With a weekend to digest recent events, I have concluded that Newtown is really just the continuation of that timeless discussion regarding the correct balance of individual rights and responsiblities against the ability and wisdom of government to control events.
An obviously mentally unstable man steals some firearms and kills more than two dozen of the most defenseless victims. Immediately, as after all such events, there goes up a cry for more restrictions on the individual ownership of guns. However, even if that were the right course of action, as John Fund points out, in a country that contains over 200 million privately owned firearms, prohibition is not possible. To outlaw gun ownership would be as futile (not to mention damaging to the cause of limiting violence) as would be an attempt to return 11 million illegal aliens to their homelands or a second attempt at the prohibition of alcohol. Some things are just too entrenched to ever completely end.
Another group has argued for a greater ability of the government to diagnose and detain mentally ill individuals. While certainly there is great merit in having a serious adult conversation about the role of mental illness in violent crime, proposals to return to an era of committing people to the Cuckoo’s Nest, are as fraught with societal danger as are proposals to ban guns. Granting to government the power to forcibly hospitalize the mentally ill who might perform violent acts is as anathema to the American way, as giving government the power to imprison those who might commit a crime. Just how many scores of thousands of imprisoned innocently insane is the right number to save the lives of the next score of innocent children?
If phrasing the trade-off that way doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then I suggest that you don’t have an appreciation for what the American ideal of freedom means. Our system was purposefully designed to default to government inaction and individual freedom. While it is understandably frustrating to victims and their families, our rules prefer that the guilty go free rather than to wrongfully imprison an innocent man. That is no less true for the criminally insane than it is for the just plain criminal.
Shit happens. Sorry to so crassly phrase it, but that’s just the way life is. As we grow more technologically advanced, we have had great success in controlling–even eliminating–some of that shit. Smallpox is completely gone. Polio is rare. Malaria is almost non-existent outside of the third world. The same is true of hunger–the real, dying of starvation kind. We have even the ability to screen out telemarketers without ever touching the phone.
While shit still happens, less of it happens than happened before. So it is not surprising that we look around for other shit to stop. But sometimes in our zeal to stop it all, we lose sight of the trade-offs. How many millions of man-hours of economic productivity, for example, are lost every day in airport security lines in an effort to stop a hijacking that takes place less often than once-a-year?
Rare tragic events sharpen the focus more clearly than does the every day cost of preventing them. I remember a couple dozen years ago the sad story of an airplane lap child who died when he struck the bulkhead during turbulence. Immediately a cry went out to require infant seats on aircraft. In one of those uncommon examples of when Washington considers the whole issue–that which is unseen as well as that which is seen–Congress wisely chose not to act. I say wisely, not because I wish for infants on airplanes to die, but because a serious analysis of ALL of the facts indicated that the solution would lead to more deaths than it would save. That was because if parents were forced to buy an extra ticket for their infant, some significant percentage of them would opt to drive rather than to fly. And by driving, they would make their infant child far more susceptible to accidental death. Shit happens. And sometimes we just have to let it happen, because in trying to stop it, we inadvertently add to the pile of shit.
So what should we do to mitigate the risk of shit? Confiscation, as Ed Schultz suggests? Only if you want criminals to act with less caution, not to mention the real risk of igniting a civil war. Outlaw automatic weapons as Rupert Murcoch demands? It wouldn’t have helped as they were already outlawed in 1934 and Mr. Lanza’s weapons were not automatic. Reinstituting the “assault weapons” ban that limits the size of magazines as Senator Schumer wants? That wouldn’t have helped either; as Mr. Lanza reportedly overcame that limitation by having “hundreds of rounds of ammunition in multiple magazines.” Enforce tighter restriction on gun possession by the mentally ill? That might be worth analyzing, but it still wouldn’t have helped here, as apparently Mr. Lanza shot his own mother dead and then stole her guns. More cops in schools? There are 132,000 schools in the nation; even ignoring the $13 billion additional cost, is 132,000 new police really going to stop the violence? In a mall in Clackamas it apparently only limited, but did not stop, the bloodshed. Add to the list of places where guns are illegal? They are already illegal in schools; perhaps that is why schools and other gun-free zones are such a target-rich environment.
In epidemiology there is a concept known as “herd immunity.” If enough of the population is vaccinated, epidemics can’t occur. Even the uninnoculated benefit because their vaccinated neighbors prevent a disease’s spread from getting out of control. Herd immunity doesn’t stop the disease, but it does stop its spread. The evidence of recent gun violence suggests that if enough law abiding citizens are armed, the death toll of mass murder events may similarly be limited by a form of herd immunity. It is worth considering that the answer to gun violence is the counter-intuitive: more guns.
But what I would even more strongly suggest is that more restrictions on individuals is a worse response than doing nothing. Whether it is to leave a hundred million citizens more susceptible to everyday violent acts because, unarmed, they are at the mercy of armed criminals, or to add to the already swollen number of Americans forcibly detained, any heavy-handed governmental reaction to events such as what occurred in Newtown is likely to be worse than the problem it is meant to cure.
Government was never meant to be the last line of defense against evil. We individuals are. We are the militia. That is the meaning of the Second Amendment. Shit happens. And when it does, hopefully enough of our herd is ready to deal with it before shit gets out of control.
Guy Benson echoes a similar theme:
I’m skeptical that proposing more grief-fueled laws is a meaningful solution. And even if one could accurately project that passing Gun Law X would save Y number of lives, where do Constitutional rights come into play, and who gets to weigh those factors? If curtailing the First Amendment could also be scientifically proven to save some quantifiable number of lives, would we tolerate additional government limits on those core, specifically-enumerated freedoms? These are extraordinarily difficult questions.
Megan McArdle does too:
What Lanza shows us is the limits of the obvious policy responses. He had all the mental health resources he needed–and he did it anyway. The law stopped him from buying a gun–and he did it anyway. The school had an intercom system aimed at stopping unauthorized entry–and he did it anyway. Any practical, easy-to-implement solution to school shootings that you could propose, along with several that were not at all easy to implement, was already in place. Somehow, Lanza blew through them all.
. . . It would certainly be more comfortable for me to endorse doing something symbolic–bring back the “assault weapons ban”–in order to signal that I care. But I would rather do nothing than do something stupid because it makes us feel better. We shouldn’t have laws on the books unless we think there’s a good chance they’ll work: they add regulatory complexity and sap law-enforcement resources from more needed tasks. This is not because I don’t care about dead children; my heart, like yours, broke about a thousand times this weekend. But they will not breathe again because we pass a law. A law would make us feel better, because it would make us feel as if we’d “done something”, as if we’d made it less likely that more children would die. But I think that would be false security. And false security is more dangerous than none.
For McArdle’s crime of pointing out the obvious truth–nothing that gun control advocates have proposed would have stopped Mr. Lanza’s murderous spree–New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait awards her the “Worst Newtown Reaction Award.” I urge you to read his column, and then, if you can stomach it, read the comments. There really are two Americas. And Chait and his readers apparently have never stepped foot in the America west of the Hudson River.
Daniel Greenfield offers his thoughts on individual rights and responsibilities versus the government’s ability to control events:
The clash that will define the future of America is this collision between the individual and the state, between disorganized freedom and organized compassion, between a self-directed experiment in self-government and an experiment conducted by trained experts on a lab monkey population. And the defining idea of this conflict is accountability.