Obligatory response to Aurora (Guest Post for Josh Divine)

(originally posted at The Divine Perspective)

The shooting that occurred at the premier of The Dark Knight Rises was a very sad event, and naturally the immediate response was policy. The twitterverse blew up almost immediately with calls for stiffer gun control, which was of course to be expected. On MSNBC, a survivor said her father, on discovering she’d survived, said he would have killed the shooter, giving a blunt articulation of what the anti-gun regulation lobby says should have happened. E.J. Dionne Jr. then decided to take the predictable liberal line: we need to talk about this and come up with a policy. All of this misses the boat.

In the first case, the link between gun control and decreased gun crimes is almost impossible to isolate. This NYT article following the 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller does a solid job covering the arguments for and against guns and the difficulty in making arguments out of the raw data available. This passage, in particular, is instructive:

According to the study, published last year in The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, European nations with more guns had lower murder rates. As summarized in a brief filed by several criminologists and other scholars supporting the challenge to the Washington law, the seven nations with the most guns per capita had 1.2 murders annually for every 100,000 people. The rate in the nine nations with the fewest guns was 4.4.

Justice Breyer was skeptical about what these comparisons proved. “Which is the cause and which the effect?” he asked. “The proposition that strict gun laws cause crime is harder to accept than the proposition that strict gun laws in part grow out of the fact that a nation already has a higher crime rate.”

One study cited in the article showed a link between background checks and a decreased murder rate, but Colorado already requires vendors to perform background checks before transferring possession of firearms.

On the other side, no one was going to take down the shooter with a concealed handgun. I doubt many of the film’s attendees thought to bring their gas masks with them, so the tear gas the shooter threw before he started shooting would have decreased their ability to aim accurately. Second, reports have all emphasized that the shooter was covered head to toe in body armor, including a neck guard. The shooter was the only person who could breathe and the only person who could fire blind without worrying about hitting the wrong person since for him there were no wrong people.

E.J. Dionne’s article means well, but who cares? He expresses outrage and a sense we ought to, you know, do something and makes some inane analogies. This is the critical passage:

First, the gun lobby goes straight to the exploitation argument — which is, of course, a big lie. You can see this because we never allow an assertion of this kind to stop conversation on other issues.

Nobody who points to the inadequacy of our flood-control policies or mistakes by the Army Corps of Engineers is accused of “exploiting” the victims of a deluge. Nobody who criticizes a botched response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to a natural disaster is accused of “exploiting” the victims of a hurricane or a tornado. Nobody who lays part of the blame for an accident on insufficient regulation of, say, the airlines or coal mining is accused of “exploiting” the accident’s victims.

The difference, of course, between deluges, hurricanes, and tornadoes is that each of those is a consistent, predictable kind of disaster, while gun massacres are variable. Designing policies to stop the general case of gun massacres may not have any impact on stopping people like James Holmes, or the Virginia Tech shooter, or the Columbine shooter. Policy deals with general cases, big phenomena. This is something different.

It’d be nice to believe that we can use our political system to make the world more stable or make events like Friday’s make sense, but we’re not dealing with an institutional problem here. These mass shootings are still incredibly rare and, relative to yearly deaths, not all that significant – those killed in the Aurora shooting represent less than half a day’s quota for annual gun deaths in the U.S.

If we design a policy as a response, it shouldn’t be designed to stop gun deaths like those that happened in Aurora. Mass shootings are already rare enough by virtue of being mass shootings that we don’t have to design policy to stop them, and whatever policy we do design will be completely unable to predict the particulars of the next one. If we want to do something (!), we ought to focus on the other 729 730ths of gun deaths each year.

Policy designed to decrease the other 729 730ths of gun deaths each year may not work, but it would make much more sense than attempting to target the next disgruntled PhD. candidate with a shotgun and a penchant for designing booby traps.