There Oughta Be a Law

This and the next note will (hopefully) be my last comments on the Newtown massacre. It’s not a subject any of us is eager to dwell upon, and it is elevated into a weeks-long national obsession only because of the political advantage some people are trying to extract from it.

I argued recently for putting the shooting in a rational perspective. I rejected broader cultural causes and also the facile arguments of gun control advocates, who have been exploiting this tragedy in an attempt to revive their lost cause.

Here is some more data to back up my view. An Associated Press reporter actually talked to experts on “mass shootings”—attacks that kill four or more people—and relays the results.

[T]hose who study mass shootings say they are not becoming more common.

“There is no pattern, there is no increase,” says criminologist James Allen Fox of Boston’s Northeastern University, who has been studying the subject since the 1980s, spurred by a rash of mass shootings in post offices….

Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has written a history of mass murders in America, said that while mass shootings rose between the 1960s and the 1990s, they actually dropped in the 2000s. And mass killings actually reached their peak in 1929, according to his data. He estimates that there were 32 in the 1980s, 42 in the 1990s and 26 in the first decade of the century.

Chances of being killed in a mass shooting, he says, are probably no greater than being struck by lightning.

Note that if mass shootings peaked in 1929, and those figures seem to be in absolute numbers, then on a per capita basis they have sharply declined, since the US population has more than doubled since then.

But I’ve heard a number of claims that these shootings are on the rise. The contradiction is cleared up by Dave Kopel, who explains:

Mass shootings, defined as four or more fatalities, fluctuate from year to year, but over the past 30 years there has been no long-term increase or decrease. But “random” mass shootings, such as the horrific crimes last Friday in Newtown, Conn., have increased.

Alan Lankford of the University of Alabama analyzed data from a recent New York Police Department study of “active shooters”—criminals who attempted to murder people in a confined area, where there are lots of people, and who chose at least some victims randomly. Counting only the incidents with at least two casualties, there were 179 such crimes between 1966 and 2010. In the 1980s, there were 18. In the 1990s, there were 54. In the 2000s, there were 87.

So if mass shootings are constant but “random” mass shootings are rising, all this means is that you are slightly less likely to be killed by someone you know—say, a disgruntled coworker who “goes postal”—and slightly more likely to be randomly targeted by a stranger. Except that you are extremely unlikely to be killed by anyone at all. As Kopel notes, “the total US homicide rate has fallen by over half since 1980, and the gun homicide rate has fallen along with it. Today, Americans are safer from violent crime, including gun homicide, than they have been at any time since the mid-1960s.”

Kopel is a longtime Second Amendment advocate, so I wasn’t surprised to see that he goes on to place the blame for random mass shootings on obsessive media coverage (which gives a despairing loner the incentive of becoming famous), the de-institutionalization of the violent mentally ill, and “pretend ‘gun-free zones,’ such as schools, movie theaters, and shopping malls,” where the law-abiding are asked to disarm but there is no actual means of enforcing these rules against criminals or madmen.

There is something to all of this, but not much. These are vanishingly rare events—random mass shooters on this scale are one in 100 million—and they are nearly impossible to predict. So not much can really be done to prevent them, and it is foolish and irresponsible to go around promising to do so.

What bothers me most about the reactions to the Newtown shooting—across the board, on both the left and the right—is that it is the product of a “there oughta be a law” mentality. Statism thrives on a belief that government dictates have some kind of mystical power to solve all problems. If you find something about the economy that you feel is “unfair,” just pass a law and that will magically clear it up. Think something is too expensive? Impose price controls. Pass a law and reality will jump into line with your wishes.

Of course, those of us on the right are familiar with the folly of this idea in the economic realm. We’re used to asking about “unintended” (or at least unforeseen) secondary consequences and cataloging the many ways that government controls are ineffectual or counterproductive. But even when we talk about the legitimate functions of government—protecting us from the initiation of force—we have to grasp that some of the same problems still apply. You want to make it easier to commit the mentally ill? But what about those who might be unjustly locked up, or those who might be deterred from seeking treatment because they are afraid of being reported to the government and locked up? What about the unintended consequences?

Laws against murder do not and cannot prevent all murders. Laws against theft do not and cannot stop all thefts. It’s not just that the power of government ought to be limited. It’s that it actually is limited.

That’s why worship of the state is not just morally wrong, it’s metaphysically wrong. That’s the reason why it is wrong in this case to immediately look to government to somehow banish the existence of evil from the world and protect us from all possible forms of harm.

It’s a reason to pause and think very hard before declaring, “there oughta be a law.”—RWT


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