Why It’s Hard to Prevent Mass Shootings

According to PollingReport.com, a CBS News poll conducted during Dec. 14-16, 2012 (with a margin of error of 4%), reported that 50% of the public think that stricter gun control laws would have done nothing to prevelent the Sandy Hook shootings. The specific question was, “Do you think that stricter gun control laws would have done a lot to prevent the violence that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, done a little, or had no effect on preventing the violence in the school in Newtown, Connecticut?” 26% said “a lot,” 16% said “a little,” 50% said “no effect,” 3% volunteered “it depends,” and 5% were unsure.

I think the 50% are in this instance right, and I thought I’d talk briefly why they are. And this view that mass shootings can’t really be prevented by gun control laws also helps explain why many people are considering alternative approaches, such as arming and training properly cleared school employees — if the shootings can’t be prevented, the question becomes how best to stop them while they’re happening. (Cf. the Texas school where “an undisclosed number of staff members and teachers carry concealed handguns” (a plan implemented in 2008), and the St. Louis County Police Chief who is “say[ing] it is time to talk about arming civilian school personnel.”

Let’s begin with attempts to keep the shooters from getting guns. I think that in principle some laws might keep some people from getting guns, though I’m not sure how well they operate in practice. Consider, for instance, the relatively popular existing ban on felons’ possession of guns. While felons who want to go into contract murder or bank robbery would obviously ignore that ban, one can imagine some felons who are dangerous enough that we want to disarm them, but (1) aren’t strongly motivated to get a gun (e.g., they are engaged in relatively nonviolent crimes, such as burglary) and (2) are worried about getting caught and getting sent back to prison. Indeed, because a felon who wants a gun would likely keep it for years on end, the aggregate chance that the police will learn of it (e.g., when they search the felon’s home for evidence of some other crime) is pretty high.

But mass murderers obviously feel they need a gun, for a task that is so important to them that they are willing to throw away their lives for it (whether they expect to get killed or imprisoned for life). Moreover, they will need to possess and carry the gun for only a relatively short time, so the chances of being caught with it are modest. Say you somehow banned them from getting guns legally: You raise the age for buying guns to 21, and the killer is now only 20; you make it harder for people with mental problems to get guns, and the killer has been diagnosed with mental problems; you force adults to keep their guns locked up so their 20-year-old children can’t access them (though that would substantially interfere with law-abiding citizens’ lawful self-defense).

It’s still hard to see how you can stop them from getting guns on the black market. To give an analogy, I think few people think that drug laws would keep the typical junkie from getting his fix; maybe they help stop people from getting into drugs in the first place (the analogy there is to the criminal who isn’t strongly motivated to get a gun), but someone who feels he really needs the drugs (whether the junkie or the would-be mass shooter) will find what he needs. And while there’s a good chance that a junkie will eventually get caught, given how many times he has to buy drugs, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the police will catch someone engaging in a one-time black market gun transaction. And all that is even if you do find a way of disqualifying some particular mass shooter from getting the gun legally.

This is especially so given that there are likely 200 to 300 million guns in civilian hands in the U.S. Even if you start a “War on Guns” to mirror the War on Drugs, you’re unlikely to be able to reduce the number by a vast amount — and politically it seems unlikely that you could reduce the number even by a modest amount. How will you keep some of these guns from getting into the hands to people who don’t care about the law, who want the guns to fulfill the mission that is worth their lives, and who fully expect to die or go to prison for life after they commit their crimes? Again, I think the 50% of the survey respondents are right to be skeptical about that.

In an upcoming post, more about proposals to try to minimize the damage caused by mass shootings, by trying to limit particular kinds of weapons (or body armor).

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