldor said...

Strcprstskrzkrk said...
You also seem to promote the idea of a 100% armed campus...I wonder what the outcome of that would be?

I dont think he is pushing for a 100% armed campus, more along the lines of a 3% to 5% rate. If only 3% of the campus was armed in a class of 50 people statisticaly there would have been at least one person with a gun maybe two, that could have changed the outcome of the rampage.

I can only feel gald that I live in a country (the UK) where such a ban* is, thankfully, in place.
*by ban I assume that you mean government disarmament and laws that nearly forbid you from defending your life or property.

You are working on a presumes that we would have to change the fundamental workings of our government, that's not going to happen. Also I see that you say you are glad to live in an area where you have no guns, good for you! I only wish all areas were as civilized, only if we were all civilized who would stamp out the evil(not in the biblical sense but in the literal sense) in the world? Another WW2, don't call us, we are civilized people. Muslim extremists blowing your country to rubble? Don't call us, we did away with killing people. Think before you arbitrarily decide that one choice is better than another.
You can even look close to home and find an excellent example of government sanctioned (mandatory) gun ownership right close to you, Switzerland. Take note of 2 facts, crime rate (both violence committed with guns, and not) and how many times they have been taken over by adversarial nations.

Anonymous said...

One day a unstable high school teacher brings an automatic weapon to his first class, locks the door against untimely intrusions, and kills three dozen defenseless kids. On your reasoning, shouldn't all these kids have had the right to bear arms so as to defend themselves against such a contingency?

Your answer will be, "Of course not! High school kids aren't mature enough to handle firearms safely and responsibly."

But wouldn't this answer imply that only kids of high school age or younger should be left defenseless in an otherwise universally armed society? And since mad shooters are, on your dubious assumption, basically cowards who prefer venues where people are disarmed, wouldn't the presence of guns in all adult venues have the effect of directing would-be shooters to younger venues, where the numbers of dead might be chalked up in relative safety?

While I'm talking about the young, I may as well ask the pertinent question: are college kids in our culture -- where the maturation process tends to be quite slow -- sufficiently grown up to be routinely packing guns on campus? Maybe seniors but not freshmen? How exactly would we decide this?

One last thing. Your remark that Cho was not an American seems weirdly off point. He came here as a second- or third-grader, early enough, I should think, to be thorougly shaped by our bang-bang, hoom-boom "culture." What exactly are you trying to say by denying that Cho was an American?

Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous,

There are now at least thirty five states that allow concealed carry of firearms, and so far it does not seem to have that result. The reason seems to be that permits issued under such laws are withheld from people with crime or mental illness in their records. In other words, such laws get more guns in the hands of ordinary, law-abiding citizens, and the law-abiding don't seem to behave in the way you are imagining here. Character, not technology, is destiny.

Lester Hunt said...

Dear David Sorfa,

First thanks for signing your name! What is this about everybody writing in to my blog anonymously? Am I so intimidating?

Anyway, the possibility of no one having any guns is indeed a beguiling one, and that is no doubt the main reason why extreme gun control -- outright bans -- are so attractive. The idea would be to convert this gun-wielding maniac into a knife-wielding maniac. Obviously, this would be an improvement.

But really, what we are looking at here is not, literally, bringing it about the no one has guns. Rather, the goal here would be that no one but agents of the government has guns. The police, the ATF, the FBI would still be armed to the teeth, as would the army, the navy, etc. I guess one huge cultural difference between your country and mine is that there have always been a lot of people here who don't want to have a country where all the lethal power is in the hands of the government.

Lester Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lester Hunt said...

Peldor,

"I dont think he is pushing for a 100% armed campus, more along the lines of a 3% to 5% rate."

Thanks, that is indeed what I meant. I probably should have said that in my original post. The idea is that the police should issue permits to carry a concealed weapon after doing a background check. Some people would do this, but most would not. And of course most don't need to. Since the guns are concealed among the law-abiding population, people like the Blacksburg shooter would no longer know who is safe to attack and who is not. The few who are armed are providing a genuine "public good" for the rest of us, making us safer as well.

Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous #2,

"And since mad shooters are, on your dubious assumption, basically cowards who prefer venues where people are disarmed, wouldn't the presence of guns in all adult venues have the effect of directing would-be shooters to younger venues, where the numbers of dead might be chalked up in relative safety?"

I was assuming that these people, like anybody else, prefer not-being-shot to being-shot. Also, looking at the the videos that this creep made of himself, it seems clear that his fantasy was to slaughter large numbers of perfectly defenseless people. He wanted to go out feeling very powerful. Victims who shoot back would probably ruin the fantasy of god-like power.

As to protecting the very young, I think we have to look at the possibility of having qualified teachers and administrators (not all of them or even most of them, but enough to make attackers worry) having concealed weapons.

"While I'm talking about the young, I may as well ask the pertinent question: are college kids in our culture -- where the maturation process tends to be quite slow -- sufficiently grown up to be routinely packing guns on campus? Maybe seniors but not freshmen? How exactly would we decide this?"

Even the NRA believes there should be a "dangerous user exception" to the right to own and use firearms. That includes of course those who are too young. As to how we are to decide where to draw the line, I wonder how we decide who is too young to drive a car, voter, or buy a sixpack of beer?

"One last thing. Your remark that Cho was not an American seems weirdly off point. He came here as a second- or third-grader..."

When I wrote that it was minutes after the head of VPI police identified the shooter as a "resident alien." Maybe I should add a note to that effect.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1 here.

Actually, I have come to think we both are wrong. I quote the following from a paper on the topic:

"On net, we believe that Lott and Mustard’s efforts made an important contribution to the literature. They asked the initial question, amassed an important new panel dataset, and then energetically and creatively analyzed it. (Indeed, their dataset, which we know from experience was quite costly to construct, has been used by many researchers to explore this and other questions about crime.) Nevertheless, their results have not withstood the test of time. When we added five years of county data and seven years of state data, allowing us to test an additional fourteen jurisdictions that adopted shall-issue laws, the previous Lott and Mustard findings proved not to be robust. Importantly, we showed that the Lott and Mustard results collapse when the more complete county data is subjected to less constrained jurisdiction-specific specifications or when the more-complete state data is tweaked in plausible ways. No longer can any plausible case be made on statistical grounds that shall-issue laws are likely to reduce crime for all or even most states. How much further one can go in arguing that shall-issue laws likely increase crime across the board or have heterogeneous effects across states (albeit most commonly pernicious) will be
matters about which various analysts will differ."

- Ayres & Donohue, 55 Stanford Law Review 1193 (2003)

X: THC said...

Question Marks
By X: THC

"This didn't have to happen", Cho Seung-Hui said, after murdering thirty-two people at Virginia Tech University.

And this terrible tragedy of sons, daughters, mothers and fathers didn't have to happen, if we'd only listened.

But we never listen.

We never listen to those that are different from us- the outcasts, the lonely, the homeless, the ones that are unspoken for. We don't try to understand. We shun them and put them out of our minds because of our fear that we will become like them.

And these people become more and more lonely and alienated in their isolation.

Words like "creep", "deranged misfit" and "psycho" devalue this killer's humanity so we don't have to face how similar he is to us. Cries of "how could he have been stopped" are uttered by media quick to sensationalize and gain market share, when the words "how could he have been listened to" are never considered.

Because we don't want to listen.

We don't want to hear about loneliness and alienation when we're all so busy with our lives, making money and making friends. And the unpopular, the ones that don't fit in, the lonely ones are ignored or made fun of because we don't care to understand anything about them.

This man who clearly needed help, Cho Seung-Hui, devalued himself so much that he called himself "Question Mark".

There are more "Question Marks" out there. There are millions of them. And if we don't listen to them, they will follow the same path again and again, because people are not connecting. We are becoming more and more disconnected from each other, creating more and more "Question Marks" every day.

Most "Question Marks" don't become murderers. Some just kill themselves. Most harm no one and live just as we do, needing antidepressants to appear what we call "normal". They may be someone you know, someone you love.

This "Question Mark" was once a little boy, who cried, and smiled and loved, He wanted to fit in just like you and I. But that desire to fit in transformed itself into anger towards a society that shunned and ignored him.

How many more times will we shun and ignore the one that doesn't fit in, the one in the corner, the one that's different? When all we have to do is listen, before it's too late.

But we won't.

Thirty-two human beings who did not know Cho Seung-Hui were murdered.
They were sons, daughters, fathers and mothers, with dreams of futures that will never come and children that will never be born. The thirty-two leave behind people that love them. People that are now scarred for life by this horrible day of death.

To most of us that have not been directly involved, this tragedy will become a memory and fade like all the others that came before.

And the "Question Marks" will appear with more frequency, again and again, because we don't listen.

We never do.


---------------


http://www.x-thc.com

Lester Hunt said...

x: thc,

Thanks for your eloquent comment.

I had similar thoughts after Columbine because there was eyewitness testimony in that case that the shooters had been persistently bullied. In this case for some reason I don't react that way. Maybe its because, other than his own statements, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that anyone was ever mean to the shooter. Also, I am impressed by all the testimony from people who did seem to have tried to reach out to him or help him. People with profound psychological problems can be very, very difficult to help.

Lester Hunt said...

"q",

Well, that is the other logically possible explanation. Schools drive people crazy. I used to have a similar view. When the phrase "going postal" first became current ten or fifteen years ago, I figured there must be something about working in a post office that causes rage. But what could it be? My own preferred explanation is based on the fact that post offices and schools do have something in common: by law, they are two places where guns are not allowed. Even if you have a permit for concealed carry, your permit is no good there.

The main reason that I lean rather strongly to my own sort of explanation: the assumptions involved seem much more plausible. Your explanation is that the places where we have these rampages cause violent thoughts and bars don't. Mine is that people respond to incentives like, if you do that here you are liable to be shot immediately. Which seems more immediately belief-worthy?

BTW, here is another place you don't see shooting sprees: police stations. Why? Because the things done in police stations don't make people mad? I don't think so!

Anonymous said...

Apparently Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine just recently closed "the loophole" which allowed the murderer to obtain his weapon(s). Essentially this involved expanding the list of individuals prohibited from buying guns to include "anyone found to be dangerous and ordered to undergo involuntary mental health treatment."

http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/04/30/gun.virginia.tech.ap/index.html

It seems to me that this was a very sensible action to take. The fact that the murderer was so mentally disturbed, deemed dangerous and yet easily armed himself indicates a problem which deserves to be corrected via gun laws. Perhaps before arming the student body, we ought to at least make sure that homicidal maniacs don't have such easy access to guns. Or would you disagree with this?

If not, I would argue that it was a good thing that this tragedy prompted some political debate involving a consideration of what went wrong and how this could be avoided in the future. This is certainly a better way to publicize the event than giving free publicity to the criminal and making a public spectacle of the families’ grief.

Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous, Gov. Kaine's move sounds like a good one to me. Even the NRA believes there should be a "dangerous user exception" to the right to own guns. Who should be excepted? Joe Olson, Hamline University law prof. and NRA board member once explained it to me as "kids, crooks, and crazies."

One problem with the current system is that government agencies often don't share the information they do have about criminal convictions or mental health problems. Clearly, this ought to be fixed.