An Analysis of the Mass Shooting Problem

It's a little surprising when a mass shooting gets a lot of attention these days; we've seen so many of them over the years that they usually have to contain some especially shocking element (like last year's famous one, almost exactly a year ago). People often seem to think about these things as a sort-of disease.

For a long time we tried to understand how the disease was spread -- was it by violent video games? Movies? -- but that kind of efficient cause proves elusive, and for good reason. There is no such cause. The actual cause is not the efficient cause but the choice of the individual killer. They are doing these things for reasons of their own.

In spite of what we hear from determinists, humans are not pinball machines. We don't do X because we experienced Y; rather, we ourselves determine what experience Y means. We do that according to our beliefs, attitudes and upbringing, informed by far from determined by our physical makeup. The determination of meaning, and the decision of what to do about the meaning we find in the world, is a spontaneous process in the sense that it arises at least as much from our concepts as our biology.

Since concepts are invisible, we cannot prevent the free choice of evil. We can sometimes predict it, but often we cannot.

So: a certain number of people are going to decide to become killers. What to do about it?

One idea we often hear is that we should restrict access to firearms. There are reasons not to do this arising from the broader nature of human life, and the free citizen's relationship to the state. However, there are also reasons not to do it within the context of the problem. The first one is obvious: an armed citizenry can sometimes stop these attacks, whereas a disarmed citizenry is much more vulnerable.

Carrying a gun is kind of a pain, really, and the odds that something like this shooting will come up are small enough that most people may not think it's worth the hassle. However, a former Marine who happened to take his pistol to the movies that night could have stopped the attack earlier. This is in fact the best defense to an attack in progress, since it is an unpredictable factor from the point of view of the killer. He can avoid the police, but he can't be sure about the concealed weapons in the audience.

There's a second reason that is less obvious. The kind of mind that chooses this path is capable of worse. Even Timothy McVeigh, far from the smartest man in the world, could concoct a huge bomb. This fellow appears to have been brilliant: there's no limit to what kind of harm he could have created if he had chosen that route.

This is to say that the easy availability of firearms, and the glamour they are endowed with culturally, acts as a kind of brake on the harm done by mass killers. Firearms are less deadly than bombs, they take longer to do their work, and you have to be right there operating them in person. That exposes you to being stopped mid-act by armed citizens, and potentially even to the police arriving (although that is unlikely, since 'longer than a bomb' is still only 'a few minutes' rather than 'instantly'). You are available to be stopped before the harm is completed. You're easier to catch afterwards. Finally, a single person with a firearm can only kill so many people because of weight limits on how much ammunition he can carry.

For all these reasons, the best response is to encourage the carrying of arms by citizens, and to continue to glorify the gun. The last thing we want is for the evil among us to innovate.

12 comments:

E Hines said...

First, a tangent: It's a little surprising when a mass shooting gets a lot of attention these days....

Not to me, not when, as ABC's Brian Ross has amply demonstrated, there's political hay to be made from these events. And not with employers of these...persons...actively condoning such political hay-making--Ross is, after all, still employed by ABC today.

...a former Marine who happened to take his pistol to the movies that night could have stopped the attack earlier.

Without disputing your point, which in general is valid, that armed marine would have had a very difficult time in the present case. The killer was much more heavily armored even than a SWAT member. Furthermore, the killer prepped his battlefield with a gas attack before entering and proceeding. That marine likely would not have had his own gas mask.

Even with Colorado's lax gun laws (I use that term appreciatively), armed defenders would have had a more difficult time. Still an armed response might will have reduced the magnitude of the mayhem. And to your point, it seems to me that the killer anticipated an armed response in that state of lax gun laws--hence the pre-battle shaping and the personal body armor.

It's always going to be an arms race. However, I'd rather begin from an armed baseline than from a naked one.

Another point: The kind of mind that chooses this path is capable of worse. and Firearms...take longer to do their work, and you have to be right there operating them in person.

That's often the point though: these particular killers need to be on scene, they need to watch the results, they need to be sure their victims are feeling the pain. I think the bombing mass killer is a different breed of killer than is the shot-by-shot mass killer, even if the shooter is just spraying bullets.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

Yes, strange that no one is arguing the obvious solution: outlaw body armor and gas masks. (Isn't there something we can outlaw that would make everyone perfectly safe at all times? I had a neighbor argue to me yesterday that the rational response was for citizens to avoid midnight movies.)

I, too, wish there had been more audience members prepared to return fire (somebody might have gotten close enough for a head shot), and I hope that this jerk's decision to wear body armor and use gas was a calculated response to his fear of an armed response. If nothing else, it made him more conspicuous. With a little luck, he might have been seen and stopped in time.

Grim said...

Well, that's right -- at least make them pay the price. It might make them quite conspicuous. If you've got to wear body armor and a gas mask to carry out these attacks, that's cutting into your carrying weight for ammo, too.

E Hines said...

If nothing else, it made him more conspicuous.

Target recognition. He was seen right off the bat, but he was mistaken as part of the show's opening.

Isn't there something we can outlaw that would make everyone perfectly safe at all times?

You bet--clothing and bathing. Guaranteed to cut down on crowd size. Oh, and formally limiting crowd size that can form--for one's own good, now, in the new no-hygiene environment.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Those guys are amateurs. Down Georgia way, that falls under the riot law. Note the definition includes "any other act [done] in a violent and tumultuous manner." And the crowd size, if you want to avoid prosecution, is limited to less than two.

Miss Ladybug said...

I read something Friday that indicated that while CO generally has lax gun laws, Aurora and neighboring Denver do not: neither jurisdiction views "personal protection" as a valid reason to issue a CHL. If this is true, that may be a contributing factor to why none of the movie-goers were armed...

bthun said...

To continue with the no valid reason to be prepared to defend oneself theme Miss LB shared, I read that the movie theater had/has a no firearms policy.


If true, that means the attendees with CCW permits and those in the habit of carrying all the time were prohibited from doing so on the theater's private property. The lawfully armed and typically law abiding citizen will usually either comply with a property owner request or avoid that property altogether. So we have yet another firearms free aka target rich environment, tailor made, advertised as such, and readily available for the random, cowardly whack-job intent on murdering the defenseless to exploit.

Given my diminished ability to move at pace any more rapid than a middlin' hobble, I don't go to such places. I don't run nor do I care much for playin' possum with fingers crossed.

Texan99 said...

"Notice to Public: All law-abiding citizens on these premises have been disarmed. Unstable nut-cases, carry on without fear of timely retaliation."

bthun said...

""Notice to Public: All law-abiding citizens on these premises have been disarmed. Unstable nut-cases, carry on without fear of timely retaliation.""

Heheh... The advertising is not quite that verbose, but the variants of the No Firearms Allowed On Premises signs make the same statement.

My favorite Attention Criminals sign is this one, followed closely by this one.

Grim said...

When we lived in a townhouse in the city, we used to post a used silhouette target on the wall in view of the sliding glass door. We never did have a break-in.

bthun said...

Anyone peeking though a window in one of our garage doors will see on the opposite wall a door with a B-27 center punched at 25 yards with a couple of vents to the noggin.
--A Walkin' Boss .38 cal production.

That target is probably 15-20 years old now and from the time when she first told me she wanted to learn to be a pistolero.

Bob said...

Agreed, and linked here: http://bobagard.blogspot.com/2012/07/a-disarmed-citizenry-is-much-more.html