Saturday, June 20, 2015

Why Mass Shootings Aren't a Problem

     Even aside from people who want to get rid of guns entirely, there are a great many people who rightly want to keep guns out of the hands of those who would use them for evil purposes. All too often, though, these people approach mass shootings and other gun crime as problems to be solved rather than a dilemma to be managed. Predictably, all their solutions to these "problems" would create more problems than they solve. When this is pointed out to them, they get frustrated, throw up their hands, and shout, "Well what do you think we should do? Even an imperfect solution is better than doing nothing!"

     That's not a foregone conclusion, however. When a proposed solution causes more harm than it prevents, it's worse than doing nothing, not better. The main reason these ideas fail is, as I mentioned above, that they treat a dilemma as a problem. Let me sketch out the difference. Let's say you don't want peanut butter on your nose, but you have a bit on it. It's not doing you any good. There's no reason to keep the peanut butter there. Removing the peanut butter from your nose will not create a worse situation than keeping it there. Removing it will cause you to have the situation you desire: having a nose with no peanut butter on it. And that's it--no downside.

     A dilemma, on the other hand, is a messy, complicated situation where you have competing, mutually exclusive values to choose among. Managing a dilemma necessarily entails making sacrifices. Say, for example, that you're a recent high school graduate, and you have an opportunity to either major in Architecture at UCLA or major in Electrical Engineering at MIT. There's no way you can have both. A creative person might find ways to mitigate the losses of foregoing one or the other, but there really is no middle path. You have to choose, and reaping the benefits of the option you choose means you also have to live with the consequences of giving up the other opportunity. That's a dilemma. It's not a matter of just wiping a bit of peanut butter off your nose and making the trouble disappear. You have to weigh the options against each other and determine which option is worth sacrificing the other.

     That's why I say mass shootings aren't a problem. They're a dilemma. Some of the reasons why have been so fully sketched out previously on this blog (not to mention by the NRA and other defenders of the Second Amendment) that there's no point going into any depth on them here. There's no way to just wipe the mass shootings off the end of our nose, because there's usually no identifying a mass shooter until the damage is already done, and the damage, in this case, is permanent. Both preventing the shootings and responding in such a way that would reduce the number of innocent casualties to zero would require the implementation of a police state so massive and intrusive that we might as well all lock ourselves in individual cages like battery hens, a situation I think most people would find even less desirable than living with the possibility of mass shootings.

     There's another reason, though, that I've never seen anyone else address, to say that mass shootings aren't a problem. Given the present state of our technology, mass shootings are a feature, not a bug. That sounds like a horrible thing to say until you stop feeling, start thinking, and realize that a would-be mass murderer who's frustrated in his attempt to get his hands on a gun might not necessarily lower his ambitions and reach for a knife or a machete. Instead, he might build a bomb.

     It's really a simple matter of utility, in the sense that economists and game theorists understand that word. Bombs kill a lot more people in one whack than guns do, so why have all these mass shooters chosen to use guns rather than bombs? The simple answer is that people are lazy. Some terrorists no doubt have built bombs, huge ones. But a lot of killers simply aren't that dedicated. They want easy, quick gratification. If they can fill out some papers and pay a few hundred dollars at a store, or steal a gun from someone else who has done so, or pay a private individual for a previously-owned gun that might well be stolen, that's a much easier method for obtaining a weapon for mass murder than trying to buy or build a bomb. Even most criminals wouldn't know where to buy a bomb, not even a small one like a hand grenade, and most wouldn't know how to build more than a small pipe bomb.

     If you make it impossible to buy a gun or to steal one, then someone who wants a gun will have to make it. While building a bomb takes a great deal more skill than buying a gun does, it takes a great deal less skill than building a mass-murder-capable gun. All other issues aside, if we look only at the question of utility, I'm okay with laws that restrict the ownership of full-auto weapons and removable, high-capacity magazines, because if someone really wants those things and is willing to break the law to have them, it still requires far less skill to convert a semi-auto gun to full-auto or to build functional magazines out of scrap metal and springs in one's garage than it does to build a large, effective, safe-to-operate, concealable bomb. As such, outlawing full-auto guns and high-cap magazines doesn't put aspiring mass murderers in the position of shrugging and saying, "Eh, for all that trouble, I might as well just mix up a pallet load of TATP."

     That alone, I feel, is reason enough to not try to eliminate the possibility of mass shootings. As long as they are possible, and easier to pull off than a bombing, I think we steer lazy killers away from using bombs.


     The question we should be asking then is not, "How do we eliminate the possibility of mass shootings?" but rather, "How do we mitigate the existence of mass shootings?" That is, how do we:
1. ...remove the motive for wanting to commit an act of mass murder?
2. ...minimize the opportunities for committing mass murder?
3. ...minimize the damage that can be done by a mass murderer?

     Question #1 has very little to do with guns. It's more about psychology and social problems than it is about technology. It's also the biggest, most tangled dilemma in the list. We'd have to change nothing less than our culture, our economic system, our politics, our methods of raising children, and our own personalities. Aside from that--aside from producing kinder, gentler people who don't want to hurt each other--the only obvious answer I see is to make succeeding at mass murder so unlikely that people are discouraged from trying. It's like why so few robberies are bank robberies. Both the likelihood of failing and the consequences of failing make banks an unattractive target. If we can't make people be nice, at least we can aim for making them think there's no point trying to kill a lot of people.

     Question #2 is largely an issue of security and sort of overlaps with question #1, because a person will be discouraged from wanting to try killing a lot of people if they can't think of any time or place they could succeed in doing so. This is the rationale behind eliminating gun-free zones and arming teachers. The thinking is that if a would-be school shooter knows that he'll likely be intercepted and killed by another armed person the moment he draws his weapon, he's far less likely to bother attempting a school shooting. But we can do even better than that. How would a killer manage to murder dozens of school children at one time if, for example, all children were homeschooled?

     That's what I mean by minimizing opportunities. I'm not suggesting that all children should be homeschooled. I simply mean that if we didn't keep all the kids in one place, it's tough to conceive of a way to go to one place to kill them all. In the same way, how do you pull off a bank robbery if everybody has their money stuffed under their mattresses?

     If schools were built as a campus of small, one-room schoolhouses rather than a single, large building, and all those little buildings went into lockdown the moment a single shot was fired, it would be impossible for a killer to get access to more than one class full of targets. Keep classes small and increase the number of buildings, and you minimize the damage even further. It's also possible to control movement like this within a single building; it's how prisons operate. This is the kind of thinking we need to be engaging in rather than thinking we can control the behavior of deranged individuals by passing laws. School lockdown procedures developed after the Columbine shooting already operate on the same basic principle.

     Question #3 also overlaps with question #2; if a killer can't get at his victims, he can't do them much harm. In addition to that, though, we can also make responses to mass shootings faster and more effective. I'm not a fan of arming all teachers, because I've known too many teachers who didn't seem emotionally stable enough to be trusted with a gun. But I don't see a problem with schools having their teachers, or some portion of their teachers, trained to act as an on-site emergency response team. Just as some employees learn to operate fire extinguishers and AEDs without the expectation that they be fully certified firefighters, I think it's reasonable that we could put some teachers and other school staff members through police use-of-force training and active-shooter response tactics. Then, rather than having a killer walking around unimpeded for five minutes until the police show up, he'd be facing an auxiliary SWAT team within maybe 45 seconds.

Even if that team is armed only with ballistic shields and Tasers (so nobody breaks into the school's armory and gets their hands on a deadly weapon), they would still be able to engage and possibly subdue the shooter to stop him from killing any more children. There's no reason to confine this strategy to schools, either. Businesses, churches, any place people gather together and present an attractive target to terrorists, there could be a team of carefully screened volunteers who are trained to stop an attacker or at least contain him until police arrive.

It beats trying to stop suicide bombers.

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