Thursday 8 August 2019

Mass Shootings Are A Poor Justification For Gun Control

Mass shootings get more attention from America's gun control movement than they objectively deserve, and this distracts from the kind of regulations that would significantly reduce gun murders.

Every month or so someone in America goes on a hate-fueled rampage at a public place or their work and shoots as many people as they can. These events dominate the news cycle and the politics of gun control. But this is because they are the kind of sudden terrible events that humans are wired to pay lots of attention to, not because they kill many people. For example, in 2017, 117 people were killed in mass shootings according to the database maintained by Mother Jones, but that is only 0.8% of the total 14,542 gun murders that year (CDC). Statistically, dying in a mass shooting is very unlikely and not something you need to worry about.

Not only do mass shootings represent a insignificant proportion of gun murders, their pathology is also unrepresentative of the majority of American gun violence. Most of America has a murder rate not much higher than western Europe, but some cities like St. Louis, New Orleans, Baltimore, Detroit and Chicago have the murder rates of central America (the place all those refugees are running away from). This is because American gun violence is heavily concentrated in poor, badly policed, gang-ridden minority neighborhoods. It tends to involve personal motivations (half the time the victim knows the perpetrator) or at least predictably instrumental ones, like a robbery. It is mostly carried out with illegally sourced, easily concealed handguns, not legally owned semi-automatic rifles (BJS). Young men, especially black men, are the disproportionate victims.

In contrast, mass shootings are carried out by lone individuals who have spent some time stockpiling weapons and building themselves up to carry out a fantasy of destruction against some hated institution or group. High powered semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are frequently used. There is an eerie impersonality to this kind of violence: mass shooters are trying to kill as many people as possible but don't much care about who that may be. The people they kill are just extras in the screenplay they are trying to produce. (Randal Collins has some good analysis of the microsociology of mass shootings here.)

Because mass shootings work so differently, the focus on diagnosing and preventing them leads the gun control movement - and many regular Americans - to a mistaken view of the wider problem of gun violence. 

First, there is a focus on controlling access to semi-automatic rifles with large magazines ('assault rifles'), as if AR-15s exert some weird vibe that makes people into mass murderers. This goes against the fact that the overwhelming majority of gun murders are actually committed with hand guns, and the fact that millions of AR-15s are legally owned by Americans who never commit any crimes with them let alone mass murder. 

Second, because many mass shooters obtained their weapons legally there is also a focus on coming up with new legal restrictions against those people getting guns. Some of these are based on the particular fallacy that only a crazy would want to commit mass murder so mentally ill people should not be able to own guns. This is false or at least unhelpful since most mass shooters had no known mental illness beforehand. The bigger problem with this line of reasoning though is that it misses the fact that most gun violence is committed using weapons that it is already illegal for that person to have. 

The result of this misfocus on mass shootings is that the gun control movement focuses its energies on pushing reforms that can have only marginal relevance to reducing gun violence as a whole. Given that there is only so much political capital available to expend on legislative campaigns, choosing to focus on the wrong causes of gun violence comes at the direct expense of dealing with the real causes. But it gets worse. The political rhetoric associated with these proposals treats the community of legal gun owners with a toxic blend of suspicion, contempt, and patronising paternalism. Not unreasonably these citizens object to this unfair and unfounded demonisation and become hostile to cooperating with any kind of gun control. 

The first failure of the mass shooting justification for gun control has been to undermine the political consensus that should exist for sensible effective gun control. This is because everyone but the looniest libertarian - i.e. anyone who has thought about it at all - accepts the need for gun control in principle. That is, everyone accepts that the state should enforce some regulation of what kind of guns civilians should own (e.g. no surface to air missiles); who should own them (e.g. not toddlers or convicted murderers); and how they may be used (e.g. no waving them about on planes or using them to rob banks). Some Americans believe these regulations should be extremely restrictive and almost no civilians should be allowed to have access to any guns for any purpose (a control regime that would resemble Japan's). Others believe they have a right to own guns for self-defense and want a much less restrictive regime - with straightforward access to powerful weapons and freedom to carry them around with you. There are clearly significant disagreements here about issues like concealed carry and access to particular weapons like semi-automatic rifles. But there is also a vast amount of agreement between all reasonable parties. For example, the gun rights movement that argues for law-abiding citizens' right to bear arms also has an implicit conception of gun wrongs, such as that violent felons shouldn't have access to guns. 

The political debate ought to be about what form of gun control regime to have (on which previously), while the policy debate ought to be about how to effectively implement the political consensus that already exists. For example, a searchable national database of gun buyers would help tremendously with tracing the guns used in crimes back to their sources so they can be closed up, (such as the straw buyers who illegally sell on guns to those already banned from owning them). Better funded detective squads would reduce the impunity of gun murderers, especially those from criminal gangs, and thereby increase the cost of resorting to deadly violence (some US cities now have clear up rates as low as 35%). Instead America has entered a bizarre parallel universe in which people argue about whether or not to have any gun control at all. 

The second failure is about justice. I already mentioned that the burden of America's gun violence is not equally shared but is highly geographically and demographically concentrated. For example, black men are more than 15 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than white men (CDC). Besides the toll of the murdered and the maimed, there is the additional suffering of those who must grow up in a neighbourhood saturated with fear and the constant threat of deadly violence. Yet compared to mass shootings, this suffering gets little political attention. Hence the ease with which Americans assume that the mass shootings on the news are what all gun violence looks like.

I attribute this indifference to a failure of middle-class (white) Americans to empathise with their poor (minority) fellow citizens. In this light the reason mass shootings generate so much more political outrage is that only when the victims resemble people like us are they taken seriously. Moreover, mass shootings spark genuine fear across America since show that gun violence can happen to anyone, even nice middle-class white people minding their own business in the mall. Statistically, the risk is tiny, but even a small taste of living under the fear of gun violence is very upsetting.

Some might say that it is all to the good if mass shootings stimulate large numbers of voters to start paying political attention to the problem of gun violence. I am not so sure. First because this concern leads to policy proposals that are mostly irrelevant or even counter-productive (by turning gun rights proponents from potential partners into hostile opponents). Second because outrage about mass shootings doesn't seem to lead to any sustained breakthrough in interest in or empathy with America's other gun violence victims, I see little hope that it will ever come around to addressing the causes of their suffering. The failure to even notice where the greatest burden of gun violence lies demonstrates the underlying self-concern of these spasms of moral outrage that dissipate before they can generate any sustained political momentum for change that matters.

This generated a lively discussion on the wonderful reddit community 'Change My View'