DRI-179 for week of 12-23-12: Shoot the Shooter

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Shoot the Shooter

By this time, few if any Americans can be unaware of the slaughter of 20 elementary schoolchildren and 6 teachers and administrators at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, on Dec. 15. The perpetrator, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, used a semi-automatic rifle belonging to his mother, whom he killed first of all. The shootings have maintained a stranglehold on the attention of the news media since they occurred, fending off even the “fiscal cliff” for primacy.

The news media, mainstream politicians and the left wing reacted to this horrific act with utter predictability. They all blamed the physical instrument used to commit the crime – a gun – for the purposive acts of the perpetrator. Calls went out for heightened gun control. The word “heightened” is apropos because guns are already the most heavily regulated consumer purchase in America.

The apogee of this predictable reaction was reached with a call by President Barack Obama for legislation to be recommended by a committee headed by Vice-President Joe Biden. The legislation would purportedly be directed at “gun violence,” but this is widely understood as a euphemism for gun control; e.g., further restrictions on the possession, purchase and use of guns.

This is the latest in a string of mass shootings, each of which has received lavish publicity, triggering (no pun intended) similar calls for regulatory screw-tightening. There is a rapidly forming consensus that “this time is different.” The reasons for the difference vary from cumulative disgust (“Enough is enough,” proclaimed President Obama in heralding the formation of his commission) to the ostensible escalation of horror resulting from the murder of children.

This space thoroughly analyzed the last mass shooting (in an Aurora, CO cinema premiering the latest installment in the Batman franchise) and provided the logical response. Not surprisingly, that response was thoroughly ignored – although the evidence has continued to mount in its favor. Now, with the Second Amendment rights of Americans and their very safety at risk as never before, those arguments are well worth rehearsing.

The Problems

There are three problems associated with mass shootings of the Newtown type. Listed in descending order of importance, they are:

The problem of dealing with the shooter. The overarching problem is the fact that a group of people is faced by an armed man intent on killing as many of them as possible – or at least killing until his need or desire to kill has been satiated. The immediate imperative is an emergency of the highest order: to stop the killing as quickly and completely as possible.

The problem of deterring further shootings. Once the killing has been stopped, the highest remaining need in the hierarchy of urgency can be addressed. That is the need to deter further shootings of this type. In criminal justice generally, deterrence is accomplished by apprehension and punishment. Mass shootings present a unique and anomalous case. Apprehension is not a problem because the shooter continues to shoot until interrupted by the arrival of the police and then either commits suicide or (rarely) surrenders. Punishment does not deter because the shooter is obviously fully prepared to die at the scene or, failing that, following conviction. The shooter is someone for whom life holds no further attraction and meaning is reduced to taking random vengeance for the perceived slights he has suffered. Thus the problem of deterrence appears in a peculiar and unique guise.

The problem of uncovering the “root cause” of the shootings; e.g., of discovering the precise motive that constitutes the perception of injury and source of homicidal rage. The ostensible presumption is that this discovery will unlock the door to deterring further shootings.

Mainstream media attention has focused on these problems in inverse order of their actual importance. From the first media reports – long before any of the details of the crime were accurately relayed – the obsessive focus has puzzled over the shooter’s motive. Of course, motive plays a key role in a typical murder investigation, but that is because the murderer’s identity is usually unknown or in dispute. Motive, means and opportunity form the triad of elements necessary to secure a criminal conviction under those circumstances.

That is all too obviously not true here. The shooter is known. Even in the unlikely event of a trial, even given the proverbial difficulty of actually proving simple guilt in a capital case, the issue of motive is surely peripheral to guilt or innocence because the physical circumstances are utterly damning.

If we don’t need to know the shooter’s motive to convict him, why does motive matter? The vague presumption is that if we only knew what makes people do these things, we could prevent them – somehow, some way. That explains the repeated references to “mental illness” as a common denominator among shooters and the blaming of the de-institutionalization policies adopted in the 1970s for allowing time-bomb killers to roam the streets.

“Mental Illness” as Scapegoat

Unfortunately, the mental illness paradigm is doubly disappointing as an answer to the problem of mass shootings. It can neither satisfactorily explain their incidence nor offer the key to deterrence. The term “mental illness” is a throwback to the days of Freudian psychology, before neuroscience came along. The days of belief in “diseases” of the unconscious mind, analogous to diseases of the body but treatable via psychotherapy rather than medicine, are blessedly behind us. What we once called mental illness has gradually revealed itself largely as aberrant brain chemistry, treatable with drugs. Psychiatrists have traded in their couches for a pharmacopeia. Cultural lag has restrained public recognition of the fact that “mental illness” is an obsolete term.

Despite the claims of institutionalization proponents like Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, however, we cannot confidently sort out potentially violent sufferers of (say) bi-polar disorder, let alone distinguish dangerous psychotics from harmless ones. The traditional legal definition of insanity has long been the inability to distinguish right from wrong, but there is little or no reason to believe that today’s mass shooters are insane in this sense, although they may well be mentally ill in the physical sense.

Institutionalization of the mentally ill fell from favor for the very good reason that the practice was routinely and grossly abused. The protections against seizure and detention that all of us take for granted were suspended on supposed medical grounds that we now know to have been all too often spurious. State mental institutions were not always the hellholes depicted in the 1948 movie The Snake Pit, but the shoe fit well enough to touch off a nationwide furor and set events in motion that culminated in the 1970s.

Now that the pendulum of political theater has swung back to focus on mass shootings, the political establishment has whistled up a dragnet for scapegoats and the mentally ill are easy pickings. How many votes do they command, after all? It is much more politically correct to come out as homosexual than as mentally ill. While it may be easy to pretend to solve the problem of mass shootings by stigmatizing a vague class of people that are hard to identify, actually getting results that way is a different story.

The attempt to use mental illness as a scapegoat for mass shootings is really a variant of the old left-wing “root cause” approach to criminology. For decades, garden-variety criminality was excused as the product of sociological deprivation. The only way to fight crime, the left insisted, was to abolish poverty by fighting a “war on poverty.” That war was lost long ago when we discovered that fighting it benefitted the fighters more than the poor and that poverty was a relative, not an absolute, phenomenon. Ironically, the only viable “root-cause” solution is one we refuse to adopt; namely, drug legalization.

The Real Solution

As originally noted in our first discussion of this problem, the most urgent item of business is to neutralize the shooter. The following thought experiment is instructive: Assume that an experienced policeman happens to be on the scene of a mass shooting. What would he do when the shooter produced one or more weapons and opened fire? The answer is blindingly obvious.

He would draw his weapon – policemen are required to carry one even when off duty – and shoot the shooter. There is only one way to handle an armed perpetrator bent on immediate and indiscriminate homicide – by shooting him. The policeman would not try to negotiate with the shooter. He would not call for backup, call for a SWAT team or call for Phillip Morris. And his shots would have only one objective: to kill the shooter. A wounded armed opponent can still kill you and other people in the vicinity.

The crystal clarity of this insight contrasts jarringly with the public refusal of most people – particularly politicians and journalists – to face it. When Wayne LaPierre, President of the National Rifle Association, declared that “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” his call to station a policeman in schools was met with derision. A typical reaction from academia was that return fire from police would increase risk by increasing the number and sources of fired bullets that might injure students.

That a response so staggeringly inept could originate with an educator – ostensibly a font of wisdom and reasoned thought – speaks volumes about the degradation of education in general and current public discourse in particular. Failure to shoot the shooter will (as it has in every case to date) allow him to kill his fill of innocent citizens until the police arrive. Return fire, even if ineffectual, will draw the shooter’s attention and shots toward the retaliator and away from the audience, allowing the unarmed to escape.

Another inane argument advanced against retaliating fire is that mass shooters now often sport so-called bullet-proof vests. This is not only true but also quite significant, since it shows that shooters are not too deracinated to carefully plot their crime and anticipate opposition. But the use of (say) a Kevlar vest is no reason not to shoot the shooter. First and foremost, a vest does not protect the shooter’s vulnerable head and neck. Equally telling, a vest-wearing shooter does not continue his work unperturbed like Superman while bullets bounce off his vest harmlessly. A bullet-proof vest is designed to prevent a mortal wound, not to completely overcome all effects of a fired bullet. The impact of a slug from a large-caliber handgun will probably knock down and badly bruise a vest-wearing human target. At the very least, it will allow an audience time to escape and a retaliator time and opportunity to finish him off. (Vest-wearing police normally conduct firefights in pairs or teams and rely on their colleagues for protection when struck.)

The Anti-gun Movement: Cynicism and Hysteria

The foregoing arguments are a sample of how the left wing wages its current fight to control guns. (The word “debate” does not apply to these exchanges since the left wing proffers neither logic nor empirical evidence and makes its points by shouting down the opposition.) The left runs the gamut of emotional reaction from cynicism to hysteria.

President Obama’s reaction to the shooting was political cynicism in its purest (or impurest) form. “Enough is enough,” he intoned solemnly. The nation could no longer afford to indulge the freedoms traditionally accorded gun owners. But enough only became enough after the President’s reelection, not after the previous mass shooting in the Aurora, CO movie theater in July, 2012. Had some sort of cumulative numerical threshold for mass murder been surpassed?

No, the hurdle presented by the President’s reelection had been surpassed; that was the difference in the two situations. Now the President could apply his trusty rule-of-thumb: Never let a crisis go to waste. The President’s black constituency is a dedicated group of gun-bearers. Prior to reelection he could hardly have risked incurring their wrath by threatening their rights and property. Now, with 94% of their votes safely recorded and his tenure secured, he can go back to ignoring their welfare in favor of the hard-left agenda of gun proscription and confiscation.

At the other emotional pole is the hysterical fringe. Their poster boy is British-born Piers Morgan, host of CNN Tonight. His notion of hospitality to guest Larry Pratt, longtime Second Amendment defender and gun educator, was to hurl imprecations at him. Morgan called Pratt an “idiot,” “dangerous” and “an unbelievably stupid man” – all within the space of less than a minute. Later, Morgan asked rhetorically “how many more kids have to die before” more restrictive gun laws are passed.

The reaction to Morgan’s tantrum is instructive. To date, over 70,000 signatories have urged his deportation (!) in an online petition posted to a White House website. The episode is a classic illustration of what F.A. Hayek called absolute or unlimited democracy at work. Opposing sides expend vast quantities of resources to gain political power which, when attained, they then use to deprive the other side of its rights. The left tries to deprive the right of the right to self-defense; the right tries to deprive the left of freedom of movement.

Readers of the world-famous British weekly The Economist know how Morgan came by his arrogant tunnel vision. The magazine noted that mass shootings in Great Britain and Tasmania in 1996 led directly to a ban of most private handgun ownership in Great Britain and a ban on most semi-automatic weapons in Australia. “If similar laws had been in effect in Sandy Hook,” the magazine piously declared, “some of those lost might have survived.” In fact, England’s gun ban was followed by an epidemic of gun-related violence. Handgun crime doubled and English police began carrying guns for the first time. In Australia, assaults – particularly sexual assaults – went up dramatically following the bans, while homicides continued a modest decline that started prior to the ban.

A once-great magazine has sunk to unimagined depths of demagoguery and incompetence. Bad enough to have refused to face the truth of a single historical example, but The Economist has turned its eyes away from 25 years of pathbreaking social and economic research spanning the globe.

Guns are the Answer, not the Problem

The left-wing movement for gun control was sparked by the political assassinations of the 1960s and turbo-charged by the attempted assassination of President Reagan and his press secretary in 1981. Serious research into the incidence of gun ownership and violence followed later in that decade. Gary Kleck, a liberal academic at FloridaStateUniversity, began with the general expectation of documenting the case for gun control. To his great surprise, he found that cases of gun use for self-defense and protection vastly outnumbered cases of criminal use – by a factor of six in 1993, according to his estimates based on a household survey of 5000. Economist John Lott did extensive research on the extension of rights to carry and conceal firearms, finding that rates of violent crimes in general and murder in particular declined when and where these rights were granted. David Kopel was another researcher whose work in this field has been widely noted and cited. The field of research eventually broadened to include worldwide study of violence and mass killings. The latter are not, as often claimed, unique to the United States. They are a trans-national and cross-cultural global phenomenon, perpetrated with and without guns.

As one would expect, critics (i.e., the left wing) did everything but dismember these men in order to discredit them. But those efforts failed, because all Kleck, Lott, Kopel, et al were doing was empirically bolstering a case that was already logically airtight. Even if recorded instances of handgun defensive use were actually outnumbered by numbers of crimes committed using handguns, this doesn’t even start to make a case for gun control, let alone a gun ban. We can never record all the cases in which citizens interrupt a crime in progress by brandishing a handgun. We can never even begin to imagine all the times in which criminals are deterred from crime by the knowledge or the suspicion that the potential victim is armed. It is no accident that mass shootings occur in so-called “gun-free” settings, where guns are available only to criminals, not law-abiding citizens in need of defense.

Gun control and gun bans do virtually no good at all, only bad. They do nothing to prevent mass shootings or, indeed, crime of any kind. Criminals do not obey laws – including gun laws. Ordinary criminals prefer to work with guns whose identifying marks have been erased; these are available in the black market. Black markets in beverage alcohol and recreational drugs developed quickly and massively in response to the combination of widespread demand and official proscription. Minutes after restrictive gun laws or gun bans were officially put on the books, black markets in guns would spring up.

It is both ironic and fitting that the left-wing solution is especially inappropriate in the case of mass shootings. Adam Lanza obtained his weapons illegally. Like other mass shooters, he had access to wealth that he could and would have used to acquire guns in the black market had they been illegal. Mass shooters are the last people in the world to be deterred by the high price and inconvenience of black-market transactions; after all, they are preparing to leave this world. They face only one possible deterrent – the possibility that they cannot execute their plan to kill large numbers of people. The only roadblock to that plan is the presence on site of somebody with a gun to shoot them.

Economists use two Latin phrases that explain the fallacy under which gun controllers operate. Gun bans implicitly assume a condition of ceteris paribus (“all other things the same or unchanged”); the left believes that they can ban guns without causing huge behavioral responses by the public. But economic reality follows the principle of mutatis mutandis (“let those things change that will change”); behavioral changes will accompany severe gun restrictions. Those changes will create black markets that will neutralize the effects of the gun restrictions and wreak havoc on our lives. Criminals will have guns but law-abiding citizens will not have them for self-defense. So, law-abiding citizens will have to become criminals in order to protect themselves.

It would be bad enough if gun control and gun bans were only ineffectual, if the left wing were guilty only of good intentions gone wrong. But the truth is much worse. It indicts the left of exactly the crime of which they accuse gun owners and the NRA – indifference to the fate of innocent children and adults. Guns themselves are the solution – the only solution – to the immediate problem posed by gun-related violence. The police recognize that; in response to the increased firepower utilized by drug cartels, the police have become virtually paramilitary in size, scope and technique.

Police in the Schools?

The proposal put forward by Wayne LaPierre of the NRA is a perfect reflection of the zeitgeist. In these times, the only politically way to oppose a big-government power grab is to respond with a Newtonian equal-and-opposite-reaction – your own big-government counter-proposal. That is what the NRA has done. Presumably they did it for political reasons, because they believe that putting somebody in authority behind the gun will somehow soften or sanctify a reaction that would otherwise be objectionable. Predictably, this did not work. The left wing reacted just as emotionally as if the NRA had proposed installing a Tea-Party-certified marksman in each school. The same left-wing media figures who recoil in horror from armed police in public schools send their own children to private schools like Sidwell Friends, which employ armed guards.

Now the right wing is stuck with its own big-government proposal, made in the heat of panic. The vague notion that each policeman is somehow well-versed in the care and handling of firearms is periodically dispelled when a gaggle of policemen take a dozen shots to dispatch a “dangerous” neighborhood pit bull or expend fifty rounds or so inside a bar or into the body of an unarmed suspect. These days, the real experts on guns are detailed to SWAT, where they are much too valuable on drug patrol to be wasted as public-school monitors.

The likely government alternative to the police would be the HSA, another unlikely source of genuine protection. Retired military veterans are the only source of actual expertise in weapons and combat who might be available for this duty. As one might expect, the best way to handle the problem of mass shootings in schools is to stop the government from getting involved.

But stopping the government from getting involved in something – anything – has now become just about the most difficult thing in the world to do.

DRI-423: The Aurora, CO Movie-Theater Shootings

The shooting of over 70 patrons in an Aurora, CO movie theater in the wee hours of July 20, 2012 is the latest in a series of mass shootings over the past decade. For the most part, the public reaction to each has been dismayingly similar: shock, disbelief and outrage. These days, every conceivable human misfortune is grist for the public policy mill. Mass shootings have produced a dichotomy between those who call for more and stricter regulations against the sale, possession and use of firearms and those who seem resolutely resigned to the horror.

This recurring analytic incompetence is almost as maddening as the acts that give rise to it.

Root Causes

In the 1960s and 1970s, it became fashionable to seek the “root causes” of criminal behavior. Rather than take the criminal impulse for granted and strive to minimize its incidence, sociologists and behaviorists asserted that crime could be eradicated by re-molding society according to a conscious blueprint. Eliminate poverty, end racism, reduce income inequality – by destroying these determinants of crime, we would destroy the basis of crime itself. The means chosen toward this end were government programs.

Those programs made little or no headway toward eliminating poverty and income inequality. Institutional racism did decline, as measured by the fall of Jim Crow laws and declining toleration of de facto segregation, although there was little or no discernible connection between these results and programs such as affirmative action. But beginning in the 1990s, academic researchers were astounded to discover a secular decline in human violent behavior. This very long-run trend stretched back to the beginnings of human history, but accelerated dramatically in the last few centuries – long predating the growth of the welfare state.

The incidence of contemporary criminal acts like murder, robbery, assault and rape fluctuates around this secular trend, varying along with changes in demographic variables like the average age of the population. Researchers have nominated a slate of candidates for the causes of this long-term waning of violence. These range from biological changes in the human brain to the growth and spread of capitalism in general and international trade in particular.

This realization is highly ironic, given the serial displays of caterwauling that invariably accompany a mass shooting. “America is a hopelessly violent society” – how then to account for the plummeting recent rates of crime, including murder, in America? “America’s irrational worship of guns and gun ownership is responsible” – how then to explain a rate of violent crime that is over four times greater in Great Britain, home to a nationwide ban on handguns, than in the U.S.? “Worsening inequality and the depredations of the haves periodically drive the have-nots into a frenzy of desperation” – how then to reconcile the historical evolution that even left-wing academics have dubbed “the Long Capitalist Peace?”

Deterrence and Interruption

No, mass shootings are not a manifestation of a sick society. They are simply a type of criminal behavior with certain unique attributes that pose special problems of criminal justice.

Organized humanity deals with almost all crime a posteriori, by solving the crime and punishing the perpetrator. This must be so. To coerce or incarcerate people in anticipation of crimes they might commit would be throwing the baby of freedom out with the bathwater of criminal incidence. To be sure, we make overtures to deterrence by putting locks on doors, auditing books and requiring passwords for online banking. But the lion’s share of criminal justice is accomplished by solving crimes rather than deterring them. The third criminal-justice salient – successfully interrupting crimes in progress – is the rarity, the spectacular exception.

What makes mass shootings unique is the overwhelming imperative in favor of reversing this order of priority. Currently we solve all mass-shooting cases. But a closure rate of 100% – which would be nirvana for virtually all other forms of crime – is rightly viewed as a disaster for mass shootings. The reason for this is all too clear; 12 dead and 59 wounded is not a result to be complacent about.

Deterrence is by far the preferred method of dealing with mass shootings. Interruption is the imperfect, second-best alternative. Once the shooting starts, we cannot be sure how long it will take to stop it and how many innocent bystanders may fall in the process. We know how to solve mass shootings. How do we deter them? Failing that, how do we interrupt them in order to limit their human toll? The answer to both questions is to be found in terra incognita, the mind of the shooter.

So-Called “Random Acts of Violence”

A majority of commentators despair of coping with what they choose to call “random acts of violence.” That description applies to these shootings only in a very limited sense. It is true that we cannot predict with any accuracy which individuals will generate the combination of free-floating rage and pent-up impotence that finds release in mass murder. But that does not mean that the killers act in a completely random manner. That is, they do not choose their moments, targets, venues, and weapons at random.

In Aurora, the shooter was sufficiently rational to select the Cinemark theater chain as his venue. He chose the midnight premiere showing of an eagerly awaited movie as his moment. His targets were an audience self-selected to cater to fantasy, escapist entertainment. He carefully stockpiled a cache of arms, ammunition, chemical weapons and body armor for months prior to the attack. According to David Weigel in Slate.com, he “made a series of smart tactical decisions that minimized the chances of anybody stopping him” on the fatal night.

Apparently, the shooter was operating according to what economist Herbert Simon called “bounded rationality.” That is, his actions were rational within certain internal and external limits. While it falls outside the normal definition of rationality for someone to wound and kill strangers for no reason other than to exorcise personal frustration, the killer strove to attain his utterly irrational objective in a relatively rational way.

For example, it might be tempting to characterize him as being under the sway of an “irresistible impulse” to kill as a way of releasing his frustrations. But he must have been able to curb those frustrations sufficiently to delay his attack until the necessary elements of success were present; namely, weapons available and directed against targets under circumstances in which they could not interfere with the plan’s execution. Presumably he recognized that the Cinemark theater chain’s “gun-free zone” policy of banning firearm possession by patrons would prevent active resistance by theater attendees.

Thus, we would expect him to react rationally to constraints and disincentives placed on his actions. As we will see, there is good reason to believe this.

Deterring the Shooter

The normal forms of criminal-justice deterrence invoke the fear of punishment. Incarceration is the classic example. But the mass shooter knows he will be caught and punished. He cannot even be sure he will not die in the attempt. Virtually by definition, he is somebody for whom incarceration holds no terrors because he is already imprisoned by his own impotent rage and can escape only through its release. He is fully prepared for eventual physical incarceration.

Execution will have some deterrent effect because all human beings fear death. But its power here is far less than in ordinary cases. After all, the shooter is prepared for the possibility that he will die in the gun battle that he starts. This is not a case for suspending capital punishment, merely an argument for not relying on it.

If the prospect of death is not the shooter’s worst fear, what is? What could possibly supersede the cessation of life in the hierarchy of human fears? Our analysis of the shooter’s bounded rationality provides the answer: The shooter’s worst fear is the fear of dying without getting his revenge on the world.

Any doubt on this score should have been erased in 2011 by the accounts of the Norwegian shooter Anders Breivik intoning, “Oh, wow! Oh, wow!” as he joyfully mowed down his 69 victims. His self-satisfied smile as capsule biographies of his victims were recorded at his recent trial was nothing less than post-coital; all that was missing was the cigarette.

The mass shooter’s entire raison d’être is to achieve one apocalyptic finale, one orgasmic release of frustration, one destructive denouement in which as many people as possible are killed so as to reveal the depth of his hurt and the power of his revenge. After that – well, après cette le deluge, to paraphrase Louis XIV.

Confronting the shooter with an overwhelming unlikelihood of reaching that goal is the ultimate form of deterrence – indeed, nearly the only form. How do we do it?

Interrupting the Shooter

Like a Chinese puzzle, the answer to that question lies wrapped in the answer to another. How do we successfully interrupt the shooter? A thought experiment will clarify that issue. Suppose that on-duty two policemen happened to pass the entrance to the Aurora screening room at the precise moment when the shooter burst in. Of all non-military personnel, police are best trained and equipped to deal with armed criminal action. How would they react?

The answer is simple and obvious: They would shoot the shooter. That is the only way to deal with a heavily armed criminal with obvious lethal intent. Despite the danger to innocent bystanders from a possible crossfire, the prospect of mass slaughter is the greater risk.

Nor does the body armor worn by the shooter affect this decision. Body armor does not convert the wearer into Superman, whose body can deflect bullets; it merely reduces the probability of a fatal wound. At the least, police rounds will still produce bad bruises and disorientation from the shock wave and physical impact. This should enable the police to finish off the perpetrator with head or interstitial shots. (Shooting to wound is an unaffordable luxury under the circumstances, since a wounded shooter may still get off additional shots.)

Alas, as we all know, police are almost never there when we really need them. For that matter, the increasing militarization of American police forces in recent years does not seem to have improved their speed or accuracy in responding to these emergencies. A recent statistic revealed that 11% of police shootings now involve innocent parties.

Fortunately, we are not limited to reliance upon police response in cases of mass shootings. State-level legislation over the last 20 years has allowed Americans to carry concealed handguns in 49 American states. Nearly all of those states also require permits to carry legally. Acquisition of a permit typically requires the applicant to pass a test of safety and proficiency (or demonstrate equivalent knowledge, such as military service).

It should go without saying that reliance on interruption by private citizens is not a panacea. There is no guarantee that a permit-holder will be present when a mass shooting erupts. The permit-holder may miss his mark or may not summon the courage to fire. As far as that goes, he (or she) may become the target of the shooter. Of course, drawing the shooter’s fire would itself almost surely save lives by allowing others to escape.

Nonetheless, armed resistance by private citizens offers by far the best alternative to the status quo. The debate over gun control has stimulated copious academic research on the effects of gun ownership and use of firearms to defend against crime. The most distinguished work has been done by Gary Kleck, David Kopel and John Lott. That research strongly supports the efficacy of the defensive use of privately owned firearms. The chances that this use will injure or kill an innocent party have been estimated at about 1 in 26,000.

The Demonstration Effect

As a practical matter, the most important effect of interrupting a mass shooter will not be the lives saved on site. It will be the lives saved in deterrence.

No doubt the 9/11 hijackers should have anticipated that their passengers would disrupt their plans by staging a counter-hijacking to take back the plane. Still, the passengers were soft, decadent Americans; they wereunarmed; they were narcotized by repeated injunctions to go along with the hijackers to insure their safety. The terrorist just weren’t quite willing to believe that the passengers would resist. In the event, two planeloads of Americans flew to their doom like sheep to the slaughter.

Then the flight of United 93 made it abundantly clear that no future American airline passengers would ever again allow themselves to die in the service of a terrorist cause. And once the terrorists saw this happen, they knew that their enemy knew what they were about. Voila! No more hijackings. (Not for want of opportunities, since surveys have shown the continuing presence of both terrorists and contraband on U.S. airline flights.) The terrorists are more than willing to die – but not without accomplishing their designs. The terrorists may be crazy, but they aren’t stupid.

It is highly likely that the bounded rationality of mass shooters will respond to this same demonstration effect. Up to now, mass shooters have meticulously shot only people who couldn’t shoot back. This is remarkable considering that the shooters are supposed to be insane madmen. But this can’t go on forever. The number of concealed-weapons permit-holders is increasing. Eventually, a mass shooter will miscalculate. Or perhaps a Cinemark patron will stop the next Joker dead in his tracks. And instead of witnessing the trial of an Anders Breivik we can entertain ourselves with another kind of shooting prosecution – for violation of theater firearms policy.

The Lunatic Fringe

That day will have to wait. For now, the lunatic fringe holds center stage. Hollywood has long held a place of honor in this community of fatuity. Roger Ebert and his late partner, Gene Siskel, double-handedly made movie reviewers into journalists and entertainers through their televised reviews. Now Ebert has elevated his profession even further by putting it on the same pedestal of analytical ineptitude traditionally occupied by producers, directors and actors.

After the Aurora shootings, Ebert wrote a column in which he stated that, since Colorado is a conceal-carry state, the failure of any audience member to shoot the Aurora shooter proved the ineffectiveness of conceal-carry laws. Under the best of circumstances, Ebert’s point would have been a non-sequitur, since conceal-carry laws merely allow the practice; they do not require it. (It is only in a fully totalitarian society that everything is either required or forbidden.) After nearly a decade of contention, Colorado’s conceal-carry law was finally passed in 2003. As of 2004, the state had nearly the lowest fraction of permit-holders in the country. As recently as 2008, there were only about 4,000 permit-holders combined in Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties, while the Denver metropolitan area boasted some 2 million people adults. The average movie screening room built over the last two decades holds 299 people, so it would not be statistically implausible that no permit-holders were present at the shooting.

But Ebert’s point is rendered absurd by the policy of the Cinemark theater chain, host of the Aurora cineplex where the shooting occurred. A few years ago, Cinemark chose to make each of its theaters a “gun-free zone” by denying its patrons the right to bring a gun inside. Just as any sensible person would predict, this policy did indeed make the theater a gun-free zone – for everybody but the shooter. It played right into the hands of the killer, who probably viewed it as a guarantee that he would face no armed opposition. And he didn’t.

We are accustomed to hearing from movie stars who take it for granted that their celebrity status as purveyors of emotion also qualifies them as experts in the intellectual domain of public policy. Now it seems that those who merely write about these celebrities assume that this same expertise has rubbed off on them, too. The word “assume” derives from Ebert’s ignorance of the practices within his own industry and his cavalier refusal to even check the facts – a practice once considered routine on newspapers like those Siskel and Ebert formerly worked at.

Not long ago, Ebert was seen complaining about the difficulty of earning money from online writing. In his case, this seems to be a vindication of the economic principles of marginal productivity and comparative advantage.

Totem and Taboo

How can we account for the fact that the calm, reasoned approach to the problem of mass shootings is never publicly broached? That approach is taboo because it demands that we accept the use of guns and self-defense as pragmatic tools of criminal justice. Left-wing control of traditional media outlets has assured the predominance of a totemic, visceral approach to guns. Evil resides in things, rather than in human acts. Since guns are inherently evil, guns cannot remedy evil. Getting rid of guns will rid us of the evil acts – a view popular on the left (and in movies) ever since the “merchants of death” school of international diplomacy tried to outlaw war by outlawing weapons in the 1920s.

Much is made of the polarized nature of American society, the fact that we cannot seem to get along and compromise becomes ever more remote. But there is no compromise between reality and fantasy. One either embraces the former or is swept along by the latter – until the deluge hits.