Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

12.17.12

There's Little We Can Do to Prevent Another Massacre

The things that would work are impractical and unconstitutional. The things we can do won't work.
gun-control
A table of illegal firearms confiscated in a large weapons bust in East Harlem are on display at a press conference on October 12, 2012 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty)

There just aren't good words to talk about Newtown.  It is a crime that literally defies imagination--hell, it flings imagination down and dances upon its head.  No one reading this can imagine strolling into an elementary school and opening fire on a bunch of small children.  You can't imagine even wanting to.  

Most crimes are motivated by unlovely impulses that are at least comprehensible: the desire for money, sex, respect, revenge.  We don't do these things because we have been taught that "good people don't do that!"--and we want to think of ourselves as good people, or at least have the neighbors and our parents think of us as good people.  Or perhaps we're merely afraid of getting caught and punished.  But we can understand why people want to--we know what someone is after when they hold up a liquor store, or even kills their spouse for the insurance money.  Understanding is not sanction: these crimes still have the power to anger and horrify.  But they're comprehensible, and that comprehensibility is surprisingly comforting.  

The alternative is Newtown.  When one tries to picture the mind that plans it, one quickly comes to a dead end.  Even if I had been raised with no moral laws at all, even if there were no cops and no prisons, I'm pretty sure that I still wouldn't want to spend a crisp Friday morning shooting cowering children.  Trying to climb this mountain of wickedness is like trying to climb a glass wall with your bare hands. What happened there is pure evil, and evil, unlike common badness, gives an ordinary mind no foothold.  

Since we can't understand it, we can't change it.  And since we can't change it, our best hope is to box it in.  Gun control opponents are angry that liberals immediately started talking about gun control, but this seems like a natural instinct to me.  It's not the best way to get good policy, mind you; hard cases make bad laws, and rules passed in the wake of tragedies tend to be over-specific, and under-careful about unintended consequences.  But it's not somehow indelicate to want to talk about this now; if thirty children had been killed in a landslide, I hope that we'd be talking about whether there might be some way to keep that from happening in the future.  

Video screenshot

On the other hand, I also hope that we'd be willing to accept the answer that maybe, there isn't anything.  Not every problem has a policy solution.  We should always be mindful of Johnson's famous epigram:

How small, of all that human hearts endure

That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!  

In this case, there probably is a policy which could stop mass shootings.  But we are not going to implement that policy.  And since nothing else is going to work, we are not going to pass a law that will stop these sorts of mass shootings.  We may pass a law, mind you.  But whatever we do pass, we will have more of these evil happenings ahead of us.  


Let me start with a string of facts we think we know about the attack:  

‣ Adam Lanza, the apparent shooter, had some sort of moderately severe autism-spectrum disorder.  Over the years, like many parents of special needs children, his mother seems to have increasingly withdrawn from work and the community in order to focus on taking care of her son.  

An affluent resident of an upper middle class town, Lanza had exactly the kind of resources that you would want for taking care of a kid with these kinds of problems.  His parents had all the money he needed to get him help, and his school did everything they could to help him cope, according to the Wall Stret Journal: "Not long into his freshman year, Adam Lanza caught the attention of Newtown High School staff members, who assigned him a high-school psychologist, while teachers, counselors and security officers helped monitor the skinny, socially awkward teen, according to a former school official. 

‣ Lanza seems to have been fond of violent video games, and spent hours playing them.

‣ Lanza tried and failed to buy a gun, presumably for use in the attack.  Lanza's mother seems to have been the registered owner of the guns he had, and may have been killed to get her guns.  (Or not; previous school shooters have also attacked their families before heading to the school, even when they got the guns somewhere else.  

‣ Lanza went to the school with two handguns and a commonly used rifle.  The rifle was used in the attack; it's unclear to me whether the handguns were. 

‣ The rifle Lanza used, an AR-15, is a relative of the M16 rifle which was standard US military issue for decades, though apparently it is now being phased out.  However, unlike the M16, it is not capable of delivering automatic (spray or burst) fire; it is semi-automatic, which means you get one bullet per trigger pull. The civilian version is normally used for target shooting and varmint hunting; my understanding is that it is not really big enough to humanely take down a deer.  

‣ The handguns were also semi-automatic, as most handguns are, because revolvers have much stronger recoil.  

‣ Lanza reportedly had a high capacity, 30-bullet magazine for the rifle.  I don't know whether he had extended magazines for the handguns as well.  

‣ Lanza shot everyone at least three times, according to the medical examiner.  If anyone tried to play dead, a commonly recommended strategy, it didn't work.  


It breaks my heart to even type these details; it was worse to read all the stories in which I collected them.  The wan saving grace was the remarkable courage and sacrifice of the teachers who hid the children . . . then stayed in the classroom to buy those precious children time.  And died, many of them.  

Facebook and Twitter were naturally flooded with calls for a "serious conversation about gun control", "real talk about how we handle mental illness in this country", and "putting God back in the schools", along with scads of suggestions, such as banning automatic weapons and making it illegal for the mentally ill to buy guns.  On God in schools, I assume they didn't mean that God killed little children for failing to start the day with a bible verse, but that we'd have been better off if Lanza found Jesus.  I too would prefer a Lanza who'd taken the Sermon on the Mount to heart, but I have to point out that we had mass murder even back in the days when every little child lisped the Lord's Prayer before class.

Unlike many libertarians, I am fine with a ban on automatic weapons.  But no need to hop over to Change.org to start a petition to ban them; machine guns have been illegal in the United States since 1934, and since the 1980s, it has been illegal to manufacture and sell any automatic weapon.   Apparently unbeknownst to Twitter, we have also already made it illegal for the mentally ill to buy or have guns, and have background checks aimed at prevented just that.    

But beyond the strange calls to make serial killers pray more and outlaw things that are already illegal, the most interesting thing is how generic they were.  As soon as Newtown happened, people reached into a mental basket already full of "ways to stop school shootings" and pulled out a few of their favorite items.  They did not stop to find out whether those causes had actually obtained in this case.

Obviously, as the automatic weapons arguments show, some of the items in those baskets were not actually at all related to "causes of school shootings"; as far as I can determine, few to none of the mass shootings in recent decades involved automatics.  

But even when the cause was correct--Adam Lanza, like many of these shooters, seems to have had some fairly severe mental health problems--the proposed cure didn't have anything to do with the specifics of Lanza's situation.  I've seen calls to punish people who don't secure their guns properly, but no suggestions about how you "properly secure" guns against an adult child who lives in the house, or acknowledgement of the fact that Nancy Lanza is beyond punishment.  Presumably if she's thought her son would do something like this, she'd have gotten rid of the guns long since.

"Make more mental health resources available" or "early identification and treatment of troubled children" is a fine answer to many cases, but Adam Lanza had all that you could wish for in terms of resources.  It didn't stop him from picking up a gun and going to that school.  

What Lanza shows us is the limits of the obvious policy responses.  He had all the mental health resources he needed--and he did it anyway.  The law stopped him from buying a gun--and he did it anyway.  The school had an intercom system aimed at stopping unauthorized entry--and he did it anyway.  Any practical, easy-to-implement solution to school shootings that you could propose, along with several that were not at all easy to implement, was already in place.  Somehow, Lanza blew through them all.  

Perhaps we need to go farther.  But how far? The one thing we cannot do, though this did not stop many people from suggesting it, is to ban "the types of weapons that make these shootings possible".  It is easy and satisfying to be for "gun control" in the abstract, but we cannot pass gun control, in the abstract.  We have to pass a specific law that describes very specifically what people may and may not do.  That means we need to carefully specify the features that makes these shootings possible.  And unfortunately, the feature is . . . "fires metal pellets at high speed".  

You don't need a special kind of gun to shoot civilians.  You just need a gun. A handgun, a shotgun, and a rifle are all pretty deadly at close quarters, and Lanza went to the school with all three.  (He left the shotgun in the back of a car).  You don't need a military style rifle, or a high-powered scope, or a pistol grip, or a detachable stock, because concealment is not a big issue, and you don't need much aim to put a bullet into someone at ten feet.  Nor can you stop these shootings by restricting people to hunting rifles, which for some reason people seem to think are less deadly than regular guns.  The truth is the opposite: it takes a lot more wallop to bring down an elk than a person, and a couple of rounds of buckshot or a .30-06 would have had the same, horrible results.  Even a ban on semi-automatics is no panacea in a world full of powerful shotguns. 

I'm not even going to delve into the various "tax/ban" ammunition arguments; they're just a special case of gun control, and about as useful.  Regular old bullets are extremely deadly, especially when fired at close range.  He didn't need something capable of penetrating kevlar.

You can, to be sure, name one or two things that might make a marginal difference: ban extended-capacity magazines, and require background checks for private sales.  As a proponent of reasonable gun control that in some ways goes farther than current rules (I'd like to require that people pass a shooting and gun safety test before they can own a gun), these rules don't strike me as crazy.  

But we are back to generic solutions. These "reasonable controls" would not, in fact, have done much to stop the horror at Newtown; Lanza's problem was not that he didn't know the four rules of gun safety, or that his aim was bad. And Lanza didn't buy the guns, so a background check would not have stopped him.  

Could we go bigger?  Should we ban the relatives of anxious sad sacks from buying guns?  How about family friends? (Michael Carneal broke into a friend's house while they were away for Thanksgiving and stole the guns he used to shoot up his Kentucky school.)  The question answers itself; the kind of all-knowing surveillance regime that this would require would be both impossible, and intolerable.  

Reducing the magazine sizes seems modesly more promising, but only modestly. It takes a few minutes of practicing to learn how to change a magzine in a few seconds.  Even if you banned magazines, forcing people to load the gun itself, people could just carry more guns; spree shooters seem to show up, as Lanza did, with more guns and ammunition than they actually need.  In this specific case, it might well not have helped at all. Would Lanza really have been gang-rushed by fast-thinking primary school students if he stopped to reload?  

Reducing the body counts a bit is obviously a very worthy project; I am okay with outlawing magazines that contain more than ten bullets.  But this will in no way prevent people from going on murderous rampages.  We are not talking about an end to spree killing, only about a (perhaps) very slight reduction in its deadliness.  And if you ask how I can possibly know this, the answer is that we did ban these magazines for ten years, between 1995 and 2005, as part of the "Assault Weapons Ban" that some would now like to bring back.  During which time there were a number of tragic massacres, including those committed by Kip Kinkel, Michael Carneal, and the Columbine killers.  Overall gun deaths fell, but they'd been falling before. When the AWB expired in 2004, they stayed steady.

Source: CDC ()

Which leaves us with the extreme solutions, of which three seem to be on the table: prevent the media from mentioning the names of the killers, institutionalize more of the mentally ill, and ban all guns in private hands.  The largest problem with all three is that they are so wildly unconstitutional as to be hardly worth discussing.  But those who are willing to say "pass an amendment" should consider the other, practical problems.

I am very, very against press gag laws on principle, and luckily for me, so is the Supreme Court. But I would happily support a voluntary ban on publicizing the names of these criminals.  There are two problems, however.  The first is that in the current media environment, there's no way a voluntary ban would hold.  And the second is that it's not clear that these guys do it for the media attention.  They may get the idea from the media attention on other crimes, but it's not clear to me that we know they're actually hoping to get their name in lights; they may simply be hoping to feel a sense of power for the first time in their usually-difficult lives.  The worst school killing in history was a car bomb in 1928, long before the mass media.  If we could somehow prevent any news at all about these crimes from being transmitted, we might limit the contagion.  But as I say, in a world of Twitter and Facebook, we would need Chinese-style internet controls to make it work.

Institutionalizing the not-yet-violent mentally ill is also popular in many quarters.  An essay titled I Am Adam Lanza's Mom swept the internet this weekend, and it's chilling: a mother afraid of her son, but unable to get him into the kind of treatment that can properly supervise him.  Lanza's mother had access to all the money she needed to help him, but there was one thing she couldn't do: lock him up where he couldn't harm himself, or others.  

Perhaps we should have easier institutionalization of the mentally ill, and damn the Bill of Rights.  This obviously has massive costs--financial costs to the taxpayer, and liberty costs to mentally ill people who don't want to be locked up.  There's no way to identify which of the millions of weird people in the country are going to be among the dozens who committ mass murder in a given decade, so we'd have to pre-emptively lock up a lot of people who never would have done anything worse than freaking out the guy who sat next to them on the bus.

But the bigger issue is this: how many killings would this would prevent?  Some, I'd guess, but definitely not all of them, because it's unlikely that 100% of potential spree killers would be identified before they picked up a gun.  There were lots of odd, withdrawn people wandering around cities and small towns even before we made involuntary committment so difficult, and there were rampage killings even way back then.  

To move from generic to specific, do we have any evidence that his mother wanted Lanza locked up?  Or that he had a diagnosis which would have allowed her to do so, if only we didn't insist on the constitutional rights of the insane?  Most spree killers seem to be clearly troubled folks, but they're not all paranoid schizophrenics or otherwise so identifiably insane that it would be easy to argue for committment.  

Mass involuntary committment would prevent some crime merely because people locked up can't commit crimes.  But mental institutions are very terrible places, and mental patients don't like living in them any more than you would.  It is, to say the least, deeply problematic to force people into one on the grounds that their deep depression means that there's a 0.00001% chance they'll fire a gun at a school.  Even if we have the money which--have you looked at your state's budget lately?--we don't.

That leaves us with the big one, the argument I've been circling around for 2,000 words: ban guns. Ban them all.  


I'm not going to insult your intelligence by arguing that this wouldn't work.  Guns do not create homicidal intent, as some people have argued, but they do make homicidal intent more lethal.  A bullet is harder to stop, requires less physical strength to deploy, and does a huge amount of damage.  And shooting someone takes a lot less time than stabbing or bludgeoning them.  That is why we now arm the US military with rifles instead of big knives.  Conservatives who argue that a total ban wouldn't lower the homicide rate are being ridiculous.  

America would still have a higher homicide rate than anywhere else, because for whatever reason, America is an incredibly violent place.  

But I think there's no question that our homicide rate would be lower than it is now, simply because fewer killings would succeed.

Nor am I going to go through the various cost-benefit reasons that we might want to allow guns, such as defensive uses.  I find some of these arguments compelling, others less so.  I will say that liberals who argue that defensive uses never save lives are being just as ridiculous as conservatives who claim that guns don't increase the death rate.  We don't know the number of defensive uses, but we do know that they happen, because there are many well-documented cases.  

But now is not a good time to have a cost-benefit discussion, and there may never be a good time.  The two sides are too far apart: gun control is mostly advocated by people who do not own guns, or want to own guns, and for them it is therefore a zero cost policy.  Maybe a negative cost policy, because--apart from the violence--they have a fairly intense cultural antipathy for people who spend a lot of time playing with guns.   Randall Collins notes that "US surveys indicate the favorite TV shows of liberal Democrats are comedians satirizing conservatives; conservatives' favorites are college football."  However right they may be, those people are not in a good position to persuade gun owners that they shouldn't want to own guns, or that having them taken away is a negligible cost in the bigger picture.  Nor have gun owners had any better luck explaining to the other side why they might want to own guns even though some people abuse them.

So I'll merely point out what Jeffrey Goldberg has already said, better and at greater length, in The Atlantic: the discussion is moot.  You can't ban guns.  That ship has sailed.  

You can't ban them because the Supreme Court has now ruled, twice, that you can't.  You also can't ban them because there are hundreds of millions of guns in circulation in the United States--no one knows exactly how many, but we are either approaching, or well past, one gun per adult citizens.  Other countries that banned guns started with a less absolutist attitude towards civil liberties, and also, a lot fewer guns.  

We don't know where any of those guns are.  So how would we get them?  House to house searches?  I keep getting these mailers from the ACLU saying that whatever administration is currently in power is "gutting" the fourth amendment, but the old girl still has a little life in her--enough to preclude any such measures.  At best, you would take guns away from the people least likely to use them: the folks law abiding enough to trundle down to the police station and dutifully surrender their weapons.  

And that's assuming that you can get to the point of banning guns.  You can't.  Somewhere between 40-60% of American adults own a gun; they will not vote for your gun ban.  Others who do not own guns are nonetheless opposed to banning them.  Even if the events in Newtown changes some of those minds, the structural obstacles are pretty much insurmountable.  Since Heller, a ban would now take a constitutional amendment to implement.  A constitutional amendment would take either a constitutional convention, or 38 states to ratify.  You need only look at a map of the United States to see that you will never get enough votes at the state level. I doubt you would even get to 25.  A constitutional convention is even more unlikely.  

There is just, as Mark Kleiman notes, "no way to get there from here".  And the more you push for a ban, the more pushback you get on lesser gun control measures--the reason the NRA has so vociferously opposed gun registration is that they (correctly) suspect that VPC and its fellows would like to ban guns, and use those lists to confiscate the ones currently in circulation.   For the same reason that pro-choicers resist "leaving the issue to the states" or "reasonable restrictions", opponents of gun control feel they need to hold the line as far back as possible.  They are not wrong to worry about a slippery slope; that is what the other side is hoping for.  


When I pointed out some of these things on Facebook this weekend, the responses were generally angry, or incredulous.  "Megan, you're not presenting an argument, you're just poking holes in others' arguments," said one friend. "Anyone can do that. Bottom line, how do you suggest improving things?"  

The answer, I'm afraid, is that I don't.  I know this is a very frustrating answer.  It got me a fair amount of angry pushback on Facebook, particularly since my friends know that I am in favor of much less stringent gun control than they are.  It's not surprising that they feel that I'm hiding the football--poking holes in the stuff that won't work while ignoring the stuff that will, in an attempt to deceive people into giving up on a gun control that I would oppose for entirely separate reasons.  

It's true: I would oppose a total gun ban even if it were structurally and practically possible, for reasons that we can argue about later. But Mark Kleiman and Jeffrey Goldberg are not gun nuts.  They are impeccably Democratic coastal liberals.  As are several other academics I saw make the same point on Facebook and Twitter: nothing short of a ban is going to do much good.  And America is not going to ban guns.  

Short of a gun ban, there is very, very little that would stop spree killers, who are hard to deter precisely because they aren't much worried about the future; as far as I can tell, most of these things end when the killer docilely sits down and waits to be arrested, or turns the gun on himself.  It's not even clear what would happen to gun violence more generally; the holocaust of violence that was supposed to follow when we liberalized concealed carry permits never materialized.  The sort of people who can qualify for a legal handgun are the sort of people who are vanishingly unlikely to commit a crime with it.  And the people who can't qualify, but own guns anyway . . . well, we've got this huge border with Mexico.  We can't even keep whole people from being smuggled across it. How are we going to make sure that they don't bring guns with them?


There's a terrible syllogism that tends to follow on tragedies like this:  

1. Something must be done  

2. This is something  

3. Therefore this must be done.  

. . . and hello, Gulf War II.

It would certainly be more comfortable for me to endorse doing something symbolic--bring back the "assault weapons ban"--in order to signal that I care.  But I would rather do nothing than do something stupid because it makes us feel better.  We shouldn't have laws on the books unless we think there's a good chance they'll work: they add regulatory complexity and sap law-enforcement resources from more needed tasks.  This is not because I don't care about dead children; my heart, like yours, broke about a thousand times this weekend.  But they will not breathe again because we pass a law.  A law would make us feel better, because it would make us feel as if we'd "done something", as if we'd made it less likely that more children would die.  But I think that would be false security. And false security is more dangerous than none.  

My guess is that we're going to get a law anyway, and my hope is that it will consist of small measures that might have some tiny actual effect, like restrictions on magazine capacity.  I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.  Would it work?  Would people do it?  I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.  

But I doubt we're going to tell people to gang rush mass shooters, because that would involve admitting that there is no mental health service or "reasonable gun control" which is going to prevent all of these attacks.  Which is to say, admitting that we have no box big enough to completely contain evil.