If you’re looking for a sociology experiment in fear-driven policy, the current frenzy of calls from some quarters for more restrictions on personal ownership of firearms is a good example. Not that I enjoy marinating in it, but it’s a good example. I walked away from a “debate” the other day with a woman who told me to get my “head out of [my] ass” if I thought mass shootings are not becoming more common, talked about how afraid people like her are, and said she was “tired of statistics” and just wanted to get something done, as if invoking feelz is the ultimate trump card in a conversation.
Because for her, and many people like her, it is. All that matters is raw, animal emotion.
Fore the record, to evoke tired statistics and inconvenient facts, mass attacks are not on the rise, while violent crime continues to decline and is less common in the United States than in (supposedly safer) Europe. Mass killers tend to be very deliberate and long-term planners, plotting their actions according to the situation. They do not share an as-of-yet easily distinguished psychological profile, and rarely have criminal records. This means they’re hard to detect and deter, and they’ll take existing precautions as a given and work around them. Anders Behring Breivik reportedly plotted for almost a decade, starting a farming business to acquire fertilizer for explosives, and negotiating all of Norway’s legal hoops to purchase firearms.
One more law won’t fix that. To which I hear: you’re saying there’s nothing we can do; there must be something we can do. Well, yes. But “we” will have to do it ourselves. Nobody can protect us by waving a wand or passing a law.
But guns are scary.
So are knives when a mass attack in China (where blades are the weapons of choice) kills 33 people at a train station. The weapon is a choice–the real danger is the intent of the attacker(s) and the passivity of those victims and bystanders who are physically capable of reacting to defend themselves and others.
And guns and knives are going nowhere. Gun restrictions have never elicited much in the way of compliance, anywhere. New York’s recent assault weapon registration law drew in about 5 percent obedience from gun owners. Such weapons are increasingly easy to manufacture at home, even by those with minimal skills.
In a horrible way, we should be thankful mass attackers usually confine themselves to personal weapons. The worst school attack in U.S. history remains the Bath School Disaster, planned over many months by the disgruntled school board treasurer and perpetrated with dynamite. Thirty-eight people died.
The Happy Land fire killed 87 people after the jilted boyfriend of a coat check girl at the social club torched the place with a jug of gasoline.
And then there’s the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, both horrors committed with unconventional weapons by people who put a lot of time and planning into their crimes.
This all reminds me of what security expert Bruce Schneier has said in the context of travel security: “Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcement of cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back.” Everything else is “security theater” that violates innocent people’s liberty while doing nothing to deter bad actors who just work around checkpoints and restrictions.
Mass attacks strike me as being much the same: Hard to detect, perpetrated by malicious people who tailor their plans to the situation, and requiring a willingness to react by the intended targets without waiting for “the authorities” to show up. There’s no easy fix, and rejecting rational thought in favor of indulging fear won’t accomplish a damned thing.