Nothing can make up for the lost and shattered lives which occur every time there is a public shooting. Sandy Hook and all the senseless massacres before it cry out for explanation and justice. Everyone agrees that action should be taken to reduce the likelihood of such shootings or, when they occur, the amount of carnage that results. However, when I hear politicians state in support of some proposed law “If it saves just one life, it will be worth it,” I cringe and am angered because I know that they are cynically playing the public, not responding seriously to the problem. Millions of laws could be passed that would “save just one life,” but they are not worth passing because they have huge costs in terms of liberty, convenience and yes even in terms of greater lives lost. Enacting a national speed limit of two miles per hour would save countless lives, but at what cost? Disarming the police, and not allowing doctors to practice medicine would equally prevent thousands, if not tens of thousands of premature deaths each year (see the stats for wrongful shootings and medical errors resulting in deaths) but at vastly greater costs in terms of lives lost. Saving lives, one or hundreds, is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for a law to be enacted, though it could be one starting point for a law to be considered – and all politicians know this.
In this instance, the question is not simply what actions are most likely to reduce mass shootings in particular or shootings or violence in general , per say, but rather what laws would do this without violating Constitutionally protected liberties or producing even worse, unanticipated, harms.
The President’s proposals fall into three categories (with some overlap).
1) Small gestures, that might be helpful and at worst are innocuous.
2) Grand gestures that play to his constituency but have already been tried and proven ineffective (old wine in new bottles)
3) Proposals that could threaten constitutionally protected rights and civil liberties but would do little or nothing to prevent the types of gun violence generating the current attention paid to firearms policy.
In short, the President’s proposals would not prevent the types of horrific incidences experienced at Sandy Hook Elementary and in Colorado. Our children and the public in general deserve better, more focused, proposals.
Some of the executive orders the President signed might be a slight improvement over current regulations. Improved sharing of between federal agencies and between federal and state agencies, increased specialized training for emergency response teams and improved emergency response plans, increased prosecution of crimes involving guns, increased effort to trace guns and producing and sharing data concerning lost and stolen guns, for instance, all seem fairly sensible. Other executive orders, however, have little or no relevance to public school shootings – finalizing regulations pertaining to certain aspects of Obamacare, for example. In addition, asking the CPSC to review safety standards for gun safes and locks would have had little or no effect on public shootings – gun storage hasn’t been an issue. There are, in general, two types of gun safes: Expensive, heavy and difficult to break into; inexpensive, light, relatively easy to carry off or break into. Even the latter safe is better than nothing and will dissuade smash and grab thieves and all but the most committed criminals from stealing the owners’ guns. If the CSPC, however, decides that such inexpensive safes must be more secure, their costs will soar as more expensive materials and locking mechanisms will have to be used. As the costs of safes rise, fewer gun owners of moderate incomes will use them, meaning easier illicit access to guns. Other executive orders may compromise public health or threaten civil liberties. For instance, while nothing in the orders require doctors to ask about guns or make off the cuff mental evaluations, the fact that doctors may feel either pressured to at least freer to do so may reduce communication between doctor and some of his patients leading to ineffective or harmful care. In addition, it might reduce a patient’s trust in his/her physician and lead to fewer doctor visits despite medical need. Directing the AG to review new categories for denying people their gun rights, combined with the medical concerns raised above, could violate civil liberties, especially if the new categories result in patients being treated for mental health concerns routinely being flagged and disallowed from owning firearms despite no procedural findings of incompetence or being a threat to themselves or others – the ACLU has expressed similar concerns.
The President’s more comprehensive proposals would require Congressional action to become law: all private sales requiring background checks; a permanent, 10 round limit on ammunition magazine capacity; and a ban on the manufacture and sale of new military styled rifles (weapons the President refers to as assault weapons due to their appearance rather than performance). This seems unlikely for a couple of reasons. First, millions lawful gun owners would be negatively affected, and Congress is already hearing of their displeasure concerning the proposals – Congress critters that want to stay in office in the off-year elections will be unlikely to vote in favor of the proposals. Second, and as importantly, the latter two proposals have already been tried for 10 years, and multiple studies have shown that they had no appreciable effect on gun violence in general or mass shootings in particular. These proposals are feel good measures, that don’t warrant further serious consideration. Though in some instances, children have stolen their parents guns to commit mass murder, in no instances that I’m aware of have parents passing their guns down to their children or neighbors selling a spare rifle to neighbor had anything to do with mass shootings – such transactions haven’t been the source of guns used. And gun research has consistently shown that criminals don’t get their guns from gun shows (indeed, less than 2 percent of guns linked to crimes originated from gun shows).
On the other hand, President Obama has not just ignored but rather derisively dismissed proposals that might actually have a positive effect of reducing gun violence: either allowing teachers or school staff authorized to carry concealed firearms in their state to carry concealed in school or, as the NRA has proposed, having armed officers or security guards in every school. The President’s response to the NRA’s serious proposal was: “I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in our schools.” First, no one ever said it was the only answer. Second, all guns are not equal. Guns in the hands of good guys are not the same as guns in the hands of bad guys – otherwise, why would we arm police? For police, intelligence is the key to solving crimes after the fact but armed officers in an area are the prime disincentive we offer criminals to prevent criminal acts. Indeed, almost all multiple shootings only ended after the assailant was confronted with an armed citizen, or an armed police response – even in those incidences where the shooting ended in the with the assailant’s suicide, the killer didn’t kill himself until an armed response appeared. Despite widely hyped fears, there have been no instances of mass shootings where an armed response, either by the police or by private citizens, has resulted in worse results or innocents being shot in a cross fire between responders and the killers.
Public opinion polls indicate that the public recognizes this fact and supports armed guards even if the President doesn’t. More importantly, these same polls show that while there has been a temporary (now declining) support for guns restrictions like those proposed by the President, the public recognizes that these laws would be unlikely to prevent or reduce the number or harm from mass shooting. Only good people with guns, can discourage action by or reduce the carnage from bad people intending harm with guns.