Friday, December 28, 2012

Gun Violence

Let’s take a rational, critical thinking-based look at gun violence.  Interest groups and the news media avoid this by taking opinion polls and starting on-line petitions in the heat of the moment, when we are filled with wonder, outrage and grief.  This is clearly not the time to be making long-term policy decisions, but it’s a pattern nonetheless – a truck crashes on the beltway and new safety regulations arise; trains collide and requirements for expensive electronic monitors are passed.  Shootings spark new gun laws.  Within 100 days of the Benghazi attack, a Congressional Mandate calls for 1,000 additional marines for embassy security.  Sensational coverage of exceptional events drives knee-jerk reactions ahead of well-thought-out answers.

With the recent string of shootings in a Colorado theater, the Milwaukee Sikh temple, a Baltimore high school, and a NJ grocery store, along with the murder-suicide by an NFL player and the recent terrible tragedy in Connecticut, there is a new cry for legal solutions.  Some say that we need fewer guns in society; others argue for more.  Some endorse school patrols and/or secured and bulletproof doors and windows.  Others emphasize the mental-health aspect of the problem.  There is a cost to each of these proposals, but when even one life can be saved, no one talks about the cost or possible unanticipated consequences.

These shootings were the irrational acts of five people – 5 out of 300 million.  Is it possible to keep guns out of the hands of such people, any more than to keep explosives out of the hands of terrorists, drugs out of the hands of addicts, drunk drivers off the road or alcohol away from minors?  Would forcing them to stop and reload buy enough time for authorities (or others) to react?

An interesting slant on the issue came several months ago from “public health experts” who suggest we treat gun violence as a social disease, following the model used to reduce highway deaths.  Over many years the number of traffic deaths has decreased even as the number of vehicles on the road has increased thanks to better road design, safer guardrails, mandatory automobile safety equipment.  When you can’t count on correct behavior, set up conditions that minimize the risk.  Beyond promoting defensive driving, avoiding distractions and not driving under the influence, they also “engineered in” safety by modifying streets and requiring vehicles to have seatbelts, front airbags, side-impact airbags, and mandatory safety seats for children.  (Notice the progression, and more technology is proposed.)  Gone are the days of riding in the open bed of a pickup truck.  Parents would be charged with neglect.

Applying this concept to gun violence, how do you engineer in safety?  The article lists some ideas:  stricter requirements for firearms purchases (including private sales), better oversight of design flaws, smart guns that allow only the owner to fire them.  Still, these suggestions deal primarily with the guns and not the environment or people whose lives are at risk.  Similar to drivers licensing, gun ownership might require both a written and range test with periodic retests.  Similar to seatbelts and safety seat laws, they might require children to wear protective vests at school.  (The sale of bulletproof backpacks is already on the rise.)   Could parents someday be charged for sending their child to school without one?  Do we need the equivalent of air marshals randomly patrolling schools, malls, theaters and convenience stores?  Some states now require all-night convenience stores to have two people working or a bulletproof enclosure or a security guard or to conduct business by a pass-through trough.  

These possibilities may seem farfetched, but wouldn’t mandatory seatbelts and airbags have seemed strange to Henry Ford’s contemporaries?  Didn't the government surveillance in Orwell's 1984 or the wall-sized televisions screens in Fahrenheit 451 sound like pure science fiction only 50 years ago?  Today security cameras and huge, flat HDTVs are commonplace.  We tolerate screening at airports that would have been shouted down as an unnecessary delay and invasion only 15 years ago.   When the government and advocacy groups get going, we must be alert to their tendency to get carried away.  Just recently, for example, a group proposed mandatory double-trigger spray bottles for household cleaners because adults can't be trusted to move spray nozzles to the "off" position, and children might be hurt.

With every restriction we can think of, accidents still happen.  Consider the case of the woman who accidentally shot her husband instead of the skunk she was aiming at.  She used her own gun, which was legally registered.  He was sitting inside his house; so even under the craziest scenario may not have been wearing his bulletproof vest.

When motivated by good intentions in the face of extraordinary circumstances, the tendency to jump to regulatory solutions trumps calm consideration.  Remember, those responsible for recent tragedies were not concerned with laws.  In their irrational state, they could have done substantial damage with any weapon.  Success in regulating out of existence all aberrant behavior in any subject is highly unlikely.

In an economy so fragile (we are told) that raising taxes to the level of 12 years ago while cutting spending could spark another recession, we must consider the cost.  There are nearly 100,000 public schools in the US.  Pay and benefits for a couple of security guards at each could easily run $15 billion or more per year.  How many theaters and convenience stores (and places of worship) are there?  Who pays for all the bulletproof glass and other safeguards?  You know in the end we do.  And the argument that it’s worth it to save just one life is flawed.  (See Value of a Human Life.)

Advice to parents dealing with their children following the massacre in Newtown could apply to everyone:  Limit exposure to the news – the highly emotional, graphic and repetitive presentations in pursuit of ratings drives out perspective; Be honest in describing the situation; Emphasize that this was a rare event and that the world is still basically a safe place.  It’s time to calm down, step back, take a deep breath and start thinking about this critically.  There are good ideas floating around but some poor ones as well.  Regulators take their cue from the public.  We must get over our grief and start thinking clearly before endorsing proposals. 

Important questions to ask ourselves as we watch the regulatory train leave the station:  How effective will any change be in deterring these irrational characters?  What response, if any, makes sense in reaction to truly uncommon events?  What will be the overall cost in dollars and loss of freedom to the rest of us – could every trip outside the house eventually become the equivalent of boarding an airplane?  Are we ultimately trying to do the impossible, to "idiot-proof" the whole world through laws and restrictions so that no one ever gets hurt?  Have we reached a point where this is acceptable or even makes sense?

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