Sunday, December 16, 2012

Firearms, Massacres, and the Second Amendment

When faced with unimaginable, incomprehensible tragedy there is a human impulse to do something--anything--to assure ourselves that it cannot happen again. Of course, at the end of the day we are all too aware that it can happen again--in fact, it almost did.
A Bartlesville High School student is in custody on charges he plotted to bomb and shoot students at the campus auditorium on the same day that 28 people were shot and killed at an elementary school in Connecticut. 
Police arrested 18-year-old Sammie Eaglebear Chavez at about 4:30 a.m. Friday after learning of the alleged plot Thursday.
In the absolute void left by the lack of meaning or reason in the Connecticut elementary school shooting tragedy we are left to renew endless debates about what we could have or should have done. That's what I'm going to do now since I find I can't just write nothing and everything I can think of to write is utterly insignificant before the abomination of killing twenty children between the ages of 6 and 7, most of whom were shot multiple times, along with their beloved principal and other educators--adults--who did their best to protect them.

The Second Amendment
 The Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights reads thusly:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
A great deal has been made of each specific word and their combinations. Does it only allow members of "a trained milita" to own guns? Does "bearing arms" mean concealed carry for everyone? Could "arms" include a rocket launcher or tank? I think all of this is missing the point.

The key (and uncontroversial between 2nd Amendment Scholars on both sids of the gun-control issue) point was that the founding fathers wanted to have an armed populace as a bulwark against tyranny. Allowing civilians to keep:
  • Handguns
  • Rifles (hunting rifles)
  • Assault rifles, even in their single-shot capacity
Today serves that purpose. We can see from the mathematics of counter-insurgency that any would-be tyrant trying to subjugate the United States would find its heavily armed populace too expensive in terms of blood and treasure to control. Would armed civilians with Glocks and AR-15's win a war with the US Army? No--of course not--but they would win individual ambush-skirmishes once in a while which is all it would take. Reducing it (say only to hunting rifles) would damage that capability (I believe).

The intent of the founding fathers and the Constitution is satisfied more or less by our current legal configuration as far as I am concerned. 

However ...
However, the constitutional argument is only part of the landscape--as was noted, strict constitutional literalness would seem to prohibit Congress funding an Air Force. Certainly civilians gunning down school children was not a problem the founding fathers ever envisioned becoming a real issue.

What Can We Do?
So everyone is asking: What can we do to make our schools safe--both from the current style of rampage and the more general "armed student" (or, expanded to a general "Active Shooter" incident). What are the options?

Ban All Guns
The first and most "obvious" answer is "ban all guns." The idea is that if you make them hard to get, you will get less of them. The counter to this is that psychotic shooters will find ways to get guns (it's also noted: you can kill people with knives pretty effectively). 

Practical Analysis: The problem of banning guns (were there political will to do so) is compounded by the immobile fact that there are already so many guns out there that any ban would have to come with some kind of draconian gun-collection operation which, to put it mildly, would have far reaching consequences (instant, broad-scale armed insurrection).

My Grade: F. Being decidedly unconstitutional is a massive strike against it. The psychological ramifications of trying to ban guns and then get them out of the eco-system (guns and ammunition will remain viable for over 100 years) are simply a non-starter. Republicans should pray Obama goes for this: it would destroy the Democratic party.

Arm School Teachers / Relax Carry Laws
What if the victims were armed (Virginia Tech)--or their teachers (any high school) conservatives sometimes ask. Certainly someone shooting back would be better than helpless people getting massacred.

Practical Analysis: 
Looks Ready
This picture, taken from the conservative Power Line blog shows (purports to show) an Israeli teacher with her students. It's not clear if the kids are queuing up for lunch ... or about to traipse through "the forbidden zone." In any event, it is clear that having armed / heavily armed teachers would deter school shooters? There are problems with this:
  1. Training / Budget for Firearms: Where would this come from and how much would you need to spend? Would we arm all teachers? Volunteers? And with what? Rifles? Handguns? There are a lot of decisions to make here. Note: In Israel military service and training is mandatory. I don't know exactly what degree of training the woman in the photo has received but I suspect this is far more an option for small, militarized  war-torn Israel than for massive America where many teachers are in no way psychologically ready to take up arms.
  2. Would sprinkling guns on a high school be a good idea? How would teachers actually "carry" these? What would stop students from getting their hands on the guns?
  3. For colleges, is opening carry laws really a good idea? Students make all kinds of bad decisions: is adding firearms to the mix a solution? Or more impetus for trouble?
My Grade: D. Anyone who thinks giving "teachers" handguns hasn't met that many teachers. Worse: the idea that teachers are going to engage in fire-fights effectively hasn't studied combat-psychology. When combat starts, armed teachers might stop a would-be shooter but would likely result in total chaos. The best-practice tactical doctrine when dealing with an active shooter is to have tactical teams run straight at the fire-fight: having multiple live guns in the combat zone will increase confusion for the  police forces.

A "volunteer" version of this where the adults have to show proficiency and a ton of training (both with the weapon but also knowing how to respond once the tac-teams arrive, etc.) gets a C--but make no mistake: in an elementary school? There will likely be no volunteer gunslinger.

I think letting college students carry in a school is an even worse idea: anyone who thinks this is a solution believes college students are responsible adults. In other words, they live in fantasy land. 

Ban Certain Guns / Weapons
It is said Obama wants to instate / reinstate the "assault rifle ban." There is some 'logic' to this. There is also logic to limiting magazine size:
  • Shooters are vulnerable to unarmed civilians when they have to reload. Vests full of 30-round mags limit that window.
  • Rifles are more deadly shot-per-shot than hand guns--if not (only) for bullet size and power, accuracy and range. 
  • In the Sandy Hooks case the kids were shot multiple times leaving one survivor (if reports are correct). Most other shootings with hand guns tend to leave a higher proportion of wounded. Years ago the case was well made that assault weapons were not the cause of problems--they were rare players in either mass shootings or wholesale firearms death. Today, increasingly, that is no longer true: the AR-15 may well be the preferred weapon of the spree shooter today.
Practical Analysis: If we could really make these guns hard to get there would be a possible positive net-effect if shooters were forced to use less destructive weapons. The problem is: "How do you do that?" I think that the legislation that we get from anti-gun lawmakers usually evidences a profound misunderstanding of weapons in general. 

Essentially the problem with this remains that there are so many assault-rifle style guns in circulation--and so many high volume magazines (or plain 30-round mags) there is no way to do this effectively. If you have a magic wand, let me know.

My Grade: C. The reason this isn't far lower is that I'm having a hard time looking at children shot multiple times and deciding that even a hail-marry attempt to change something isn't below C-Level. That said: I have zero hope that Obama and the Democrats could institute any sort of effective ban here. I think that it would have to come from the gun-lobby. It never will, so this is doomed.

Improve Mental Health
We see these guys as 'crazy' and, well, they are--but they are probably not legally speaking mentally ill. I was skeptical--but this has persuaded me: read the whole thing.
Interestingly, they’re not like many offenders, they don’t tend to have problems with alcohol and drugs. They’re certainly not impulsive, quite the reverse. These are rather rigid, obsessional individuals who plan everything extremely carefully. And most of these massacres have been planned for days, weeks, sometimes months ahead. 
The other thing about them is that they are angry and resentful at the world, they blame the world for not having recognised their qualities, for having mistreated them and misused them. Resentment is central to their personalities. 
They spend their time ruminating on all those past slights and offences. And they begin to develop a hatred for the whole world. 
I think this is true: the Columbine killers did not target bullies ... or jocks (they went to the library--not a hunting-ground for jocks). They wanted to kill everyone (Columbine was more properly a school bombing that went wrong than a school shooting). I do not think that "traditional mental health services" will be of much help with this. Certainly some of these people are further fractured by mental-health problems--but I agree with the author: the issue is 'social scripts' and not brain chemistry.

Practical Analysis: We probably do need better mental health in this country and it sure couldn't hurt--but even if we make services available I see no real indication that these people will be deterred. Eric Harris had various counselors. So did the Aurora shooter. None of them were interested in health.

My Grade: B. I've upgraded this on some thought. Even if it doesn't help, it sure can't hurt and it's the sort of thing we should be trying. And, who knows--I believe these people get to a dark, angry place--and that our culture may be producing them overly quickly--but could counseling or even just screening help with that? If so--let's do it.

Get Rid of Violent Movies / Video Games
It is hard to argue that movies don't "glorify violence." It's hard to argue that video games--moreso today than in the past--often have you playing "the villain." If these things do "create scripts" (and I think that is a cogent argument) would banning those work?

Practical Analysis: I see no way to do this short of ... Federal Law. Right now media is so fractured anyway that the networks--even if they adhered to a new code--wouldn't face the same rules as HBO and so on. Video games are even less regulated. I also think the genie is out of the bottle: there is no turning back on "our culture."

My Grade: D.  Right now I would terminate Game of Thrones (which I love) if doing so would prevent this shit. It wouldn't--and any attempt to do it would be misguided nanny-state stuff. Also, the "scripts" argument is probably right to a degree--but shooters are doing more to create these scripts than video games or movies. Nothing I am aware of glorifies shooting 7 year olds.

Don't Glorify Shooters
The theory that shooters are in this "for the glory" and that if you don't publish their names--make it a Federal Law--appeals to some conservatives because it lets the liberals gasp in horror as the anti-shooter crowd goes after their beloved 1st Amendment instead of conservative's beloved 2nd! I appreciate the irony but I'm not sure things are nearly that simple. The elementary school shooter allegedly shot his mom 4x in the head.  To me that speaks of so much rage that he wasn't really worried about whether he gets his name in lights.

Practical Analysis: Impossible to achieve and unconstitutional to boot. Our craving for news when these things happen would break anything in its path.

My Grade: D+. It's atrocious in terms of freedom--but the idea of these guys getting no "glory" (whether they really want it or not) warms my heart a little. It turns out there is a condition called the Family Annihilator which is where you not only kill yourself but your family and maybe others connected to them. If our shooters fit those profiles (read the article--similar for sure) then it's not even clear that glory in the greater media is interesting to them (can you name one "Family Annihilator"? I can't--although I recognize the stories).

Some of My Ideas
Here are some other ideas--ones I've not seen widely proposed.

The Nautical Model
Relaxing carry laws or arming teachers wholesale has problems--but there are some models that might improve that. The Air Marshall model where someone in the school carries (and is trained) but you generally don't know who has advantages because kids won't be able to just knock over Mrs. Henderson and get a gun. However, it won't be long before the word gets out (in an airplane you aren't there long enough to figure it out). However, on a boat there is sometimes a weapon-locker and people who are trained who can go and get them.

In this model the school has a secure weapons locker and 2-3 trained personnel who are to get weapons in the event of active shooter situations and then try to contain them until the tactical teams arrive. This isn't great--but it isn't nothing either.

Practical Analysis: The problem is finding teachers to train. In an elementary school it becomes less likely. Still, the knowledge that there is an arms locker and personnel in the school may prevent schools from being primary targets. Keep in mind that most of these guys, when confronted with police or armed civilians (in the few cases we know about) there is indications they stop. They are looking for a slaughter--not a fight.

Setting this up is possible. Security is an issue. Training is an issue--but it's probably easier than simply "banning guns."

My Grade: B-. Just as the TSA might deter terrorist despite never having caught one, this might deter shooters despite being unlikely to. The window for responders is very limited. The need for training is very high and that's unlikely to happen. Having teachers who are psychologically capable of running towards an active shooter seems unlikely. But this gets "guns into the school" in a far more controlled system than having Mrs. Henderson carry one in her purse.

Panic Rooms
The only part of the Patriot Act that the left didn't object to was reinforcing pilot doors. Who could argue with that? What if classrooms came with reinforced doors and multiple bolts that were resistant to light arms. Expensive, yes--but think about this: right now teachers are reduced to locking the doors and hiding or cowering. If school classrooms could be sealed teachers might well contain the damage significantly--especially if breaching the perimeter security triggers an alert.

Practical Analysis: Cheaper than a load of guns--but still expensive. Easy enough to install. In many of the situations we know of this might have helped.

My Grade: A. Even if this doesn't solve everything it's hard to argue that it wouldn't solve something.

I think this conversation will be used to go after Second Amendment rights and that's predictable and a bit of a shame: the issue around guns will explode putting conservatives "on the side of the shooter" in a lot of people's minds (and not just "liberals" either). It will force / allow Obama to take action he might not otherwise wish to spend political capital on to, probably, no effect.

When next this happens "despite the ban" pro-ban people will simply conclude "we didn't go far enough" and no one will move their position at all.

On the other hand, doesn't something have to give ... somewhere? This hit me in some ways harder than 9/11 (I have kids now) and while I'm not, as I've said, entirely unsympathetic to, say, "restrictions on assault rifles" (simply because I cannot imagine telling a mother, grieving for her six year old child shot multiple times by .223L ammunition that "Hey, the gun was fine") I don't think the soon-to-be-hysterical tone of the conversation we are about to have does us any justice.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece. My $0.02:

    1. The abject ignorance of any relevance to the first (note: not the middle or last) clause in the 2nd amendment was, is, and will be the most incredible piece of political judicial advocacy ever. You either have to be an originalist (impractical in modern times) or try to explain to the small percentage of citizen gun owners what "militia" and "well-organized" mean, and why that supersedes their desire to own arms. Good luck. The argument that prevalance precludes restriction MUST be used analogously to crack, meth, and nuclear weapons, or, as I prefer to argue, bunker-busters. If lots of them existed (note: I didn't say "lots of people owned them" because a small percentage of people own a huge percentage of the guns in this country), would we just be OK with having them registered?
    2. When the "small-government" strategists in the Reagan administration realized they could invent an entire mental health corrections industry and take it off the federal books, the plan was to de-fund mental hospitals. A great PR campaign was launched and the solution was: community-based housing of mental patients meeting certain criteria (those previously in the hospitals, for example). The problem was: nobody exactly stood up and volunteered to have one of these homes next door, and they - for all practical purposes - don't exist. Neither do the vast majority of aforementioned hospitals. The brilliant result was a spike in homelessness fueled primarily by mentally ill citizens that had prior been treated in safe facilities, and the birth of the "criminally insane" population of our fine prison system. There is a tragedy that is virtually invisible that goes something like this: A mentally ill citizen cannot find adequate treatment (for many reasons, including, but not limited to lack of funding, location, transportation, and they lack the mental capacity), does something illegal (most "criminally insane" citizens' first arrest is criminal trespass) and they cycle endlessly upward through our penal system and - upon discharge - homelessness. Aren't we proud of how strong we are on crime? Who would vote for decriminalizing these heinous criminals? Willie Horton, dang it! The electability of divergent stances is marginal at best. And unfunded by lobbyists.