Friday, December 14, 2012

Mass Shootings Are Irrelevant to the Issue of Gun Control

In the approxaminately 1/3 million words I have written in this blog (not counting comment section!) I fear I may have said everything I have to say about everything that interests me.  In the space of two days we have had two horrific mass shootings by horribly disturbed people -- the shootings placed occuring, with a symbolism worthy of the Prince of Darkness himself -- on the opposite coasts of this country.  Since both shooters used "assault weapons" renewed calls for banning such weapons have arisen everywhere.  (BTW, if I get time tomorrow, I will write a new -- yes, new! -- post explaining why I put scare quotes around "assault weapons.") After the "Batman shootings" last Summer, I wrote a blog post arguing that such horrors are the weakest possible reasons for gun control, and that those who think otherwise are actually not being moved by reason, but by emotion.  Except for correcting some typos and making a few other small changes, I stand by it as written.  So here it is (with those changes: ----

In the wake of mass shootings like the one in Aurora Colorado, there are always renewed calls for gun control.  This familiar phenomenon is a testament to human imperviousness to facts and logic, as such shootings are. of all gun-related deaths, the least likely to be deterred by gun laws. The worst such shooting, ever, happened in Norway (death toll 77) and the worst K-12 school shooting [until yesterday] happened in Erfurt Germany (18 dead).  Both countries have gun laws that are far more constraining than those of the USA.  As John Lott points out here, four of the five worst school shootings ever happened in western Europe, within the boundaries of gun control heaven. The harsh, stringent gun laws of these countries failed to save the lives of the victims of these atrocities.

Possibly the oldest utilitarian argument against gun control was voiced by Cesare Beccaria in 1764

(HT to Charles C. W. Cooke):
The laws of this nature are those which forbid one to wear arms, disarming those only who are not disposed to commit the crime which the laws mean to prevent.  Can it be supposed that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, and the most important of the code, will respect the less considerable and more arbitry injunctions, the violation of which is so easy, and of so little comparative importance.
This argument applies best of all to mass shooters like James Holmes.  Like most such people, Holmes did not suddenly "snap."  He planned his atrocity well in advance, beginning at least four months ago, with great patience and determination, accumulating an arsenal of weapons as well as elaborate body armor, and elaborately booby-trapping his apartment.  It is obvious that someone who will shoot seventy completely innocent and defenseless strangers in a darkened theater is not going to be deterred by "oh, I can't buy that weapon -- it's illegal," and it's also pretty clear to me that Holmes would have had the determination to get weapons from an illegal source.  Like drug laws, gun bans do not make the banned item disappear, rather they drive it into the netherworld of criminal commerce.

If you are going to advocate a law based on a single horrific case, then that law has to be one that would have prevented that horror.  Otherwise, that one case is, logically, completely irrelevant to whether that law was a good thing or not.  And gun bans would do nothing to prevent and atrocity like Aurora.

Having said this, I have to admit that the principle I have just placed in italics, which makes perfect sense to me, seems to have no effect on most my fellow human beings.  When Oswald murdered Kennedy with a gun purchased through mail order, Congress responded by passing a law that banned such purchases.  Even at the time, as a teenager, it was obvious to me that, whatever the reasons for such a law might be, the Kennedy assassination was not one of them.  Who could think that Oswald would not have killed Kennedy, or tried to kill General Walker, if he could not have gotten his cheap Mannlicher-Carcano through the mail?

Mass shootings like Aurora are not good reasons for weapons bans; they are emotionally powerful symbols of violence.  Those who are moved to ban a weapon by such incidents are acting on emotion and not on the basis of reason.  Especially in the realm of the law, that is a terribly dangerous thing to do.*


*  This is why laws that are named after people -- such as "Megan's Law" -- are usually a bad idea.


enrico said...

I would welcome further thoughts.

So far the argument is about the failures of policy. Gun bans do not make the banned item disappear. Whilst policy will not ever be 100 pc effective it also seems wrong to assume it will not be an effective impediment for perhaps the very large majority of people determined to undertake the kind of attacks discussed. It may be that you are in principle against the kind of Policy that would make guns (almost) impossible to obtain - but that does not mean it might not be rationally desirable to many people.

(Just like many people object to anti-terrorism laws and policy, it is hard to argue that these have not largely been effective in stopping terrorist attacks)

Lester Hunt said...

It looks like you did not read the post you are commenting on. I never said gun bans don't make guns disappear. I talked about the unique nature of mass shooters as perpetrators. Emotionally they are the best argument for gun bans; rationally, they are the worst. If you see this comment, please go back, read the post, and reply to what I said there. (BTW, if there is such a thing as a gun ban that makes it almost impossible to get a gun that is what they have in Norway, where (as I point out in the post!) we had the worst mass shooting in the history of planet Earth.

Lester Hunt said...

I just inadvertently deleted the most recent reader comment and my response to it. I no longer have a record of either. I'm sincerely sorry about that. I hate Blogger's new format!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the post but the emotional outcry and media focus of these two shootings is the assault weapon. Many non-gun owners see a difference between handgun/hunting guns vs assault weapons as the problem. Hunters and those advocating handguns for personal protection from criminals in accord with Cesare Beccaria's 1764 argument could support a ban on assault weapons but the NRA enforces a group think mentality (like labor unions in Michigan?) on all gun ownership.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

One of the major principles of the American Republic is private property and of course its protection. One can argue that the 18th century citizens were given the 2nd Amendment Rights to protect against despotic government but the image of a person walking past the "No Trespassing" sign and the farmer emerging from the house with the rifle gives us a better understanding. Today we can dial 911.

enrico said...

This was the argument I was responding to:
"Like drug laws, gun bans do not make the banned item disappear, rather they drive it into the netherworld of criminal commerce.

If you are going to advocate a law based on a single horrific case, then that law has to be one that would have prevented that horror. Otherwise, that one case is, logically, completely irrelevant to whether that law was a good thing or not. And gun bans would do nothing to prevent and atrocity like Aurora."

Lester Hunt said...


I see. This a repost and I had forgotten I said that. I apologize for accusing you of not reading carefully. Still, I maintain you are wrong on the substantive issue: unless you have a totalitarian system, like China, you'll never make guns virtually impossible to get (here the case of Norway comes in).

Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous #1: I will try to blog about assault rifles tomorrow. I'm not an expert, but my researches suggest that, except for clip size, these "assault weapons" are no worse than the semiauto pistols that police, and countless civilians, carry today.

Anonymous #2: Most Americans don't know this, but dialing 911 is not even intended to be a self-defense move. Average police time to arrival = 6 minutes. Plus, once they get there, they have no legal duty to interrupt a crime in progress. Acc to news repts the cops got to Sandy Hook in only 3 minutes -- pretty good, exc that acc to other repts they didn't get into the building until 30 mins after the crime began. What were they doing in the mean time? Listening to children and teachers being murdered, that's what. If this sounds like a crazy thing to say -- this was actually pretty good compared to how long the cops waited at Columbine. Moral: Do NOT rely on 911 for self-protection.

Anonymous said...

Most gun control advocates have no problem with guns for hunting, target practice and conceilable weapons for self-protection. As far as assault weapons, clip size makes them dangerous as weapons of mass murder which is demonstrated by these mass shootings.

The rights argument about privacy are trumped by the desire to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. In the CT case the mother was a legal user of guns but unfortunately her son had mental issues. The Brady laws had no power to prevent him from getting access to the weapons.

As far as 911 response, 30 minutes is astronomicaly long. Nobody has revealed how many adult males were in the school i.e. teachers, custodial staff etc. I would suspect that the absence of adult males made the school a more vulnerable target. The media has been very protective about revealing the staff identity and gender makeup.

Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous #2: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. We agree on two important things: Some weapons or weapon features or accessories should be banned, and some should not. This means the real question is, where to draw the line? What is the principle. Yours seems to be "feature makes weapon more dangerous as a weapon of mass murder." This seems way too low a standard to me. Many desirable features, such as increased accuracy (which usually makes a weapon more safe) would be banned under such a standard. I have an idea of what the standard should be, and I'll try to post about it soon.