Late last Friday night, I learned about the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. However, since I was attending the Mythgard “Mythmoot” conference over the weekend, I had limited opportunity and inclination to spend much time online. Thus, I did not learn many details about the attack until the last couple days. Now that I know a bit more, I have a few thoughts.
One of the first conversations I overheard about the event, beyond mere “did you hear…?” and “how tragic” statements, was between an acquaintance and the principal at one of the local elementary schools near where I live. When asked if he was required to take any different precautions when returning to school this past Monday, the principal just shook his head and said, “If someone like that wanted to get in here, there are thirty ways they could do it. We can’t control everything.” His candor was unexpectedly refreshing — since complete security does not exist in this world, I’d rather have someone acknowledge and be aware of potential problems than ignore (or be ignorant of) them. The point was driven home for me when I read later that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, entered the school simply by shooting through locked glass doors. Could certain security measures — even something as simple as metal doors instead of glass ones — have stopped him entering that way? Absolutely. Could they have prevented him from entering at all? Not likely.
After that initial statement, the principal went on to express his frustration for the current state of gun laws. He commented on the type of gun Lanza used to shoot his victims (Bushmaster XM-15), as well as the amount of ammunition some magazines for such guns can hold, saying, “You don’t need that for hunting.” He went on to posit that, if magazines were limited to (for example) ten rounds instead of thirty, then it’s possible fewer people would have been shot and killed. It seems logical: If you have to stop and reload every ten rounds instead of every thirty, you spend more time stopping and reloading. If only one life is saved in those few extra seconds, isn’t it still worthwhile to pass a law limiting magazine size? Even Eugene Volokh, a well-respected legal scholar who has testified before Congress in support of the Second Amendment and who generally remains very skeptical about the efficacy of gun prohibitions, concedes that there is no constitutional issue with restricting access to large-capacity magazines, and that such restrictions may lead to fewer deaths in future mass shooting events. Even more compelling is this statement from the majority opinion in the 2008 Supreme Court case of D.C. v. Heller, wherein Justice Scalia writes:
Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.[HT John Scalzi]
Which is all to say that there is really no constitutional reason why the U.S. couldn’t limit magazine size, or restrict any particular feature on guns. But are such limitations really that effective on the whole? While it seems logical that limiting magazine size might reduce the number of people killed in a mass shooting, do such restrictions have a broader impact? Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Research Council (NRC), U.S. Dept. of Justice National Institute for Justice, and the University of Pennsylvania have all studied the issue and come up with little or no evidence to support the claim that a ban on “assault weapons” (as defined by the Federal Assault Weapons Ban from 1994 – 2004) accounted for any decrease in gun violence. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says otherwise, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has stated publicly that it cannot substantiate the Brady Campaign’s research. Some argue that had the ban been in place for longer, the results would have been clearer, but in the face of so little evidence, such predictions seem wishful at best.
Of course, there are those who say we should go the route of other countries that have much harsher restrictions — either total bans on firearms, or at least such restrictive bans that only a few people may privately own a gun. One such country is Australia. Recently, I noted several friends post a link to a republished Slate article claiming that Australia has had no mass shootings since 1996 when it enacted severe gun laws after a man killed 35 people and wounded 23 at resort in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Curious, I googled the claim. In about 20 seconds, I found that in 2002, a student at Monash University in Victoria, Australia, shot seven people, killing two of them. A common sense definition of mass shooting would seem to include the shooting of seven people, but apparently that’s not the case. It took a little more digging to uncover that the basis for the article’s claim was a study which defined “mass shooting” as a shooting wherein at least five people died – thus disqualifying the Monash University shooting, and possibly others that I am not aware of. (Why death is required for a mass shooting to have taken place is beyond me.) Even so, by any definition, it’s undeniable that the number of mass shootings in Australia has decreased since the stricter gun laws went into place. Logically, we can assume that with similar laws in the U.S., we would also see similar results – can’t we?
I honestly don’t know. My knee-jerk, skeptical, libertarian reaction is, “Probably not.” But then I discovered that, despite the tragedy of the situation, the Sandy Hook shooting actually gives a really good opportunity to evaluate the epidemiology of mass assaults. Statisticians, policy analysts and armchair pundits should all be positively giddy (in a very grave and subdued way) because an opportunity like this comes around only once in a little while. And yet, at first I didn’t hear anyone even mention this great opportunity. (I’ve since seen a number of stories.)
You see, while Adam Lanza was gunning down elementary school children in Newtown, CT, halfway around the world in Chenpeng Village in the Henan province of China, another man walked into a school armed not with a gun but with a knife. As the village school’s children were arriving that morning, they were confronted by thirty-six-year-old Min Yongjun, who stabbed and/or cut 23 children and one elderly woman. But here’s the kicker:
Nobody was killed.
In the horrifyingly absurd choice between 27 dead people and 24 sliced people, I suspect most would opt for the latter (assuming “neither” isn’t a valid option!). And that’s why we hear so many calls for bans on guns, whether they are complete bans or “more reasonable” bans on only certain types of guns: Because if we are forced to live in a world where crazy assholes exist, it seems better that the crazy assholes only have access only to kitchen utensils rather than semi-automatic rifles. Unfortunately, since we don’t know who all the crazy assholes are ahead of time, it seems like the only way we can be sure they don’t get guns is to make sure we don’t let anyone have guns. Like China and Australia do.
(I should note that I’m using the term “crazy assholes” here as a colloquial term. Nobody knows for sure if Lanza had a mental illness. That said, anyone who walks into an elementary school and kills more than two dozen people is, in my not-so-humble opinion, de facto a crazy asshole. I’ll let others quibble over the pathological diagnosis.)
Of course, this is true only if the problem is guns in the first place. What if it’s something deeper, something more endemic? What if the U.S. is simply a more violent place all around? In fact, victimization rates in the U.S. have trended downward over the last 20 years, although there has been a slight increase in victimization in recent years. More specifically, as noted in one recent HuffPost article, “One-on-one gun homicides have dropped more than 40 percent since 1980.” On the other hand, it seems that the number of people who die in mass killings are actually going up – from 161 people per year on average in 1980 to 163 people per year on average in 2008. Yes, the dramatic increase in the number of deaths due to mass murder over the last thirty years is, according to the FBI, two people per year.
I don’t mean to trivialize those deaths in anyway. Again, I along with nearly everyone else would much rather they didn’t happen. However, the data should help us put things in perspective. Mass shootings are staying the about same while individual shootings have drastically fallen. This suggests to me that the crazy assholes we’re all so worried about killing everyone are just as prevalent — or, if you prefer, just as rare — as they were the year Reagan took office. Implementation of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban didn’t seem to have much affect. It certainly didn’t stop the Columbine massacre, or the other mass killings that took place in 1999 in Atlanta, Fort Worth, and Honolulu. Neither have state laws seemed to do much good. New York State’s ban on assault weapons didn’t stop Jiverly Wong from killing 13 people at a civic center in Binghamton three years ago with two handguns.
None of this means that some regulation would not be effective in reducing overall gun violence even further than it already has fallen. Perhaps stricter rules with regard to registration, education, training, safety, maintenance, and other aspects of gun ownership would help reduce both intentional and accidental fatalities. Most states require all vehicles to be properly registered, insured (or bonded) and inspected, and drivers to be licensed — with special training and licenses required for bigger vehicles that are more difficult to drive. Asking why many states don’t have these same requirements for guns is wholly within reason.
But again, we return to the question of efficacy of all these regulations. Lanza knew about gun safety and maintenance. The guns he used were legally purchased and licensed by his mother. He was old enough to carry them in the state where he lived. Would just one more regulation have stopped him from committing this atrocious assault?
As I said above, I honestly don’t know what the right answer is. What I do know, however, is that we should not let a few crazy assholes determine how we treat the millions of people who own guns and yet somehow manage to make it through every day without shooting anyone. Can we do better? Of course. Can we do worse? Oh, so much….
If you have any ideas, I’m willing to hear them.