Mass shooting in perspective

Each of the past few years, about 35,000 Americans died in traffic accidents. This fact should be taken into account when considering recent massacres of civilians. I was wondering if anyone else would be cold hearted enough to go that way. So I waited a few days to comment on the massacres in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, to avoid duplicating others’ commentaries. Plus, I have technical difficulties associated with my current location. Please, comment or wave if you see this.

Of the approximately 35,000 victims about half died in accidents involving alcohol. I will assume, against my thesis, that only 10,000 people each year died indirectly or directly because someone drank too much alcohol and drove.

How to count victims of mass shootings has become – strangely enough- controversial. Nevertheless, I am quite certain that shootings, specifically, of strangers for other than greed, or jealousy, or disappointed love have not caused 10,000 deaths in any of the past few years, not even close.

Do you agree; do you see where I am going?

So drunk drivers kill many more people – about 10,000 annually – than mass shooters. The victims of the ones are just as dead as the victims of the others; the loss and grief associated with the ones must be similar to those associated with the others. The deaths from one cause seem to me to be as meaningless as the deaths from the other. (That’s by contrast with the death of a firefighter in the line of duty, for example.)

A rational collective response should give priority to the avoidance of the many deaths from drunk driving over the much fewer deaths caused by mass assassins. Yet, the public reactions of the left are exactly the reverse of those rational expectations. In part, this inversion of priorities is due to the magnification the media affords mass shootings but not the slow massacre on the roads. In part, it may be due to the sometimes concentrated nature of the death tolls by mass shooting. This explanation, however, has only limited value because the small death toll at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, for example, was given much more publicity than is conceivable for any drunk driving accident with three lethal casualties.

This irrational ordering of priorities is made all the more puzzling by the fact that it would be much easier to reduce the number of deaths from drunk driving than by domestic mass shootings. Two reasons. First, people in jail can’t kill anyone with a car. The second reason is a little more subtle; bear with me.

Drunk drivers fall into two main categories, alcoholics who think they have to drive, and self-indulgent slobs. My intuition is that there are many more of the latter than of the former (especially among the young, who are overrepresented in car accidents) but I don’t have any figures. Self-indulgent slobs are capable of rational calculus. If the relevant punishment is severe enough and certain enough, they will become less self-indulgent. I used to be one of them. When the penalty for drunk driving went from about $100 to several thousand during my lifetime, I discovered that I could take a taxi, or pay a friend to drive me back, or drink at home. The quality of my life declined but it was worth it. It’s likely that my fear of heavy punishment saved someone’s life over the long run.

So, a credible remedial scheme is simple: withdrawal of driver’s license for a long period on the first offense associated with heavy fines for driving without a license. A significant jail term without possibility of parole would punish each subsequent infraction. Again, imprisoned drivers don’t kill anyone through their drunk driving. That’s a valid reason in itself to keep them locked up for a long time. It’s probably also economically reasonable.

So, I wonder why is there not a passionate public outcry on the political left and among its media partners in favor of a nation-wide remedial endeavor of the kind I just described?

Drunk driving kills many more Americans than do criminal mass shootings of the Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton kind. This, although suppressive remedies to drunk driving are conceptually straightforward. My friend Vernon Bohr pointed out in a comment on Facebook that accidental drownings of children alone claim more lives of all categories of Americans than do mass shootings. There are better priorities.

The indifference of the left to those more important preventable causes of mortality as compared to its display of strong collective emotion with respect to sudden death by shooting seems strange, on the surface. This strong emotion is usually, almost always associated with urgent calls for some sort of federal gun control.

The contrast is made all the more striking by the following legal facts: First, the regulation of behavior that is potentially harmful to others – such as driving automobiles – falls squarely within the purview of state legislatures, primarily, of Congress, secondarily. Number two, driving is nowhere a right, except by default. Possessing weapons, by contrast, is a right explicitly guaranteed by the US Constitution, and twice reaffirmed by the US Supreme Court.

So, why would the considerable emotional and political resources of the left, aptly guided by the mass media, be expanded on the deaths of comparatively few, on a problem that is difficult to understand, one whose resolution would also encounter strong legal obstacles? Why this relentless emphasis when there are obvious, bigger, more rational objects of collective compassion?

I am thinking of two answers. One, the unpredictability of shooting events make them seem more disruptive than the somewhat routinized highway deaths, including by drunk drivers. The logical implication of this explanation is that if mass shootings became more frequent, they would appear more routine, and thus, less disruptive, and less deserving of left-wing attention. Note that there is a long way to go between the few hundred annual casualties by mass killings, and the 10,000 I attribute to drunk driving alone.

Thus, mass shootings garner both attention and emotion – including on the left – precisely because they are comparatively rare. If this were correct, attention and emotion would diminish with an increased frequency of such events. That is not a trend I observe. Others may see it.

Two, the left, and its media component, may focus on mass shootings in preference to making more rational choices, not in spite of the legal obstacles in their path but because of them. In this perspective, the focus on mass shootings may not be an exercise in misguided compassion, but a means to a higher end.

Americans are, on the whole, much attached to their Constitution. Modifying it is an arduous and uncertain task. Shortcuts to this effect are much appreciated. It would be difficult to find a more effective shortcut than the guided emotionalism the left supplies on the occasion of each mass shooting perpetuated by an American who is not also a violent jihadist. The spectacle of perfectly innocent victims, including children, cut down by someone seemingly exercising his constitutional right to bear arms must be the most formidable nonrational argument against that constitutional right. It can be mustered to sidestep collective choices – such as further reductions in deaths by drunk drivers – that would make the most sense from the standpoint of simple compassion. Thus, a one tenth reduction in deaths by drunk driver, and the corresponding shrinking of human misery, would do about twice more good than would the total (total) elimination of mass shootings.

The outburst of emotionalism expertly guided by the media we witnessed following three civilian mass shootings in quick succession is not about compassion, it’s about power. Every reduction in the autonomy of individuals increases the power of government, of those who are in charge of it through legitimate political means, and of the permanent bureaucracy.

Incidentally, I suspect there must be libertarian solutions to the vast and continuing problem of death by drunk driver, solutions that don’t involve putting people in jail. I don’t know what those are. I would like to hear about them.

Nightcap

  1. Liberalism misunderstood Peter Boettke, Coordination Problem
  2. The way of the gun John Lott, Claremont Review of Books
  3. Homo Appiens and free speech Arnold Kling, askblog
  4. David Remnick interviews AOC for the New Yorker

Nightcap

  1. Marxism for Tories Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. Open Borders and self-determination Eric Mack, Bleeding Heart Libertarians
  3. The 2nd Amendment and public housing Eugene Volokh, Volokh Conspiracy
  4. It’s time to start watching Japan’s best military sci-fi series Robert Beckhusen, War is Boring

Nightcap

  1. The long fight for equal liberty David Lowenthal, History Today
  2. Gun seizures have already led to too many abuses James Bovard, the Hill
  3. Turkish questions, Kurdish responses Amberin Zaman, Al-Monitor
  4. How American students are unlearning liberty David French, National Review

Nightcap

  1. Whatever Happened to Patient Confidentiality? Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. What Critics Don’t Understand About Gun Culture David French, the Atlantic
  3. Making Guns Obsolete Frances Woolley, Worthwhile Canadian Initiative
  4. Can Libertarianism Be A Governing Philosophy? Michael Munger, Law & Liberty

Nightcap

  1. The Awesome, Amazing History of Antarctica Rhys Griffiths, History Today
  2. Centrally Planned Security Doesn’t Work Either Jeffrey Tucker, Daily Economy
  3. Gun Control: Centralized vs. Dispersed Rick Weber, NOL
  4. Antarctic Ice Study Finds Freezing, Not Melting Douglas Fox, National Geographic

How not to argue against gun control

In the aftermath of a mass shooting the familiar arguments are revived once again. The past two years have been enough for a rough tattoo to imprint itself on my eardrums.

I don’t know what my exact position would be, if I had to draw a line in the current system. It is of course nonsense to say “pro-2nd Amendment,” since my interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is no more valid than whatever the basic line of the Supreme Court is at any given moment, and I have to assume some sort of Constitutional hermeneutics which I won’t be able to justify independently.

I know that I argue, most often, on the “pro-gun rights” side. There is, however, an argument I constantly see over on this side which is so obnoxiously foolish I feel the need to criticize it.

I’ve heard it a hundred times in different language. Here’s one version I just saw posted on Facebook in the middle of a really tedious argument:

[“There’s a huge correlation between all these shootings and the fact that people can easily buy guns at wallmart [sic]. Why are so many Americans denying that fact?”]

“There is a correlation between people being able to purchase guns and shootings? That’s enlightening. There is also a correlation between people purchasing cars and car accidents, purchasing fast food and obesity, etc. Go live in your padded room and leave management of society to the adults. There are plenty of examples of mass shootings, knife attacks, poison gas attacks, bombings, running people down with trucks, etc. If you think it’s the tool or method that’s the problem, you have guaranteed that you won’t really address the problem.”

This is an asinine response. It is the argument that “Well, if we ban guns, the killer will just use something else instead. Look at all these examples of spree killings with a blade, or just look at Nice two years ago.”

It says, explicitly, that the type of weapons we allow for civilian ownership do not matter, because massacres will either always happen anyway, or the killer will simply move on to the next legal weapon (which is basically the same thing).

Any time someone seriously makes this argument, we can simply respond, “Okay, so should we let civilians have nuclear warheads?”

Doesn’t it follow from their logic? Or maybe nukes are too non-analogous in terms of possible levels of devastation (like, you know, guns to knives); then we just ask, “Okay, so should we let civilians have RPGs? Or what about military drones? After all, it’s not the tool that matters, it’s the person.”

Of course, Recreational Civilian Nukes have become a sort of ironic platform of libertarianism online, but most of the people making this gun rights argument aren’t people who completely want to abolish the government and privatize the military — even if their logic implies that the scale of massacres won’t be significantly impacted by legalizing all sorts of elite weaponry for the public at large.

School shootings are horrible and frustrating. We should look at solutions first — find out what possible preventative measures are efficacious, if they are any — and only after that determine if they fit with our moral and political compasses. The above argument is clearly something that comes from a commitment to gun rights first and logic second.

And there is another ubiquitous gun rights argument that prides dogma before facts. Often times, pro-gun rights people will bring up how miniscule the percentage of deaths by firearm actually is in the States and across the globe. And when we look into the data on this, we see that the number one cause of death by firearm is suicide — I think 65% of the gun fatalities in the United States. From which, the pro-gun rights person announces, “See, these deaths couldn’t be prevented anyway.”

How absurd, both on the statistics and on simple reflection! The research on suicide indicates that the availability of highly lethal means does impact the decision to commit.

If you were going through suicidal ideation, do you think it might make a difference if your only available means were sharp objects (extremely painful), versus sharp objects and also a firearm? Or imagine if your only available means were pills (low probability of success), versus pills and also a firearm. Less lethal/more painful tools will have a higher ideational threshold for commitment — how much a person really wants to commit suicide — and plausibly lower the chance of someone committing.

There are Harvard studies on the correlation between highly lethal means and suicide rates which I can find if people are interested. But for the moment, I just wish the pro-gun rights crowd was a little more open to thinking about the facts and less about upholding their chosen position through sophistry.

Nightcap

  1. Revisiting Bosnia Elliot Short, War is Boring
  2. Liberals and conservatives are wrong on guns Rick Weber, NOL
  3. Why doesn’t economics progress? Arnold Kling, askblog
  4. The Balance of the Federation: Canada 1870 to 2016 Livio di Matteo, Worthwhile Canadian Initiative

Liberals and Conservatives should stop talking about guns

I’ve come across some great journalism on guns and gun control recently. Here’s the key points:

  • Most gun deaths are suicides. Many of these suicides would have happened were a gun not available, but many of them wouldn’t have.
  • Most gun homicides mostly affect young black men.
  • More guns does not equal less crime.
  • Gun accidents affect very few people.
  • Cost-benefit analysis would likely suggest improving safety other places would save more lives, given limited budgets. (e.g. changing attitudes on vaccinations)

A basic theme seems to be that government can do little on the margin to reduce gun deaths. Crime rates are uncorrelated with number of guns, or regulations in place. Upright citizens do not turn into Rambo when they see dastardly criminals mug little old ladies. Guns are actually sort of boring in practice.

It’s possible that the government could affect gun deaths with a comprehensive gun control policy backed by public opinion (the Australian option). But it would likely cost so much that you’d lose the budget and/or political capital to enact other reforms that would be less controversial and save more lives.

MrPB-prince-Cordova-one-of-amendments.png
We don’t torture people in America, Todd. That’s called one of the amendments.

What about the second amendment? The real argument for the second amendment is that having armed Americans around is pretty practical in general, but also important to prevent tyranny. In practice, guns aren’t half as practical, in terms of personal or national defense as back then. The capability of America’s military is so extraordinary that American’s don’t stand a chance of fighting a corrupt American government.

Let’s acknowledge that the Bill of Rights, though surely important, is ultimately a piece of paper that is neither sacrosanct nor a practical guarantee of anything in particular. The founders were brilliant, but fallible. The constitution is frequently ignored by governments, and citizens often do little to discipline such governments. Second amendment advocacy is mostly a symbolic gesture that probably comes at the expense of using political capital to protect the fourth amendment (the one that should protect you when the government decides to take your guns, cold dead fingers or no).

Conclusion

There are weak arguments to made in favor of gun control and weak arguments to be made in favor of protecting the second amendment. But mostly this whole debate seems like a distraction from more important issues. Symbolically valuable? Sure, but at what cost? The cost is the political will to make a bigger difference somewhere else. There are more valuable freedoms to protect, better interventions to pursue, and more lives to be saved.

Gun Control Works Just Fine in France

In semi rural Normandy, in France, a mass is interrupted by two young men who speak Arabic among themselves. They force the aged priest to kneel. They demand that some of the faithful present video the next scene. Then they cut off the priest’s head with a long knife. They don’t shoot him!

After this, they take several people hostage, injuring one seriously and they attempt to escape. The police are waiting for them outside and shoot the decapitators dead.

In this true story, only the police had guns just like liberals and President Obama want it to be the case in the US. The murderers almost did not commit their crime because they only had one gun that was not even functional, almost didn’t.

ISIS quickly claimed the crime as committed by some of its “soldiers” (brave soldiers, murdering an eighty-year old priest). One of the dead assassins was immediately identified as a local young man. He was on electronic bracelet parole after being arrested in Turkey and sentenced for trying to join Islamic State. The French authorities don’t joke when it comes to terrorism!

The main French imam condemned the crime immediately and in the most vigorous terms. He did not comment on the mode of the assassination, beheading. He did not speculate whether this could have some cultural resonance for some Muslims, given that the Prophet Mohamed himself demonstrated a certain preference for beheading as a way to dispatch his enemies. (References on request.)

The French are brain frozen. No one in France has wondered publicly about what would have happened if one of the faithful at mass had carried a hidden handgun.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Our own Edwin van de Haar being interviewed about Degrees of Freedom (audio interview)
  2. Does Gun Control Work? Ben Carson Says Yes. ADL Says No but Yes
  3. The Vanishing Europe of Jürgen Habermas
  4. Leviathan (movie review)
  5. Thinking Anew | What, precisely, changed in the 18th century? (book review)
  6. This Is What Russia REALLY Fears in Syria

Gun Rights, the Black Panthers, and ‘the South’ in the United States

From a report by Aaron Lake Smith in Vice:

The Dallas New Black Panthers have been carrying guns for years. In an effort to ratchet up their organizing efforts, they formed the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, uniting five local black and brown paramilitary organizations under a single banner. “We accept all oppressed people of color with weapons,” Darren X, who is 48, tells me in a deep, authoritative baritone. “The complete agenda involves going into our communities and educating our people on federal, state, and local gun laws. We want to stop fratricide, genocide—all the ‘cides.”

Interesting, and brings up the question: will the NRA support their right to bear arms, or will they revert to their early 20th century stance and begin supporting gun control again? Also in the article is a bit of history:

The seeds of what was to become the Black Panther Party lie in the 1940s, when black veterans returned to the South after fighting in World War II and found themselves dehumanized by segregation.

I’ve often wondered about this. The desegregation of the South and the achievements of the Civil Rights movement were perhaps the greatest human accomplishments to come out of World War 2 and the Cold War, and this has startling implications for libertarians who advocate for a hardline non-interventionist foreign policy. Libertarians in the US point out that worldwide empire is bad, even a liberal empire, but without it I don’t see a Civil Rights movement happening (which in turn means nobody in the developing world has a model to look up to).

After Germany and Japan surrendered Washington was forced to cede political rights to blacks because of the hypocrisy that pro-rights marches highlighted to the world. The US was engaged in a propaganda war with the USSR, and the segregation of blacks and whites in the US was very bad press. Without the Cold War, blacks would probably have remained official second-class in the US (and the world). Libertarians should be proud of the Civil Rights movement, even if the legislation passed didn’t conform perfectly with individual rights (i.e. affirmative action instead of reparations, or nothing but individual rights!) and even if blacks got their individual rights through legislation rather than law.

Smith’s reporting in other places is less than convincing, though:

Shootings of civilians by police officers reached a 20-year peak in 2013, even as the incidence of violent crime in America went down overall.

I believe that the shooting of “civilians” by police officers is a violent crime, but unless I am missing something Vice simply treats the data as if shootings by police officers are different from shootings by people who are not police officers. Nothing will change as long as this kind of mindset is prevalent in the US. I understand that police officers have a job to do, and that their job makes them different from people who do other jobs (say, a doctor or a lawyer), but it does not place them above the law.

Also, a more disturbing implication of this would be that a more violent police force decreases crime. This is not discussed by libertarians or left-liberals. I don’t like it, but it cannot be ruled out as a possibility just yet. I hope somebody will debunk my notion in the ‘comments’.

One last fascinating tidbit from the article is the difference between the old leaders of the Black Panthers (one who claimed that the Koch Brothers are behind everything, thus showing – to me, anyway – that hippies and Black Panthers have more Baby Boomer similarities with each other than they’d like to admit) and the new leaders (“all power to all people,” including gun rights). Racism is so interesting to me in the American context because of the demographic perceptions amongst other reasons). My parents and grandparents have very different types of racist assumptions than I do, but I’m getting way too far ahead of myself. More on American racism later, or just take me to task in the ‘comments’ section!

(h/t Chris Blattman)

Around the Web

  1. What if Leo Strauss was right?
  2. How many people does the War on Drugs put in prison?
  3. Sympathy for the Devil: Palestine’s Tragic Collaborators (movie review of Omar)
  4. The Other Somalia
  5. Do black people have equal gun rights?
  6. Strategy of Condescension

Around the Web

  1. Arms in the Several States. This is a great post by a law professor at Fordham (Nicholas Johnson) on the legal history behind the struggle of black Americans to arm themselves in the face of State oppression.
  2. World War I and Australia
  3. Held up in customs: Life in China gave Brittany Griner more than she bargained for. This is an excellent piece on the life of a female (former) college basketball star living in China.
  4. Putin’s Cold New World. This is a piece in Dissent magazine by a Polish Left-wing sociologist who deplores what he thinks of as inadequate protection from the United States. Interesting to read in tandem with the knowledge of factions and rent-seeking that is often addressed here at NOL.
  5. The House sues Obama: Political theatre, political pain. A penetrating insight from Will Wilkinson into the House’s decision to sue the Obama administration. The best account I’ve read of the drama so far.

Around the Web

  1. As Bad As ObamaCare Is, Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act Was Worse
  2. From our own Dr Shikida in the Cato Journal: “Why Some States Fail: The Role of Culture” [pdf]
  3. Stop Blaming Professors: Study finds students themselves, not professors, lead some to become more radical in college
  4. The World Cup and “soccer” in general: Nationalism versus internationalism
  5. The agony of a Left-wing gun lover
  6. History happens all the time