Every time there is a school shooting or some other high-profile act of violence involving a gun (this time at a school in Florida), everybody pretends that America has never before bothered to consider the tradeoff between liberty and security—and that we haven’t long ago settled the debate on the side of liberty.
There are, after all, a great many ills that could seemingly be solved by placing every person and every aspect of life under the control of government overseers who would manage us for our own good. But most of us realize that such a life would be psychologically intolerable, utterly impossible to implement, and would expose us to the far greater evils that come from an overbearing government, whether through official incompetence or outright malevolence. So we have decided to brave the risks and uncertainties of a free society rather than long for the illusory security of an all-powerful state.
One of the thought experiments put forward to clarify this is to ask whether we would still want to trade away freedom for security if the freedom involved was not the right to keep and bear arms but the right to freedom of speech. What if we were asked, not to repeal the Second Amendment, but to repeal the First?
Well, the Sheriff of Broward County, where the latest shooting occurred, has just put forward the closest thing to that hypothetical I’ve seen yet.
The county sheriff in charge of investigating the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, pleaded with lawmakers on Thursday to give police and doctors more power to involuntarily hospitalize people for psychiatric evaluation over violent and threatening social media posts.
The sheriff, Scott Israel, of Broward County, described the accused shooter’s social media posts as “very disturbing” at a news conference and asked state and federal legislators to expand the state’s Baker Act, which says a person can be detained against their will for up to 72 hours under certain circumstances….
“People are going to be rightfully so concerned about their rights, as am I, but what about the rights of these students?” the sheriff said. “What about the rights of young kids who go to schools with book bags and pencils? Don’t they have the right to be protected by the United States government to the best of our ability?”
As this report makes clear, there is an existing law in Florida, as in other states, that allows involuntary commitment. But the conditions under which this can be done are very clearly defined and limited, precisely to protect people’s rights. What Sheriff Israel is asking is, as one mental health expert puts it, “widening the net way wide.” Considering how rare school shootings are (despite the wildly misleading claims you might have heard), any such expansion in the state’s authority is likely to lead to the detention of a great many harmless individuals for every truly dangerous person it might potentially stop.
It’s the same old tradeoff between liberty and security. Maybe you have never bought the argument that the power to take away people’s guns could be abused by the government to erode our freedom. Would you buy the argument that the power to throw someone in jail because of a “disturbing” social media post can be abused?
It also turns out that, as with the usual gun control measures proposed after a shooting, this one was not necessary to stop it. The FBI had received not one but two tips that the killer was planning a school shooting but failed to follow up. Remember what I was saying earlier about the limitations of relying on government, with all its ineptitude, to guarantee our safety.
Besides, if it’s a matter of balancing liberty versus security, we should remember that we are probably more secure now than we have ever been. Crime is down. The homicide rate remains at or near historic lows. The number of people murdered specifically by means of a gun is lower than it is has been in decades. And there is no evidence that mass shootings have increased, despite the prominence given to press coverage of them.
Yes, I know we’re not supposed to be so heartless as to quote statistics at a time of national tragedy. But I’m one of those ghouls who think we should make important decisions based on reason and facts as opposed to panicked emotion. Such morbid exercises in clear thinking might increase the chance that we find something that actually makes a difference. They definitely decrease the chance we will do something that makes no difference except to reduce our freedom.