Gun control is irrelevant to the discussion of gun violence
Gun Control: Wrong Questions = Wrong Answers
Much has been discussed in recent days about gun control. That’s the wrong debate to have because it’s a dead end; we already have so many guns that if we never sold another gun in the U.S. there would be a secondary market among the existing guns for many generations. And “controls” only control people who are prone to control; in other words, innocent gun users. A Mafia hit man wanting a gun is unlikely to subject himself to background checks or abide by other controls.
I haven’t heard anyone talking about the one thing that would make a difference; the one thing all sides of the political spectrum could agree on; behavior. How to change behavior so fewer people are killed or threatened by guns. In other words, how do we get people who have guns to stop using them for crime and murder? That is the discussion that would make a difference. That of course is a matter of incentives, like every human behavior. People respond to incentives. The way to reduce gun-related crimes and deaths is to create an extremely powerful incentive not to use one to hurt someone, and not to even carry one in any unlawful circumstance. That incentive might be a mandatory life sentence in prison for the use or possession of a gun during any crime, or the mere possession of an illegal weapon. Mandatory life in prison, no chance of parole, just for possession. That is a strong incentive not to carry, brandish or use a gun.
And it is politically palatable. What politician could argue against it? It does nothing to curb the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens; it only affects evil-doers. It is a simple and elegant remedy that would address a great many gun crimes -- not just murders, but hold-ups, robberies, rapes, where the presence and threat of a gun is used to compel compliance from the victims.
The one thing we can’t stop: mass murders by people with mental health problems or political agendas. They are often suicidal and plan to die during the attack. Because they are mentally ill or have twisted “political” agendas, they are not be bound or influenced by any societal controls. They can’t be predicted. And if they could not use a gun, they’d find an alternative, such as the Oklahoma City bombers who used fertilizer and a rented U-Haul truck to create incredible havoc and mayhem.
I do have one thought on mass killings though. Part of the problem is that we encourage it. In an age of 24/7 media and the Internet, such a story gets covered around the clock – all other news comes to a halt. And our Presidents – though sincere and well-intended – add to the problem by attending the memorials to comfort the communities. The harm of all this coverage and notoriety is that troubled people with mental health and self-esteem problem see mass murder as a way to become famous, even if the fame is after their own death. If you have no talent or ambition, how else might you create a name for yourself and gain the proverbial “15 minutes of fame?” When they see others getting their names on TV, garnering the attention of the President of the United States, they see it as a way to make themselves instantly famous, or, for disenfranchised political zealots, to gain attention for their fringe beliefs (i.e. the Unabomber; the Oklahoma City bombing). Note that in the two examples I just cited, guns were not involved, further proving the futility on focusing on gun control vs. behavioral control.
The increase in the incidents of mass murder is strongly correlated with the increase in available news outlets and the tendency of those outlets to focus only on one story at a time. Before cable news and the Internet, an incident of mass murder would garner the first 3 minutes of the network evening news for a day or two, and then the world would move on. With only 30 minutes a day, networks could not devote such intensity to any one story.
Today we have cable news 24/7 with ever-tighter budgets, and it is much more cost-effective to cover a single story of wide interest, such as a mass murder, than it is to cover the full range of a day’s news. Again, incentives are at work. The incentive of cable news channels is to make money; they do that by attracting the widest audience at the lowest cost possible. The result is oversaturation of stories. That leads to copycat killings, as troubled individuals see how easy it is to become famous without any ambition, without doing any work, without having any talent. I can’t think of another way to get famous immediately – can you? The fact is, all this saturation coverage is a little sick in and of itself, a little perverse. After we are informed of the basic facts of the story, watching the rest of the coverage is pure voyeurism, a twisted interest in the macabre that teeters on the edge between legitimate news and a bizarre sort of entertainment. We watch – we can’t help it – just like we may gawk at a horrible accident scene as we drive past an unfortunate deadly wreck on the road.
But just like guns themselves, the media situation I’ve described can’t be controlled; the media outlets have strong incentives to keep doing what they are doing – you can’t put that genie back in the bottle. I do think the Presidents could help though; if they want to console a community, they could do so quietly, in a setting where cameras are not allowed. Because the President adds more weight to the story, elevating it, and further encouraging a fame-seeker to copycat the heinous, murderous behavior.
The result among the general population is undue fear and anxiety. As the authors of the book Freakonomics have written:
Risks that scare are very different than risks that kill. When hazard is high and outrage is low, people under react. And when hazard is low and outrage is high, they overreact.
And then there is the control factor; that’s why many are more scared of flying than driving, even though driving a car is far more deadly. But because YOU control the car, the fear factor is reduced. Events that are out of our control, although exceedingly rare, scare us disproportionately. Mass murder is out of our control, although in relative terms it is an exceedingly rare cause of death.
Consider that in a home with a gun and a home with a backyard swimming pool, a child is far more likely to die in the pool than from a gun.
- There is one drowning for every 11,000 pools, each year. In a country of 6 million pools, 550 children under the age of 10 drown each year.
- One child is killed by gun for every 1 million-plus guns. In a country with an estimated 200 million guns, an estimated 175 children under 10 die each year.
You won’t hear many stories on the news about swimming pool safety – something we have a great deal of control over; many accidents result from unlocked gates around uncovered pools, or by unfortunate lapses in attention from the parents.
Another example: You are far more likely to die from a bee sting – or a lightning strike – than from a shark attack. But every shark bite anywhere in the world becomes major news – because “risks that scare are different than risks that kill.”
So the increase in mass murders is fed by the media, who feast on such stories because they are cheap to produce and guaranteed to pull in a wide audience to boost ratings that drive profits. We all watch, because we are given no alternative, and because we are unduly fascinated by rare events that scare. The consequence is that the murderers become famous, or perhaps infamous is the word; and to people with mental health problems, these killers become role models and heroes, teaching the lesson that mass murder is an instant ticket to fame.
Where does this leave us? A few points in conclusion:
n Gun control won’t work. It is a political hot potato and it does not address the underlying problem. Consider that every man in Switzerland is provided an automatic weapon by the government – that’s Switzerland’s way of creating an armed “citizen militia.” Gun violence there is rare, despite the abundance of automatic military weapons in nearly every house. The issue is not guns, but culture.
n Only incentives can affect human behavior. Create an extremely powerful incentive not to use, brandish or possess a gun illegally, and people will stop doing it so much. A thug who has seen his friends sent to prison for life is far less likely to display a gun to hold up a liquor store for $200. Gang members would be less likely to blaze away in drive-by shootings if their fellow gang members are dwindling in number because they are in prison for life.
n No incentives or controls can affect mass murders; the killers are either mentally ill or politically deranged, and thus not subject to any societal norms and controls. And they are impossible to profile and predict ahead of time. The increase in mass murders is fed by media saturation coverage, which encourages more of the same behavior from mentally ill fame-seekers or from disenfranchised people seeking to use murder and mayhem to gain attention for their fringe political agendas.
It’s a complex situation. So we should focus on what will actually work and make a difference. We should dissect it and identify the aspects of gun violence that we can affect through behavioral incentives, and focus on those aspects with harsh penalties for unlawful gun possession or use. The vast majority of gun deaths are not from mass murder, which we can’t do much about; they are the everyday murders that we read about in every part of the country, routinely. There are more than 10,000 gun-related homicides per year in the U.S. Of those, less than one half of one percent are from random mass killing sprees. Of the remaining 99.5% of gun deaths and gun-related crimes, major or petty, strong deterrences or “disincentives” through harsh prison penalties would make the biggest impact and have the likeliest chance of gaining political traction, because only lawbreakers and evil-doers would be affected. Law-abiding gun owners would not be affected in any way, and there would be no Second Amendment debate needed. This remedy addresses the fact that with nearly as many guns in circulation as there are resident of our country, controlling the sale of new guns will have zero effect. Guns are so prevalent that anyone who wants one can get one, legally or otherwise, very easily, from the existing cache of weapons already in our homes.
For more, seem my related posts:
Please tell me I am wrong about guns and murder!
Gun control is irrelevant to the discussion of gun violence
Steve Cebalt, Highview LLC
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