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.