CNN ran an article detailing how student activists “led” the Washington, D.C., March for Our Lives rally on Saturday, downplaying the heavy organizational support they received from adult gun control advocates. Recent survey data show that only 10 percent of rally attendees were under 18 and the average age of the adults present was 49. And while most of the press coverage has implied that young people are overwhelmingly in favor of more gun control, comments from actual young people suggest their views are not quite so monolithic.
…A 2015 Pew poll found that only 49 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds favored an “assault weapons” ban, compared to 55 percent of those aged 30 to 49 and 63 percent of those 65 or older. A March 6 Quinnipiac poll, taken several weeks after the Parkland shooting, found that only 46 percent of 18-to-34 year olds support an assault weapons ban, rising to 51 percent for those aged 35 to 49, 68 percent for those aged 50-to-64, and 80 percent for those over 65.
…Millennials who support the Second Amendment are themselves surprised at the pro-gun leanings of their peers. When an NPR reporter cited polling data indicating that young people tend to be skeptical of gun control, 19-year-old gun rights activist Abigail Kaye responded, “That’s surprising, because I feel like we’re a more progressive generation…We’ve grown up more, I think, with this kind of gun violence, so you’d think maybe we’d push for more regulations.”
No wonder she’s surprised. Contrary to the impression left by most of the press coverage, the gun control battle is being fought within generational cohorts, not just between them.
A slightly different picture than one might suppose given recent events.
RAND’s extensive report does not make any sweeping declarations about gun policy. It does, however, make clear that gun control research is very limited, calling on Congress to lift the NRA-backed funding freeze. It argues that this freeze has, by making it difficult to conduct better studies, led to a confusing empirical environment, where it’s easy for groups on both sides of the debate to cite shoddy work that supports their prior beliefs.
“The studies that have been done often reach opposite conclusions to each other,” Andrew Morral, the head of RAND’s gun policy initiative, told me. The lack of thorough research, he added, “creates this kind of fact-free environment in which people can cherry-pick any study that happens to support what their priors are on the effects of the law.”
Morral’s team spent two years reviewing US-based studies published over the past several decades, pulling out the most rigorous to try to find some “incontrovertible truths.” RAND concluded that, first and foremost, far more research is necessary. “Many of the matters that people disagree on when they disagree on gun policy have not been rigorously studied in ways that produce reasonably unambiguous results,” Morral said.
But there were some things that could be gleaned from the available evidence. While RAND as a nonpartisan group avoided any sweeping policy conclusions in its analysis, its review does seem to point in a direction, based on my own reading: More permissive gun policies lead to more gun deaths, while more restrictive policies lead to fewer gun deaths. Coupled with other evidence in this area, that supports the idea that more guns lead to more gun deaths.
On the gun control front, there’s moderate evidence that background checks reduce suicide and violent crime, limited evidence that prohibitions associated with mental illness reduce suicide, moderate evidence that those prohibitions reduce violent crime, and supportive evidence that child-access prevention laws reduce suicides and unintentional injuries and deaths.
Meanwhile, there’s limited evidence that concealed carry laws increase violent crime and unintentional injuries and deaths. And there’s moderate evidence that “stand your ground” laws — NRA-backed measures that expand when someone can use a gun or other weapons to defend himself — increase violent crime.
If you put this all together, it suggests that restrictive laws seem to lead to fewer gun deaths, while the permissive laws seem to lead to more gun deaths.
…The think tank found supportive evidence for child access prevention laws reducing suicide and unintentional injuries and deaths. And Morral agreed that the evidence is stronger on background checks and prohibitions associated with mental illness than other gun policies.
As for the correlation between gun availability and gun deaths, “RAND takes a more skeptical view. The report argued that it can be hard to disentangle the relationship between more guns and more gun deaths: Is it the abundance of guns leading to more gun deaths, or are people seeing a lot of violence in their communities and reacting to it by stocking up on guns to protect themselves? RAND concluded that there’s just not enough in the research it reviewed to solve this chicken-or-egg scenario.” In short, “more research is needed…Federal funding could go to surveys and on-the-ground research that could help address the gaps. The funding is something, however, that pro-gun groups like the NRA have worked against for years. And so far, their tactics have worked — keeping the federal freeze in place. So although there’s evidence that some gun control measures could work, we by and large remain blind to what specific solutions would work best and what all of their effects would be.”
Each time our country focuses on the gun debate, a lot of proponents of gun control accuse gun rights advocates of not caring whether people die. It’s my impression that gun control proponents believe gun rights advocates disagree with gun control legislation because we are selfish, insane, and possibly sociopathic. If we cared about saving innocent lives, especially those of school children, why would we fight against common sense gun reform? I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how about half of America could disagree with certain gun control proposals for reasons other than mental or moral defect.
1) Gun rights advocates think of each gun policy in terms of a cost benefit analysis. Is there evidence that Policy X will decrease the frequency or lethality of mass shootings or of gun crime in general? How will the policy affect citizens’ abilities to defend themselves? Is it Constitutional?
It’s my impression that many gun control advocates don’t view policy proposals the same way. I’ve seen a lot to suggest gun control advocates believe (a) few or no people really use their guns in self defense and (b) either the Constitution has been interpreted incorrectly by SCOTUS or, even if the Founders did intend personal gun ownership, their views were borne of circumstances that no longer apply today. And I expect that if I too thought the factors of self-defense and Constitutionality were greatly exaggerated or even made up, I would view certain gun policies very differently. If you don’t believe the policy will cost anything substantial, you don’t really need to do a cost benefit analysis (and therefore you will have a very different idea of which reforms are “common sense”). I think, generally, that’s how most gun control advocates see this, but I’m open to correction there.
2) There seems to be an asymmetry of knowledge about guns between the gun control and gun rights sides, and it influences whether each side thinks a given policy will be effective or have undesirable side effects.
I get how gun rights advocates come off as pedantic when correcting terminology, and it’s easy for me to believe that there are people who really are just trying to feel superior or make the other side feel foolish. But I think the terminology and concepts are a lot more than semantics: they are directly relevant to the effects a given policy will have.
And from the gun rights side, it appears that the people most passionate and insistent on certain policies have little understanding of what those policies would mean. I’m really not trying to be rude and I’m sorry if it comes off that way. But the same side posting memes like this…
The bill prohibits the “sale, transfer, production, and importation” of semi-automatic rifles and pistols that can hold a detachable magazine, as well as semi-automatic rifles with a magazine that can hold more than 10 rounds. Additionally, the legislation bans the sale, transfer, production, and importation of semi-automatic shotguns with features such as a pistol grip or detachable stock, and ammunition feeding devices that can hold more than 10 rounds.
For reference, many of the most recommended pistols bought for home defense and as concealed carry firearms are semi-automatic and can hold more than 10 rounds; it’s also standard for pistols to have detachable magazines.
I think for the most part the people who support that legislation don’t even realize that’s what the legislation would do. They believe it would ban only the so-called assault weapons that they further believe are used in most mass shootings. Neither of those beliefs are true.
3) I recognize some gun rights advocates have a knee jerk reaction against any limitation on guns; I think this reaction is primarily due to believing both that the legislation will make no positive difference and that it will be a slippery slope. The general impression from the gun rights side is that the gun control side neither understands guns nor cares how legislation would affect general gun ownership because they don’t believe people should have guns in any case. It’s not so much “We want to take your guns” as “we don’t know or care if the proposals we’re pushing will result in taking your guns.”
4) That said, there are proposals that even most gun owners would be fine with. Proposals focusing on who can have guns rather than which guns they can have seem to get pretty broad support. For example, Pew Research has found that most gun owners and non-gun owners alike support proposals focused on background checks, mental health issues, and no-fly lists.
More recently there seems to be momentum behind “red flag” measures which would allow authorities to temporarily take guns from people deemed dangerous. Such bills are primarily sponsored by Democrats but are seeing some Republican support too. I think the gun rights side generally believes that proposals that focus on the people rather than the guns are more likely to be both effective and Constitutional.
So why do gun rights advocates fight common sense gun reform? To summarize:
We don’t believe many of these policies would accomplish what proponents claim.
We’re worried about inhibiting citizen self-defense.
We’re concerned about the Constitutionality of some of these policies.
We suspect the people pushing for these reforms don’t understand or care about the full effects of these policies.
None of this means we don’t care if innocent people are hurt. That’s why we do support some gun reforms: specifically the policies we believe will best ensure the safety of ourselves and others while respecting Constitutional rights.
While most Americans support the Second Amendment, and support the rights of hunters and homeowners to own rifles or handguns to defend themselves or bag deer, these same Americans also support restrictions on certain specific guns that are too deadly to be in the hands of civilians, because they lead too-readily to slaughter.
While certain gun-rights advocates take this to be a call to “ban all guns,” it’s really not. It’s only about particular guns, and the distinction is common sense. It’s so simple I can explain it in pictures.
This gun is fully semi-automatic. While this is not an AR-15, it is based on an AR-15, and fires the same deadly ammunition at the same rate of fire used at both the Parkland shooting and the Las Vegas massacre. It has a detachable magazine that can hold up to 20 rounds and be readily changed. With an attachment like a bump stock, this gun can be altered to fire at machine-gun speeds.
Here is a picture of another rifle.
This gun is dubbed a “ranch gun,” intended for use by hunters and ranchers for life in the American West. It fires a moderate round, the Remington .223, which many believe to be a “varmint round” — that is, a bullet that is suited more to shooting coyotes than to hunting deer. The bullet caliber is nothing compared to more deadly ammunition intended to bring down elk or bears, and some states ban the use of this caliber for deer hunting, since it doesn’t always kill a deer immediately. And unlike an assault rifle, the ranch gun will not fire automatically.
It’s common sense that no one needs to own the first gun, which is intended only to kill, while the second gun has a legitimate use for ranchers. While some individuals may be calling for a blanket ban, most Americans wanting a reform of gun laws still believe in the right to own a firearm like the ranch gun to hunt or defend your property. Most Americans want sensible gun control laws, that will still allow you to own the ranch gun, but not the deadly weapon used in mass shootings.
But It’s Not So Simple
This is the thing, though, about common sense gun reform: The two weapons shown above are the same gun. They are both the Ruger Mini-14.
Similar to automobiles, which can come in coup, hatchback, or sedan styles, guns can also come in different styles. What I just showed you are two different styles of the same gun: tactical and ranch. Those two guns have the same rate of fire (semi-automatic), fire the same caliber bullet (.223R), they both have detachable magazines that can hold up to 20 rounds. Neither of the guns is capable of automatic fire.
Further, the Ruger Mini-14 uses the exact same caliber bullet as the AR-15 and has the exact same rate of fire as the AR-15. Neither the Ruger Mini-14 nor the AR-15 is capable of automatic fire.
Aside from details of appearance and preference, there is no functional difference between the ranch gun I showed you and an AR-15. They are equally deadly as weapons.
This is where we see a problem with “common sense” gun reform. While I agree it seems obvious which gun to ban, that is a misperception formed from a lack of knowledge. The public is largely misinformed on guns, and it is crucial we clarify what we mean.
The Terms of the Conversation Are Muddled
There is a vocal movement of people calling to ban assault rifles. You hear about it very often in the news. FedEx just released a statement calling for ban on assault rifles, as did Dick’s Sporting Goods. And it would seem common sense, that civilians do not need assault rifles for hunting.
But now you’re wondering: if assault rifles are already illegal, then why is there a vocal movement to have them banned? And if assault rifles are already illegal, then how are these killers able to get their hands on AR-15s?
As to the second question, the answer is easy: it’s because an AR-15 is not an assault rifle.
I know, I know: who cares the terminology, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, you don’t need to own it. But it does matter. It matters because these words have definitions, and we can’t have a conversation about policy if we’re not going to use the policy-defined words to talk about it. It leads to confusion.
The word “assault rifle” already has a definition. An assault rifle is a rifle capable of selective fire between automatic and semi-automatic fire, as defined by the ATF. Assault rifles (and all automatic weapons) are illegal in the US for general civilian use. An AR-15 is incapable of automatic fire, and so is not an assault rifle, and therefore not included under the ban on assault rifles.
The difference between firing rate is a common source of confusion, so let me explain: automatic firing means that the gun will continue to chamber and fire bullets for as long as the trigger is held down; semi-automatic firing means that the action of releasing the trigger causes a new bullet to be chambered. This is an important distinction. A semi-automatic rifle like the AR-15 or the Mini-14 can only fire one bullet with one pull of the trigger.
It’s important to remember this difference in firing rate, because it matters to policy decisions. For instance, because it is already illegal to own one kind of gun, and perfectly legal to own the other. If you talk about banning assault rifles, someone might think you mean to ban guns capable of automatic fire; someone else might think that guns like the AR-15 are capable of automatic fire. It leads to confusion on what we’re even talking about, and makes people claiming to be following “common sense” appear to not actually understand the issue at hand.
Assault rifles are already illegal, an AR-15 is not an assault rifle, because an AR-15 is not capable of automatic fire.
As to the first question, why the move to ban a category of weapon that is already banned… I think the answer is a lack of understanding.
If You’re Not Familiar With Guns, You Have a Bad Intuition About Guns
There is currently a proposed bill that would criminalize all semi-automatic rifles. When Marco Rubio, at the CNN Town Hall, warned about just this, he was met with defiant applause; as Trevor Noah of the Daily Show put it, that’s what we want to do; we want to outlaw all semi-automatic rifles.
Except think back to the ranch gun from earlier. You probably thought it was common sense not to ban it. And you probably didn’t think of it as a semi-automatic rifle.
The problem is that people are guided by their intuitions on this issue, and those intuitions are formed by a mix of Hollywood images and national news cycle that are at best misinformed, or at worst actively disinterested in accuracy in favor of sensationalism and theatre. In such media, words like “automatic”, “semi-automatic”, “assault rifle”, and “machine gun” get thrown around with reckless abandon, seeming to confuse them all in discussing guns like the AR-15. We usually see the AR-15 is characterized as some sort of pinnacle of scariness, such as in the recent CNN investigation into them that kept trying to hype up their terror-factor. We’re told that the AR-15 is a toned-down machine gun with superior firepower and devastating ammunition.
I think many people calling for common sense gun reform believe what they hear about the AR-15, and don’t know of any other referent in the discussion of guns, calibers, and firing rate. If the AR-15 is the only semi-automatic weapon you’ve ever heard of, then you probably associate semi-automatic rifles with massacres; less so with ranchers shooting coyotes.
The fact of the situation is that semi-automatic rifles make up one of the most popular classes of hunting rifles (by some estimates more than 20% of all privately-owned guns), and make a larger proportion of gun sales each year. As it turns out, hunters (like video gamers) prefer not having to reload after every shot.
But the only difference between a semi-automatic rifle used for hunting and the tactical gun we need to ban, is the way it looks. There is no meaningful legal category that distinguishes them.
If you ban semi-automatic rifles, you will be banning the Ruger Mini-14 ranch gun. You’ll get the tactical Ruger Mini-14 and the AR-15, but you’ll also get the gun that shoots coyotes and may or may not be able to bag a deer.
So when someone tells you that there is no way to ban the AR-15 without banning all semi-automatic rifles, you, the advocate for common sense gun laws, should be concerned. Most Americans would feel that a rancher has a right to a gun that can defend his property from predators. It’s common sense. If you really feel he has a right to it, then you should oppose laws that infringe that right. And a ban on semi-automatic rifles would do just that.
The point of this has been to try to clarify the conversation, because so much misinformation exists out there. I get people calling for common sense gun reform. One school shooting is too many, and at first glance there is an obvious way to draw the line about weapons. AR-15s are deadly; but so are all guns, including the hunting and defense guns that most Americans think people should be allowed to own.
The point of this is not that stricter gun control is unnecessary. That is a conversation worth having. The point is to make sure we’re being clear what we mean when we say “ban assault rifles” or “common sense gun control.”
Assault rifles are rifles capable of switching between semi- and fully-automatic firing. They are already banned. Any weapon capable of automatic fire is illegal for general civilian use. Ordinary civilians cannot purchase an assault rifle, or an automatic rifle. Modifying or building any weapon to be capable of automatic fire is strictly illegal.
AR-15s are not assault rifles. (The “AR” is for “Armalite Rifle“) They are not capable of automatic fire. They are semi-automatic, which means they fire one bullet for each pull of the trigger. The trigger must be released before a new bullet will load. They fire a Remington .223, which is not a particularly deadly round compared to other ammunition in other rifles. (Update: as a visual illustration of this point about caliber, here is slow-motion video of a ballistics test of an AR-15 vs. a .30-06 hunting round; the AR-15 impact is shown first from two angles, and then the impact from the hunting round)
An AR-15 definitely looks intimidating, but that’s only a style. An AR-15 made with gray metal and a wooden stock would look like a normal rifle, and still be just as deadly. The way a gun looks doesn’t determine how deadly it is; that is primarily a combination of accuracy, rate of fire, and bullet caliber.
Semi-automatic rifles are very popular with hunters, and are available in styles that look more “common sense.” They make up a very large, if not the largest, class of rifles used in hunting. When we’re talking about banning semi-automatic rifles, we’re talking about removing staid-looking hunting rifles from the hands of hunters; we’re talking about going against what we earlier thought was common sense.
There is no way to ban the AR-15 and not ban the ranch gun, because there is no meaningful difference between them. Enacting a kind of “common sense” law that bans the AR-15 and the Mini-14 tactical rifle, but not the Mini-14 ranch gun, would not solve any problems; the next shooter would use the equivalent Mini-14 ranch gun. A ban distinguishing guns by their style would be security theatre; you might feel something was done, but no one is any safer for it.
With all of that in mind, hopefully we can continue having this conversation more intelligently, with a better understanding of the terms, and what exactly it is we’re talking about banning
In the last week or two I’ve read (or at least skimmed) a lot of interesting pieces on guns, gun crime, gun control, etc. Below are most of the links, listed in order of their publication date. I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything in each link (obviously, since some of them are directly contradicting each other), but they gave me a lot to think about, so I’m including them here if anyone else wants to read more.
2013: Analysis of Recent Mass Shootings – National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 2013; Study found that up to 77% of mass shootings did not involve an assault weapon or even a high capacity weapon. Reducing Gun Violence in America – Center for Gun Policy and Research, 2013; This link is to an entire book. I read the forward, in which the authors make the following suggestions:
Require background checks for all gun sales, including private sales at gun shows and online,
Make gun trafficking a federal crime,
Limit the availability of military-style weapons and of high-capacity magazines with more than 10 rounds,
Have all federal agencies to submit their relevant data to the national gun background check database,
Have the Justice Department to make a priority of prosecuting convicted criminals who provide false personal information during gun purchase background checks,
Make a recess appointment to get someone to head the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and
Stop supporting the Tiahrt order, which keeps the public in the dark about who gun traffickers are and how they operate.
Recently a friend of mine shared this post in which Jim Wright asks a few “basic questions” about how we would arm teachers. Wright suggests it would be essentially impossible to properly train teachers to respond to school shootings, saying even our soldiers aren’t trained to handle such a situation. He asks who will pay for the training, who the teachers will answer to, which weapons will be allowed, what insurance the school will acquire, and whether a teacher will be held liable for mistakenly shooting an innocent bystander or for failing to stop an active shooter. He claims “the hole is bottomless,” concluding:
I’m asking BASIC questions about this idea of arming up teachers and putting amateurs with guns in schools. Questions that any competent gun operator should ask. You want to put more guns, carried by amateurs, into a building packed full of children. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here.
Wright is reflecting the skepticism and indignance of many people. In particular some of my friends who are teachers have made posts clearly stating they do not want to carry weapons to school and are dismayed by the thought. More than one of them have shared this video in response.
Several go beyond saying they personally don’t want to carry weapons to asserting no one else should have firearms on school property either, often making demands along the lines “Don’t bring more guns into my school.”
Two quick notes on that last part:
Assuming any increase in quantity of guns means an increase in danger seems simplistic to me. More guns can increase or decrease danger depending on who is carrying them and why. A gun in the hands of a kid hoping to kill as many people as possible is not equivalent to a gun in the hands of a trained Student Resources Officer or conceal carry permit holder hoping to keep as many people alive as possible.
In this context, the phrase “my school” is off-putting. Schools don’t belong only to the teachers working in them; they also belong to the children attending and the parents of those children, especially when we are discussing the best ways to protect our children. I understand there are many parents who do not want armed school staff. And there are many parents who do, like me. My point here is not that the answer is simple, obvious, or unified; my point is teachers don’t have the only say in this debate.
Anyway, the objections to arming teachers seem to make several assumptions:
We don’t have the resources to arm teachers.
The logistics of arming teachers are too difficult to disentangle.
Teachers don’t want to be armed.
Armed teachers would make schools less safe, not more safe.
In terms of the law, as of May 2016, there were 17 states that banned conceal carry guns on college campuses; 1 state (Tennessee) banned students and the public from carryng guns on campus but allowed faculty members to do so; 8 states allowed conceal carry guns; and the remaining 24 states left the decision to the school. Of course this information is for only college campuses, not K-12 schools.
Given the option, many school districts already allow their teachers to be armed. This fact alone puts the first three assumptions to rest. Apparently resources, logistics, and desire were not dealbreakers in arranging to have armed school employees on campus. Here is an excerpt from a 2016 Washington Post article:
The Kingsburg Joint Union High School District in Kingsburg, Ca., is the latest district to pass such a measure. At a school board meeting on Monday, the Fresno Bee reported, members unanimously approved a policy that allows district employees to carry a concealed firearm within school bounds.
The employees will be selected by the superintendent, and will have to complete a training and evaluation process. The new policy was made effective immediately.
While proposals to arm teachers have been familiar refrains in Texas and Indiana, the passing of such a mandate on the West Coast signals that the strategy is being considered elsewhere in the country.
In fact, the Folsom Cordova Unified School District covering the cities of Folsom, Rancho Cordova and Mather, Calif., has allowed employees to bring guns to school since 2010, but only revealed the policy to parents last month.
Some people against the idea of arming teachers say it will create an intimidating environment for kids, but note Folsom Cordova’s school district allowed it for 5-6 years before anyone even knew about it. Arming teachers had so little impact on the daily school environment people couldn’t even tell it had happened.
In the wake of the most recent shooting, more school boards are following suit, voting unanimously to allow trained employees to carry concealed weapons.
People opposed to arming teachers seem to envision a bureaucratic and expensive process that results in an intimidating environment where teachers nervously walk the hallways with rifles over their shoulders. The reality is that arming teachers has so far consisted of allowing those who want to be armed to first get training and then either carry concealed weapons or keep weapons locked in safes. From what I can tell, the individuals who want to be armed cover the costs of the training, permit, and firearm themselves. Again, the school’s resources, logistics, and the teacher’s desire don’t seem to be issues.
To my mind, the only real issue is the question of whether allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons will overall increase or decrease student and staff safety. Despite how horrifying school shootings are, they are also exceedingly rare. And while I have no specific data on this, I suspect that even if firearms were permitted on all schools across the country, relatively few teachers and other school staff would choose to carry them. The odds seem very low of a school shooting happening in such a way that an armed staff member would even be present to react. Meanwhile, having legal guns on campus opens the door to accidental injuries. Some of my friends against armed school staff have posted stories about teachers forgetting their firearm or having it stolen while on school property. There’s a cost-benefit question here: if arming teachers increases the chances of accidentally injuring or even killing students but also increases the chances of saving lives during school shootings, how do we quantify those two factors and weigh them against each other?
I know of no hard data here. We do know that in our country, in general, guns are used more often in accidental deaths than in justifiable homicide. However we aren’t just considering accidental deaths but also accidental injuries, and we aren’t just considering justifiable homicide but also self-defense that involves injuring but not killing the shooter or even not firing the gun at all but brandishing it and getting the shooter to stand down. Additionally the overall statistics for the whole country include people who have received no training in the safe use and storage of firearms, whereas conceal and carry permits typically require training, and individual school districts could require further training as needed. Apparently there are quite a few school districts that have allowed armed staff for years, and I have not been able to find any stories of accidental deaths or even injuries from a teacher’s gun on school property.
Meanwhile, it is intuitive to me that if a teacher were to find herself in the position where there is a mass shooter attacking her or her students, both she and her students would have a greater chance of survival if she had a gun than if she did not. When Sandy Hook happened, I cried as I read in absolute horror about Lauren Rousseau and her first graders, completely trapped and defenseless. Even at the time I wondered if it would have been different if she had had a gun.
A note here: I don’t want the world we live in, the society we live in, to require first grade teachers to need guns. I don’t want there to be any guns on any school property at all. I don’t want children to have to do active shooter drills, or teachers to have to be trained to recognize gun shots, or parents to drop their kids off and worry if they will be safe each day. It’s awful. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking, and sometimes I can hardly stand to think about it.
But I also don’t think we have a way to 100% ensure that deranged or evil people will not be able to show up and try to kill as many unarmed teachers and children as possible. In fact, given our country’s unique relationship with guns, and our relatively unique 2nd amendment, I think preventing such shootings is ridiculously difficult. I still think we should try, but I don’t think our efforts to stem the death toll should be limited only to preventing shooters from showing up in the first place. I think we should also have efforts to address what innocent people can do if a shooter does show up.
As I write this post, a news story is breaking suggesting that not only did the School Resources Officer fail to engage Nicholas Cruz, but so did three additional deputies present during the shooting. All four officers remained outside the school while Cruz shot unarmed teachers and students. Some opponents to arming teachers point out that if even trained officers struggle to engage a mass shooter, how can we expect teachers to be able to handle it? But this question presumes that teachers get any choice; the reality is that if the shooter is already in the school and breaking into the classroom, the teacher will have to face the shooter anyway. And I can’t help but wonder: if police won’t engage the shooter, how can we disarm teachers and tell them to wait for the police?
Four days ago The Independent (an online UK magazine) ran this story: Bulletproof backpacks for children reflect a new reality in America. The article, and plenty like it, are leading to dramatic Facebook posts from or about teachers about how they help their high school students deal with the new reality that they might be gunned down in their schools at any time. Parents are afraid, kids are afraid, teachers are afraid, everyone seems to be afraid.
And no, I’m being earnest here. Why?
If there’s one topic that’s been prominent in media over the past few years, it’s been human irrationality. For a while there, “cognitive bias” threatened to become almost as much of a buzzword as “machine learning” has become, and it seemed like Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases was getting a new entry every day. Everyone in any academic discipline even tangentially related to how humans evaluate risk–evolutionary psychology, economics, finance, etc. etc.–had a new book or a new study that showed how bad humans are at evaluating risk.
Some of the most prominent cognitive biases studied in experiments and written about in the popular press include the availability heuristic and the recency effect. So we know–or at least we should know–that in the immediate wake of a horrific school shooting our cognitive biases are going to go into overdrive to exaggerate the threat. This isn’t unique to school shootings. We do the same thing with all kinds of dramatic/traumatic events, especially terrorism. More Americans died because of the shift from flying to driving in the wake of 9/11 than died in the attack themselves. The fear of terrorism was quite literally more deadly than actual terrorism.
This over-reaction to the threat of terrorism has had horrific consequences. Some have been felt here in the United States, including the erosion of civil liberties and a lamentably paranoid tinge to any discussion of immigration, but for the most part we (ordinary Americans) have been free to go about our lives because we have outsourced the cost of our fear-driven policies. We don’t pay the price. The small minority of Americans who volunteer to serve in the armed forces pay the price–including physical and mental trauma that no amount of yellow ribbons at home can compensate for–along with children killed in drone strikes, collateral damage from American interventionism, and desperate refugees who were barred a safe escape.
Now, in the wake of another awful school shooting, we’re witnessing again America’s masochistic addiction to panic and fear.
If you read an article like the one from The Independent or this one from The Cut or any of the thousands of emotional Facebook posts about how teachers and students shouldn’t have to fear for their lives just because they’re going to school, then you’d think we were suffering some kind of massive tidal wave of school shootings.
Right off the bat, the odds of dying in a school shootings are significantly lower than the kinds of deaths that we Americans don’t fear: car accidents, drowning, choking are all much more likely to end your life than a mass shooting. What’s even more interesting, to me, is that you are apparently more likely to die because a police officer killed you than because a mass shooter killed you.
However, a major problem with the Business Insider numbers is that they aren’t talking about school shootings, they’re talking about “mass shootings” with the definition of “any event where four or more victims were injured (regardless of death)”.
I went to Wikipedia and created two lists of my own. One of all the school shootings for 2015 – 2017 (the same years as the data available from the BI article) and another of all the school shootings that fit the popular perception of a school shooting. I called this narrowest category “mass school shootings” and I counted any shooting perpetrated by a student / former student resulting in at least 2 fatalities (other than the attacker) at a school. This table illustrates what the numbers look like using these three different categories:
From this, I’m able to calculate the lifetime odds of death from the two new categories: school shootings and mass school shootings. Compared to the 1 in 11,125 odds for any mass shooting, the odds of dying in a school shooting are 1 in 280,350 and the odds of dying in a mass school shooting are 1 in 934,500.
First, let me deal with a couple of quick math issues. These numbers are for all people. Obviously a random 70-year old is unlikely to be in a school and so is much, much less likely to die in a school shooting, and a high school student is (relative to some random 70-year old) much, much more likely. But if you want to do a relative comparison, then you should keep this list as-is. The only way to get the risk assessment for high school students (or all K-12 students, or all K – college students) would also be to look at their likelihoods of dying across all the categories. You’d see heart disease drop off the list, but you’d also see car accidents go much higher. So no: this is not scientific. These are what I’d call back-of-the-envelope calculations. And according to them, you’re more likely to die from being struck by lightning than from a school shooting (category #2) and the only things on the BI table less likely to kill you than a mass school shooting (category #3) is a regional asteroid impact or a shark attack.
Asteroids and shark attacks, people.
I know people are going to be mad at me for being insensitive, but maximum sensitivity isn’t always the right course. When you have a child–your own child or a kid that you’re responsible for–and they are afraid of something than your job as an adult is more than empathy. You can’t just share the child’s fear. You have to allay that fear when possible.
When my children were younger, they were really, genuinely afraid of dying in a tornado. We had moved from Virginia to Michigan and they heard the tornado sirens being tested every now and then, and so they were afraid. Part of my job was to empathize. Part of my job was also to allay their fears by explaining realistically that–while dangerous–tornados were not that common.
More recently, one of my children came to me and confided with a quaver of real fear in their voice that they thought they might have tetanus because “my jaw is starting to feel kind of tight.” This is funny to us, but my kid was really, truly scared and on the verge of tears. My job was not to participate in their fear. It also wasn’t to mock their fear. It was to empathize but–again–allay the fear.
Please note that this doesn’t mean I’m trivializing the devastation of an actual tornado. During the tornado outbreak of Dec 2015, 13 people were killed. Nothing about that is funny. Nothing about that is trivial. Tetanus isn’t a joke, either. Because of vaccinations, only a few people die in the US every year from tetanus, but historically it was a real killer and it continues to be a serious health concern in many parts of the world (especially India).
So I’m not trivializing terrorism when I point out that more people died from avoiding planes after 9/11 than died on 9/11. I’m not trivializing tetanus or tornados when I help allay my kids’ fears. And I’m not trivializing school shootings when I point out that our fears of them are vastly overblown.
Far from it. The reason I’m writing this is that it broke my heart to read a post from a friend on Facebook about how his wife (a teacher) could do nothing but share the fear and panic of her high school students. They are afraid, and she wasn’t able to offer anything substantive to combat that fear. I don’t blame her personally for that at all, but–as a society–we should be mature and sober enough to tackle risk and fear responsibly. We need to do better for our kids.
I think I know the answer to my question. I know why we’re addicted to fear. Some of it is human nature, as we mentioned already. Evolutionarily, risks are more important than rewards. But there’s more to it than that.
For one thing, fear is profitable. It drives traffic and donations. That explains most of what human nature alone cannot.
But I have my suspicions that it doesn’t explain everything. I wonder if human beings are calibrated to a certain degree of threat and risk in our lives. And–living in what is without any doubt the safest and most comfortable period of human history–it’s almost as though we are incapable of accepting that realty and intent on manufacturing risks and dangers we keep expecting to be there, but aren’t.
This post is not about gun control or even school shootings in particular.
It’s just about risk, and fear, and how we need to deal better with the fear if we want–individually and as a society–to find ways to batter manage risk.
The three laws most strongly associated with reduced firearm mortality were universal background checks for firearm purchase, background checks for ammunition, and requiring firearm identification by either microstamping or ballistic fingerprinting. We showed that federal-level implementation of these three laws would substantially reduce overall national firearm mortality. Finally, the three laws most strongly associated with reduced homicide-specific firearm mortality were universal background checks for firearm purchase, background checks for ammunition, and firearm identification; firearm identification was associated with reduced suicide-specific firearm mortality (pgs. 7-8).
Permits: “An effective solution would be to require people to apply, in-person, at local law enforcement agencies for gun purchase permits…In a 2009 study involving 53 cities Webster and his colleagues found this approach, which gives law enforcement officials discretion about who they gave permits to, was linked with a 68 percent reduced risk of guns being diverted to criminals post-sale. But after Missouri repealed its permit-to-purchase handgun law in 2007, firearm homicide rates increased by 25 percent, a jump that was not seen in neighboring states or the rest of the country, Webster’s team reported. Missouri’s repeal was also linked with a 52 percent increase in handgun murders of law enforcement officers in the line of duty.”
Ban anyone convicted of a violent crime from gun purchases: “In 1991 [California] passed a law preventing individuals with violent convictions from buying guns. And in a study published in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001 Wintemute and his colleagues studied its effects. Convicts who were allowed to buy guns before the law passed were nearly 30 percent more likely to be arrested later for a gun crime or other violent act compared with convicts who tried, but were unable, to buy guns after the law was passed. “That’s a big effect,” Wintemute says.”
Make all serious domestic abuse offenders surrender guns: “Some states are now passing state laws requiring individuals convicted of domestic violence crimes to surrender their firearms; an October 2017 study found that these “relinquishment” laws are nearly 50 percent more effective than non-relinquishment laws at reducing intimate partner violence. It would also help a lot to restrict guns from people with domestic violence restraining orders against them. In a 2010 study Webster and his colleagues found restrictions based on restraining orders were associated with a 19 percent reduction in the risk for intimate partner homicide in large U.S. cities. Such restrictions are in place in 35 states and Washington D.C. These changes are important because intimate partner violence is strongly tied to mass shootings: A 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service found more than one fifth of all public mass shootings between 1999 and 2013 were precipitated in part by domestic disputes. During this period there were also 127 nonpublic mass shootings in the U.S. that involved an individual killing at least four family members. Keeping people prone to domestic violence away from firearms would prevent many massacres.”
Temporarily ban alcohol abusers from firearms: “Federal law prohibits people who are addicted to and/or unlawfully using controlled substances from owning guns. But recent data suggest some nine million U.S. firearm owners also binge drink, which is a specific medical problem involving abuse of the substance alcohol. Wintemute’s research suggests people with DUIs (driving under the influence) are four to five times as likely as people with no criminal record to be arrested for a violent crime in the future. Based on these data, Wintemute proposes a temporary ban on gun possession among individuals who have had, in the past five years, two or more convictions for DUI or another crime that indicates alcohol abuse.”
[Today’s post is by guest blogger Robert Kirchoff.]
Last week I posted on Facebook criticizing the City of St. Louis’ most recent iteration of a long tradition of wasteful political theater: their December 2017 “Gun Buyback” scheme. Launched in the face of the City’s startlingly high murder count–shocking in absolute terms but downright third-world in per capita terms–the “buyback” was of course heralded as an immediate success by the city and its faithful cadre of mostly left-of-center and wholly well-meaning local reporters.
An acquaintance responded to my post echoing support and taking exception to the idea that this effort was anything but a win:
“Seems relatively logical no? Most murderers happen by guns in the city, remove some guns, maybe a few less murders?”
On first inspection this is a perfectly reasonable view. It seems obvious, therefore it must be right. Or at least worth the old college try.
Trouble is, gun “buybacks” (is the government selling guns to people in the first place?) are nonsense hiding in the threadbare guise of common sense. This guise shields the concept from all criticism, no matter how often if fails to achieve the desired result. To people who don’t have the time, expertise, or inclination to think further than the first step, such an idea will always sound reasonable. And most of the time in politics, getting past the initial sniff test is half the battle.
For that reason I hold no grudge towards my acquaintance. This mentality is not confined to him or to his portion of the political spectrum. I do hold a grudge towards the St. Louis politicians who pushed this idea, and who garnered public support and resources for it that could have been used elsewhere to good effect. They should know better.
But what should they know? Why aren’t buybacks a good idea? Here are just a few points that I could come up with off the cuff:
If you reduce the supply of something while leaving the demand unchecked, prices rise. This means that insofar as this policy “succeeds” it will begin to fail. That is, even if guns are moved “off the streets” and into police custody, insofar as those guns are in demand the remaining ones become more valuable. Meaning that the relatively modest prices offered by the buyback will rapidly look less attractive, diminishing further effectiveness. “Non-sustainable model” comes to mind.
The above assumes a key point: that supply will be affected enough to meaningfully impact prices. But alas, this is not so. St. Louis’ self-declared “massive” success yielded fewer than 1000 weapons. Sounds like they made a splash. But did they really?
St. Louis city has a population of about 300,000. The metro area exceeds 2,000,000. Roughly one third of U.S. households have a firearm in the house. Over two thirds of gun owners have more than one gun. Napkin math tells me that there are, at minimum, 1,500,000 gun in the metro area. Considering Missouri’s conservative bent and Midwestern location, the true number is likely well north of 2,000,000.
So did 1,000 guns make much of a difference? Probably not. Especially when you consider which guns are being turned in and by who.
3. Self-Selection I: The Attic Crowd
The fact that buybacks in the U.S. are voluntary dooms them.
Understand, I am not advocating they be mandatory (which in any case would likely be illegal given SCOTUS jurisprudence on the Second Amendment); I’m pointing out that absent compulsory participation, buybacks do an awful job of actually reducing the pool of guns likely to be used in crime.
When voluntary, these programs are just a place for people to dump the contents of their attics. Scrounge around and find grandad’s rusty old bolt-action and get $150 for it? Sweet deal. But what rational gun owner is going to sell a rifle worth $1000 for $200? Generally, they won’t. This is borne out by the St. Louis’ own statistics: only 6 out of the 1000 or so guns traded in were considered “assault rifles” (probably erroneously, but more on that later).
Thus you tend to get people turning in guns that don’t work, are rarely used, or are owned by someone ignorant about guns (inheritors, generally). These guns are not the problem and removing them does next to nothing.
4. Self-Selection II: Criminal Avoidance
Put simply: what criminal in his right mind is going to turn in his gun knowing full well the police are right there checking guns for past criminal involvement? Maybe a few exceptionally stupid ones.
This presents a really serious problem for the buyback scheme. A large segment of gun crime is gang violence,* which is to say, repeat offenders. If you disarm 90% of the population but the repeat offenders hold on to their guns, not much is going to change in the gun crime numbers.
*Exact percentages are exceedingly hard to pin down because of statistics gathering methodologies among law enforcement groups, but some estimates place it as high as 80% of gun homicides , though the real number is likely lower if still quite high.
Money is fungible. People can spend it as they like.
Consider the following scenario: Bob has a break-action shotgun he got from a family member. Bob doesn’t really want it, since it’s rusty and only fires one shot. But Bob is smart, and trades in his long gun for $150 cash to the fine, well-meaning folks at the St. Louis buyback. What’s to keep Bob from taking this cash to the nearest gun store and buying a brand-new pistol?
In this way, buybacks can function like a gun upgrade coupon program. In fact, buybacks are almost identical in concept to the notorious “cash for clunkers” program pushed early in Obama’s presidential tenure, only in the latter case the Fed’s stated goal was to induce owners of old, dirty cars to go buy news, cleaner cars. The buybackers do the same thing but claim they’re getting guns off the streets. Particular guns, sure. But total guns? Less sure. If you have two different policies that function identically but whose stated aims are diametrically opposed, someone isn’t right.
[An anecdotal aside: While attending the gun show in St. Charles on New Year’s Eve, I observed that the show guests as a group were about half black. This is a marked contrast to the usual sea of white seen most places in St. Charles generally and more specifically at gun shows. I can’t help but wonder if there were some savvy St. Louis gun owners who wisely traded up to something nicer on the buyback’s dime. That’s nice for them, but it doesn’t accomplish what the city intended—and used up scarce resources trying to make happen.]
6. Ignorant pricing
Per the RFT, the St. Louis City buyback featured this price list: “$200 for assault rifles and guns with a magazine capacity of more than ten rounds, $150 for shotguns and rifles, and $100 for handguns.”
First, a petty complaint: assault rifles are defined as select-fire intermediate-cartridge rifles; i.e. they can go full auto. These are both extremely rare (being very difficult to own legally) and extremely expensive (regularly auctioning for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars). Their use here is either ignorant or intentionally misleading. Or, I suppose, the City might really believe that someone will trade in a rifle as valuable as a brand-new car for enough cash for a weekend stay at the Motel 6.
This contradiction, more than anything, signals a lack of seriousness and information on the part of the organizers. A buyback program that was both interested in and informed enough to clear away dangerous weapons specifically rather than disarming the public in general would prioritize pistols above all else. Their presence at the bottom of the list seems to communicate what most gun owners suspect of anti-gun policy-makers: they have no idea what they’re talking about.
The idea is that there were not only armed police officers present but also citizens with open carry licenses, and yet all these “good guys with guns” didn’t stop the bad guy with a gun from killing people. That much is true. The people pointing this out then often conclude that good guys with guns won’t protect us. That much is false.
Of course if you mean good guys with guns can’t prevent bad guys with guns from hurting anyone ever again, yes, I agree. But I doubt most gun rights advocates believe or have made such an extreme claim. It’s not that good guys with guns will always be able to keep everyone safe; it’s that good guys with guns will be able to protect people more often than good guys without guns.
I think most people on both sides of the gun control debate recognize this to some extent, because almost everyone agrees the police (“good guys with guns”) should be armed. In fact, using Dallas to claim good guys with guns don’t protect us is especially interesting because both civilians and LEOs with guns weren’t able to stop the sniper. Yet gun control advocates are pointing to Dallas as a reason to disarm civlians only, not the police.
And, I mean, I agree that we definitely shouldn’t disarm the police. It seems clear to me that (1) a military-trained sniper is not representative of the dangerous people police are more typically up against, and (2) everyone would have been worse off if the police hadn’t had guns.
It’s true that civilians and LEOs with guns were unable to stop the sniper before he hurt anyone, but it’s false to suggest the guns were irrelevant or of no benefit, and it’s nonsensical to suggest that if good guys can’t protect people from a military-trained sniper, they can’t protect people in more typical situations. For example, just yesterday (also in Dallas incidentally), a legal gun owner with a pistol stopped a robber with an AK-47.
There are snippet self-defense stories like that regularly, but they don’t make nearly the media ripples that shootings make. I think that’s understandable to some extent: stories about things going right generally don’t get as much attention as stories about things going wrong, especially when things go really wrong. And there’s a matter of degree here too: in terms of media exposure, a snippet about a civilian stopping a robber might be parallel to a snippet about a robber shooting and wounding a single person. They’re both relatively minor stories. But what would the “good guy” equivalent be to stories about horrific mass shootings? Because a story about preventing a mass shooting doesn’t have nearly the media impact mass shootings have. But I digress.
Gun control advocates point out that if the sniper hadn’t had a gun, he couldn’t have done the damage he did. And I think they’re right. I think it’s obvious. I don’t find compelling the gun rights arguments that imply people can be just as dangerous with knives or baseball bats or whatever as they are with guns.
But while I also wish the sniper hadn’t had a gun, it’s not clear to me what the solution is, for two main reasons. (1) Gun ownership is a Constitutional right, so, absent amending the Constitution, gun control measures can’t undermine that right. (2) The measures would have to effectively stop people from obtaining guns illegally, at least at a level that would make up for stopping “good guys with guns” from being able to protect themselves and others from “bad guys with guns.”
I’m open to the possibility that there are gun control measures that can accomplish both of these feats, it’s just not clear to me right now what those measures would be. I think I’ll save that topic for future posts.