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.