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.