Mass Shootings, Political Correctness, and Magical Thinking

Speaking in Newtown, CT yesterday, President Obama said:

We can’t tolerate this anymore.  These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.  We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true.  […]  Surely, we can do better than this.  If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief […] then surely we have an obligation to try.

It was a comforting speech for the victims of a tragedy, so it would be unfair to criticize the arguments from the point of view of logic. However, it is worth analyzing the issue of mass shootings as a problem that might be addressable with public policy.

I would start by measuring the magnitude of mass shootings as a problem. How does it compare to other issues such as preventable diseases, regular crime, terrorism? I searched for data, and found out that in the past 30 years, 543 people have been killed in 70 mass shootings. That’s an average of 18 deaths per year. For comparison, three times as many die from lightning strikes.

The New Republic article linked in the previous paragraph states “I can’t say exactly why mass shootings have become such a menace over the past few years, and especially in 2012.” Given the low numbers, it’s likely that it is just a random fluctuation without statistical significance.

To put things in perspective again, half a million Americans die every year from tobacco use. Two hundred thousand die from medical errors. Those numbers are large enough that it’s possible to track changes with statistical significance, and evaluate the effect of public policy. There must be a fair amount of low-hanging fruit. For example, it’s feasible that a 100% tax on the price of cigarettes would save thousands of lives ever year. Why is this not attempted? Probably because the special interest group that controls tobacco sales is powerful enough to stop it.

For mass killings, the numbers are already so low that the logical question would be: is it worth doing anything to try to reduce even more the chance of mass killings? What could be the undesired side effects of implementing policies to that effect? For example, let’s say that someone came up with a vaccine that guaranteed that a child who received it would never be a mass killer. However, one child in 100,000 dies from an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Clearly the vaccine itself would cause more deaths than mass killings, so it’s a net negative if we are trying to minimize unnecessary deaths.

At this point, I have to disagree with Barack Obama. I don’t think we have the obligation to try to reduce the incidence of mass killings because there are high chances that an intervention would be iatrogenic: the cure be worse than the disease. This is not a politically correct thing to say, so you won’t hear politicians say it. That doesn’t mean our legislators will do anything, of course. Mass killings are as inevitable as lightning deaths, and they will continue to be news precisely because they are infrequent and horrible.

Who knows, maybe doing nothing is the right thing. There are medical procedures that are not recommended anymore because they have potential complications, and they offer no measurable benefits when compared with inaction.

What makes matters more complicated is that mass shootings bring up the issue of gun ownership in the US. If this killing had been a bombing nobody would be talking about gun control. However, many people who normally don’t think about gun crime are emotionally moved by mass shootings. From a logical viewpoint, we should be more concerned with gun crime in general. If gun crime is a significant problem, then gun control could be a solution to that problem. Surely gun control would have side effects, but it’s likely that those side effects would not offset the gains.

So, is gun crime a problem? In the US there are about 3 gun homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants every year. That means about ten thousand people are shot to death in the country. For the average American, the odds of being murdered with a gun are 1,000 times higher than those of dying in a mass shooting. His/her odds of dying of cancer are “only” 60 times higher than those of being murdered with a gun, so the problem is not insignificant.

Let’s say that we believe that the cost of implementing gun control is less than the benefits. Perhaps we can save four thousand lives every year if we make it harder for criminals to obtain guns. More importantly, we can do it without taking any resources away from the fight against the main causes of death: cancer, heart disease, and accidents. How would we go about it?

The US is a very unique place when it comes to guns. As of 2009 there were 310 million non-military firearms in the country. It is possible to make it illegal to produce and buy new ones, but what do we do with the existing ones? What kinds of imbalances would be created if those who would only use guns to protect their property could not own them? What if most potential murderers kept their guns, and all the guns turned in (say, for cash or tax breaks) were the ones less likely to murder anyone? What kind of black markets might arise for guns and bullets?

I’m not even going to try to answer those questions, because they are extremely complex. I personally hate guns. I have never owned or even fired one. I wish they didn’t exist, but they do. However, believing that gun control would immediately save lives is magical thinking. It might work in the long run if implemented correctly for the US, but it when it comes to reducing murders it would not be a silver bullet (pun intended).

The other issue that many bring up when mass killings happen is mental illness. There is little question that those responsible for mass killings fit most definitions of “mentally ill.” However, they are a minuscule minority. At the same time, mental illness is a horrible condition that causes an enormous amount of suffering. It affects millions, and there is no question that it would be a good idea to address it through public policy. This might have the bonus of preventing the odd massacre in which the potential perpetrator could have been under treatment for a condition such as paranoid schizophrenia. However, not all sufferers of this condition would seek treatment. Norway has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, and that didn’t stop Anders Behring from killing 77 people. Some conditions are asymptomatic for a long time, and manifest themselves too quickly. “He seemed like such a nice, quiet guy. I don’t know why he flipped out.”

If there is one point I’d like to make with this long rant is that public policy should not be dictated by emotions. Minimizing unnecessary deaths and appeasing public opinion are different things. Most human beings do not understand concepts such as statistics or iatrogenics, so they will clamor for immediate feel-good action. I wish I lived in a world where people (or at least leaders) would always analyze issues rationally. Where they would act to maximize public good instead of their chances of being re-elected. All I can do is ask my readers to try to understand all sides of a delicate issue before forming an opinion, like I attempted to do in this post.

Discuss on Hacker News (please be civil!)


55 Replies to “Mass Shootings, Political Correctness, and Magical Thinking”

  1. One other thing to consider, is that all massacres have one thing in common… the victims had been disarmed. Here are a few that come to mind:

    The Holocaust
    Fort Hood

      1. Yeah, there are couple of famous ones.

        Athens, TN in 1946, the Warsaw Ghetto in 1944, the American Revolutionary War. Oh wait, that one didn’t progress to the point of widespread massacre.

        1. the american revolutionary war?

          what about the civil war? giving guns to retards in the south allowed for the bloodiest war on american soil ever. there is no silver bullet, like the OP says.

        2. Quality of life matters.

          Yes, 27 people were killed, but that is only the beginning of the toll. How many people in Newtown have had their lives destroyed? Same with the families of victims. How many Americans spent 3 hours at the office on Friday reading the news instead of working? (There is a less obvious economic cost to these tragedies as well) How many Americans spent two hours this weekend emotionally distraught because of this tragedy?

          Mass shootings erode quality of life in this country, lightning strikes don’t.

          1. The relatives of someone killed by lightning also suffer, so that is no different. I doubt there is much work output lost because of people reading the news at work. Important work gets done regardless, and people who have nothing to do always find an excuse to procrastinate.

            The media does a fair amount of damage, though. That is something that could and should be stopped. See this video:


    1. All massacres do not have this in common. The obvious counter from American history is the Battle of the Little Big Horn, although the civil war presents many examples of armed men being massacred, as do both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Take a look through and you’ll see that the only thing that massacres have in common is that they’re mass murders.

  2. Schools have fire extinguishers and fire drills. They should also have guns and security guards and plans in place to respond to active shooters. Teachers should be allowed to carry if they want to.

    Gun Free Zone means Killing Zone and invites psychopaths to target those locations. Thus every mass shooting since 1950, with one exception, took place where citizens were not lawfully allowed to carry guns.

    1. Correlation does not equal causation… Just as easily it could be that gun free zone killings get the best media attention (or a million other reasons).

      1. That is simply silly. When you have a phenomena, that overwhelmingly happens in very restricted geographic areas, the likelyhood that there is no causative relationship becomes vanishingly small.

        I guess you could make a case about suicides that jump from bridges not being caused by bridges. That might be strictly true, but if you eliminate the bridges, it becomes pretty hard to commit suicide by jumping from them.

    2. This suggestion is just as unhelpful as the knee-jerk reactions addressed in this article. You clearly have NO idea of how schools work and how impossible it would be to have a concealed weapon at school. A staff member could not make sure it is safely put away from the students without making it useless in such an emergency; situations that happen in mere seconds…far faster than anyone would be ale to unlock a weapon from a safe where it certainly would need to be stored. You see, we’d also have to make sure students could not get their hands on the weapon and harm others as well. We’d be making an even more dangerous situation by introducing guns into our classrooms. More guns do NOT mean a safer environment. Look at any true data about countries that have tighter gun control laws versus countries such as ours who do not…the numbers do not lie; the more guns, the more deaths by guns…it’s causative and this cannot be denied. Visit a school before you try to spew this idiotic idea again….not based on reality at all.

    3. I’d like to see the source for that, but it certainly would make sense if true.

      It is interesting that the Aurora shooter picked the one cinema that had a sign up saying that guns were prohibited. It is evident that both the Aurora shooter and Lanza were aware and took steps to avoid being shot, which is why they both wore body armor. If they are going to that expense and trouble, surely they would do an overall risk analysis and pick the areas where guns are prohibited as well.

      It would be interesting for a few states to trial allowing CCW in schools, though it would probably take twenty or thirty years to build up enough data to draw any meaningful conclusions. Like as not they would just use another method to achieve their goal, either fire or explosives. Or possibly, travel interstate.

    4. Even if you limit yourself to the United States, this is not correct. The shootings in Camden New Jersely, Binghamton, NY, and the shooting on Fort Hood, are counter examples. There was a security guard at Columbine. The only thing you can conclude about mass shootings in the US is that there have been too few of them to draw any statistical significant conclusions about.

  3. This is an absolutely fantastic article that everyone should read. Most decisions made primarily on emotion before analyzing the situation properly generally lead to a temporary fix. This ‘magical thinking’ you speak of is surely the most appropriate assessment I’ve read on the recent tragedy and the candid results the american people wish to see. Terrible things happen every single day and I appreciate this logical step back to view the problem as it is.

  4. “If there is one point I’d like to make with this long rant is that public policy should not be dictated by emotions. ”

    Uh. A lot of policies are dictated by emotions. There’s nothing wrong with that. It can be a very good thing at times, even if it’s completely impractical and illogical to half the nation (14th amendment?). All decisions we make are made by emotions, not just some pure logic fantasy land. I have the emotion of sympathy for those who are killed by guns and this high profile situation, while not statistically significant itself as a mass murder given the size and scale of our nation, is large enough to help push people’s emotions towards a direction that could be beneficial to all. Again, it’s could. Some people, like yourself are perfectly fine with the status quo. Some people want to give every teacher a gun. However, I look at the situation there in CT and think, wow, what if that mother wouldn’t have been able to legally buy those guns (at-least not that fucking assault rifle and have 6 different guns). Maybe there would be 27 (28 if you incl the mother) people still alive today. You can go deeper with that statement and it’s repercussions and hypothetical if you want, but I’d say that’s a pretty straightforward line of thinking. We can control guns. We already do.

    Oh and bringing up cancer and lightning. If there’s any legislation to ban disease and natural disasters, I’ll be one of the first to call my rep and tell him to vote yes.

    1. You don’t seem to understand my post, and put words in my mouth. That’s fine. I’d just like to point out that if you start thinking about the “what ifs” you can end anywhere you want.

      The last part of your comment makes no sense. You could legislate that more tax money be used for disease research / treatment. Or (extreme nonsensical example) you could make it illegal for people to be outside when it rains. It would reduce deaths by lightning, at a ridiculous cost that would offset any benefits.

      I’d suggest that you read Naked Economics, but it’s probably futile.

      1. We can legislate on many things. They are full time legislators. If they want to put more money into cancer research, they can (we already spend well over 5 billion a year just in the federal space).

        How much would it cost the nation to put further restrictions on guns? The assault weapons ban in 1994 didn’t wreck our economy, so I think we can survive further restrictions economically wise. We already have a working police system so that won’t be changed. It’s not a budget, nor an economical question. Hell if it were just an economical question we’d just use the guns on old people that have cancer and save us 5 billion a year, but we instead make policies to protect our citizens. It’s a question about safety vs the right to own a gun.

          1. And if you look at the DOJ statistics, the assault weapons ban also had absolutely no effect on gun crime in this country. The effects were so miniscule that they were almost beyond being quantifiable.

          2. It would also be fair to note that the assault weapons ban ran from 1994-2004 and they didn’t prevent the shooting at Columbine in 1999.

      2. you use mathematics and logical reductions to make the point that gun deaths are statistically insignificant. i believe you’re comparing apples to oranges and are using an incorrect comparison – murder via gun is very different from dying of cancer (unless that cancer is due to a known carcinogen, which the government bans). a more apt comparison would be to death via guns in the US vs death via guns in the UK or Australia. what were the unintended consequences of additional restrictions on gun ownership in those cases? you can argue that the time spent crafting such legislation could be better used, but now you’re discussing the value of each human life and that’s a different argument.

        1. I don’t think you understood my post, and I don’t understand the point of your comment. I never said that “gun deaths are statistically insignificant” (whatever that means).

        2. Would it help to say that an average of 47,000 people are killed by knives every year? Would that be a better comparison for you?

  5. Interesting discussion! Are you aware of The Spirit Level or other research around income inequality linking it to crime and also mental illness?

    Here’s a talk on about this:

    If you know your stats, here’s the ps and rs. Keep in mind if you square the rs you can portion of variability explained:

    E.g. 53% of the reason say, Norway has much lower rates of mental illness than, say, America is because of its much higher income inequality. That’s over half.

    Similarly, about a fifth (22%) of the reason America has much higher rates of homocides is due to income inequality.

    That still leaves open the question of the actual mechanisms through which income inequality manifests itself in a tragedy of this nature, and the issues you brought up cover that.


  6. Here’s what I don’t get with arguments along these lines. You basically argue, X is not a good reason for doing Y, but a similar but distinguishable Z may be a legitimate reason for doing Y. But doing Y well to deal with potential issue Z is “complex”. Nonetheless (and perhaps therefore), we should be careful about taking the opportunity of an instance of X to do Y, because X is an “emotional” reason.

    Here’re my questions:

    [1] Within the premises of your framework, shouldn’t the rational merits of an action Y be independent of the specific events precipitating the opportunity to do Y? In other words, shouldn’t a person espousing your views be more focused on what policy action ends up getting taken, rather than the specific events allowing (via public attention, or whatever else) the action to take place? On what basis do you even care why most people are for (or against) action Y?

    [2] If you do ultimately accept that you should judge action Y independently on its own merits, how is it that you capitulate so easily to the complexity of Z, the true potential issue you identify? I imagine that with 7 billion people on this planet, almost ANY problem affecting even a “large” (say, ten million a year) group can be put into a context that renders it seemingly insignificant. I don’t know how you decide to care about any policy issues other than the most clearly pressing in the world (almost none having any intersection with our own lives here) and what can conceivably make your delineation less arbitrary than many others.

    To be perfectly honest, I think you are refusing to face the important issues yourself, thereby sidelining not only your emotions but also any effective and real deployment of your rational faculties. It’s easy to sit back and offer what is in the end an ad hominem (but not malicious) condemnation of societal swings, rather than contributing to society’s response.

    1. [1] Yes. Because I’m not a legislator or a politician, all I can do is take advantage of the attention my blog gets. Hence this post.

      [2] Why do you say I capitulate? I’m not Obama. You seem to believe that I have some obligation to do something myself. We all contribute to the world within our abilities and priorities. You have no idea what I do for a living, or what things I do to make the world (or a subset of it) a better place. What do you do? Have you done anything more useful than my post about this issue?

      The rest of your comment makes no sense. Who are you to judge, Mr./Ms. Rational Helplessness? You are not even brave enough to sign your real name.

      1. Diego, I didn’t mean to demean your or your opinion. Frankly, I have no idea what you do but am certain it is worthwhile and valuable to many. Your post struck me as intelligent, so I’m honestly curious about how you reconcile some of the tensions in your line of thinking, as any thoughtful line of thinking has its own tensions. I didn’t sign my name because I judged it immaterial.

        Let me try to re-phrase a bit if I may.

        [1] Here I’m questioning whether rational policy is really subverted by a widespread emotional response. As long as we are concerned enough about, say, fires to fund a fire department as a part of our community, not each of us needs to understand the science and practice of firefighting. We don’t worry too much about whether our neighbors are motivated by an irrational fear of fire relative to true risks; in this specific case, it’s just not that central an issue or imbalance. Then the question on gun control is, is gun control good policy? In that context, I’m asking, is your line of thinking too focused on parsing motivations (including the distinction you raise) over the policy merits? (Of course, there are issues where motivations hugely impact policy, but is that merited here?)

        My point with [2] is that to be a strong proponent of rational policy as an approach, it seems necessary to believe that rational policy is achievable in the face of complexity, since most of the issues we face are in fact complex. Either it’s achievable without everyone engaging in individually rational inquiry (question [1]), or you’re holding everyone to a very high standard, to which it looks like you feel comfortable (based on your response) falling short as a citizen not policymaker. So my question is, why urge your readers into limited rational inquiry that admittedly halts when faced with the real complexity of the “real” issue you identify? Would your readers then contribute more to the achievement of rational policy than those citizens who are concerned with the issue generally, perhaps stemming from an emotional response to an event?

        So my basic question is, shouldn’t you either be advocating and practicing a fuller engagement by citizens in the “complex” meat of the issue OR be more comfortable (without evidence otherwise) that rational policy can be achieved when citizens are imperfectly engaged? I’m curious how you’ve reached the middle ground you did.

        1. And sorry if my first post came across as accusatory as an anonymous comment; I only meant to communicate these tensions forcefully. I think your original post is very interesting, thoughtful, and thought-provoking and appreciate that you wrote it as I’m certain others do.

  7. “I searched for data, and found out that in the past 30 years, 543 people have been killed in 70 mass shootings. That’s an average of 18 deaths per year. For comparison, three times as many die from lightning strikes.”

    Isn’t it a little disingenuous to average over the last 30 years when this is something that has massively increased recently? The article you quote says in the same paragraph

    “If the scenes of horror and heartbreak are now familiar, it’s because the past six years have been particularly bloody. Fully 45% of the victims of mass shootings in America over the past three decades were killed since 2007.”

    Or do you really believe that constitutes a random fluctuation?

    1. The numbers are so small that you’d have to prove it’s not a random fluctuation. It’s easy to see a pattern when the numbers are so small. In 2002, you could have said that 95% of the deaths in terrorist attacks had happened in the previous year. Luckily it wasn’t a pattern. The author of the article cherry-picked a period that looks particularly bad to make a point. Perhaps the past three years are not as bad as the past six?

      Even if you assume that the past six years are the norm, then it’s 40 deaths per year instead of 18. Still less than lightning deaths.

      1. An easy test is to observe the pattern of broader gun violence over the same period; this avoids those statistical issues with “mass” murders. Seems you both should agree to that given your stances. Data shouldn’t be hard to find.

        John is saying if you weigh more elephants, you’ll count more of ’em weighing over 3 tons. So probabilistically, if you counted more of the latter, you’d suspect you’ve weighed a higher number. Diego is saying that seeing more of the latter alone is not statistically reliable if such large elephants are rare in the first place. (I don’t think he is asserting they are a wholly separate phenomena despite his focus on them as a societal impetus for policy.) So just go to the overall data and studies on this topic. Why try to separately validate from a statistical standpoint?

  8. You are arguing that policy changes are being suggested by emotions, because you do not see rational behind them. I think you may just missing the rational and therefore making a conclusion that changes are being non-rational.

    Obviously massacres are not frequent enough to be statistically “analyzable”, and therefore comparing them with other more frequent events, or even implying that we need to wait until the numbers become significant is a stretch on your view. Shootings are one-off events (at this point), but it does not mean they are not actionable, or should not be analyzed.

    Lightning strikes are natural events. We have measures to protect people and buildings, but lightnings will happen anyway – we do not control them. Tobacco use – people who die from it are obviously primarily in control of their lives. They are not brainwashed lemmings. Still, we have measures to minimize the impact, e.g. protect children from advertising and buying tobacco, smoke-free areas, better healthcare etc, but ultimately we do not force people to stop smoking. We could, but that is where measures boundary stops as of now. People can protect themselves more if they are willing to.

    Contrary to those, shootings are not something we currently control much, or can protect against. We have measures (gun licensing, mental health checks, security measures at schools) but clearly the impact is still high – shootings happen, and even though they relatively rare, they are ugly and traumatic enough to consider them too frequent at this point.

    In a sense, this is something we can fix more efficiently and faster than lightnings or tobacco use, so why the hell not? Return on effort may be much better and impact is clear and visible – you do not need to wait years and years and watch changes of percentage. If the fix works – we will see it right away because the metric is very discrete and small scale. It’s the perfect thing to fix.

    1. That’s not what am arguing, and it’s not true that we cannot protect ourselves against shootings. Read this:

      “In a sense, this is something we can fix more efficiently and faster than lightnings or tobacco use, so why the hell not?”

      Can we? That’s the question in my post. You have no idea if a fix would work. What’s worse, saying that we’ll see it right away shows a lack of understanding of rare statistical phenomena AND the time it takes for public policy to yield effects. I could give you a better analogy, but I’ll leave it as an exercise to you.

  9. I’m not convinced that your payoff system holds.

    You only look at numbers and statistics to weigh policy priorities. That is one way to look at it, and there are valid reasons to. I don’t think that the cost of one human life equals the cost of one human life in all situations, though, considering side effects.

    In the case of a mass shooting at a primary school, there is substantial psychological trauma that is suffered by the entire community; that is however many people, affected in potentially severe ways. And to a fading degree that is true for the nation and the world. Although losing a loved one due to a lightning strike, a man-made accident, or a disease, is a horrible experience, it is arguably easier to come to terms with than when humans turn against humans in a civilised place the community felt was safe. The cost of trust and mental wellbeing should be considered when adding up the damage, not only the number of lives lost. Of course this is an emotional matter and emotions weigh into my assessment. But we live in communities, a society of human beings, and for better or worse we *are* affected in more than a body count way by what goes on around us. If policies didn’t take that into account, that would be sad. That is different to politicians playing with emotions to get votes, which is wrong and equally sad, but a separate issue.

    As for side effects of measures: A vaccine against mass murder is of course unlikely, but for issues where a vaccine can be a solution, side effects can pretty surely only be negative. But I think this comparison is out of place here. The discussed measures to prevent or avoid this, ie. improvements in the mental health care system, less sensationalisation (is that a word?) by media, a sensible way to control gun use and ownership better, may not have a massive effect on mass shootings – but can improving any system of currently dubious quality, when attention is called to said lack of quality by such an event, be a bad thing if it brings an overall improvement to the system? If the only imaginable side effects are positive (eg. improving the quality of life for people with mental health issues and their families even if they are *not* imminent mass shooters) where a situation is truly rotten (the potential for improvement seems more than marginal here), efforts are justified. Weighing one threat to life or wellbeing (mental illness, responsibility of a gun owner) against another (cancer, accidents, etc), is impossible on a by-individual-death basis.

    I would argue the most important thing to consider when it comes to policy changes are feasibility and possible scale of improvements (how many people overall would be positively affected how strongly, how fast). Emotions, if that includes how safe and well-governed a given community feels, are not out of place.

    1. I agree with you, and you’re rephrasing most of my arguments. I’m not saying that emotion is out of place. What I’m saying is that public policy must be enacted rationally to maximize public good. It can and should have effects *on* emotions. The wellbeing of the population involves both being AND feeling safe. Actions towards changing public policy can be motivated by emotions, and that’s fine. Public policy cannot be dictated by emotions.

    1. Do you have a point you’d like to make? Are you saying that the US should do what Australia did because you believe the US is a carbon copy of Australia? Did you read the part where the US has 310 million guns? Did you hear the part in the video about how hard it would be to buy back 40M firearms in the US? Your comment is what I call magical thinking. Read my post and watch the video again.

      1. I don’t know how many guns were turned in during Australia’s buyback scheme per se but I’m sure Americans would have seen the footage of huge piles of seized guns getting destroyed. Some Australians claimed they could safely bury their guns in homemade capsules until the laws changed back. So perhaps the argument would be how many Americans would defiantly break a law forbidding private ownership of guns? Not to mention what if the government simply asks people to turn them in for free within the amnesty or else? Once again, I guess the argument would go down the line of “the criminals won’t hand them in and create underground caches but the ordinary American who can’t afford a criminal charge will be disarmed and be defenceless”.

  10. I agree 100%. The only thing is, I agree with the response of our president as well. This is because due to the nature of the anti-Obama team, he would be under attack if he did not respond in this fashion or in a timely manner.

    I believe that is the real problem, our leaders and media are not teaching the average American this type of thinking, they are capitalizing on these natural responses of emotion and using it to drive the actions they desire. Shame on the system and those in leadership, not just our President. Hopefully we can get wise, non-bias thinkers in leadership of our Country and the media one day.. but don’t hold your breath.

    1. We live in the United States of America. Rational policy implementation is pretty much unattainable. I love that you all think this utopic society could actually come to be — policy not based on emotions, unbiased media and political leaders — but rational thinking is not what we’re about. Because mass murders now affect children, this has become a social issue. Just like date rape. Do you know how many instances of date rape actually occur? The number is much smaller than people understand (I will find my source for you momentarily). But it became such a hot button issue when this small, not statistically significant number began affecting people’s children.

      Furthermore, it is utterly illogical to compare murder to cancer and especially lightening strikes. I do not see how you can compare something one human does to another (that we can attempt to prevent) to something nature does to humans (which we may also attempt to prevent). They are not in the same ball game. By your logic, instead of gun control we should really focus our policy efforts on cars and fires, because the amount of lives we would save by banning cars and all electricity and matches is a much higher number than lightening strikes and mass murder combined. But then some people would try to be sneaky and keep their cars. WHAT CAN WE DO??????

  11. Okay, the more I think about this blog entry, the more fundamentally flawed it seems. Let me pull a few things together to say exactly why.

    [1] By focusing narrowly on mass killings, you are classifying events based on outcome. You’re saying, let’s look only at car accidents where there was a ten-plus-car pile-up, or at let’s look at the cases where a strep infection spread to and affected some very high percentage of cells in the body. This subset is rare by your construction, and you say let’s look just at them because they get a lot of attention from people/news/etc.

    [2] If you care only about assessing rational policy, you can easily look to the broader data – in our examples, ALL the car accidents or ALL the strep instances and outcomes. You’re right that looking at all the data can be complex, both in terms of assessing the right policy move and in tailoring it to work well, and on that basis you decide it’s too tough.

    [3] In the end, (ironically) you’re muddying the issue by confusing the bunch of events that get a lot of attention from people (the big killings) with those that should be analyzed for rational policy. Yeah, you chose a small subset of events from which it’s harder to build a statistically sound case for policy, but then all your discussion of these difficulties is irrelevant – they arise from a choice on your part. Big cases get attention and by virtue of that attention may serve as an opportunity to enact good, rational policy; on those grounds, I don’t understand why you care so much whether big cases get attention over small cases, and why you warp your policy analysis around this chosen subset.

    [4] This is why I think you didn’t address any of the real issues with your non-magical thinking. You’re sitting back as an armchair quarterback and at length taking apart a statistical straw man of your own construction and then stopping at the doorstep of the real issue. You haven’t explained why you might suspect bad _policy_ might result from rare events drawing attention to an issue. If you were careful only to care about achieving rational policy, I’d expect you’d be more agnostic about the events by which attention is drawn to an issue. You wouldn’t care whether it was by alien intervention or by a rare instance; you would only care to look at the complexities of the real issue. That’s why I don’t understand why you are urging your readers into this limited amount of thinking (that stops precisely at the real issue you identify because it is complex). You seem to fault people for not understanding iatrogenics or statistics, but why? I just don’t see that engaging in this particular “feel-smart” exercise gets us any closer to good, rational policy than “clamoring for feel-good action”. Whether good policy happens regardless is separate question.

    1. Ok, how about this, then. Looking at the average of people who die every year from firearms (10,000) and the number of firearms (310,000,000) that means that only 0.003% of the 310,000,000 firearms in this country kill other people every year.

      If we are going to expand onto all killings, would it be logical to pursue a knife ban, general blunt object ban, car ban, etc.? No.

      If you went purely by the statistics, Banning all guns because 0.003% of them are used to kill people every year is like castrating every male in the country in order to prevent the extremely small percentage from committing rape.

      1. If you are addressing me specifically, I haven’t taken any stance on the issue of gun control anywhere here. Given that I haven’t taken any stance at all, I certainly haven’t taken the stance that all guns should be banned.

        If you just want to talk policy at an abstract level, I think it’s hard to “go purely by the statistics” because in the end you’ve got to have some other underpinnings. If your underpinnings are cost-benefit analysis, I’d say your analogy would be a bit of an extreme rhetorical stretch within that framework, but I get the point you’re making. I’d also consider that you’re arguing for rhetorical purposes against something that nobody is arguing for, but again I get your point.

    2. Rational Helplessness, you are confused. I do believe that public policy to reduce the number of guns in the US would be a good idea, and I say so. Mass killings as I see them are not regular killings gone wrong. Unlike 10-car pileups, mass killings are intentional. There is a very clearly defined pattern: typically a man decides to go to a school or office and kill as many people as possible. There may be a few botched mass killings that ended after two or three deaths, so they don’t qualify as “mass” perhaps. However, I have no reason to believe they are prevalent. They are very different from a robbery gone wrong, a fight that ends in someone pulling a gun, or a gang shooting (all far more common). Your premise is flawed.

      1. I think you’re slightly confused about what I’m saying as well, but I’d say we’re getting much closer. I still think you shouldn’t care too much what exact events precipitate the push for a particular policy, given that you do deem the policy itself rationally worthwhile. So I’m still a bit curious about why this bothers you.

        I’m finding your position easier to understand in that you classify mass killings separately on grounds of substance, but personally I’d need a bit more of a statistical case on this front to be convinced. Obviously, there are myriad and countless ways to split instances of gun violence into categories that differ in articulable ways; if you’re truly committed to the value of a statistical analysis here, I’d be less willing to jump immediately to the defense of an ex ante categorization like mass vs. not. After all, we have data to see whether the categorization is meaningful. Not to imply you haven’t thought about this beyond all the discussion here, but just as you’d suspect my premise is flawed, I’m inclined to suspect you’re jumping to an unnecessary conclusion. Not that this much matters, though; I’m glad and respect that you’ve thought about the real issue enough that you have a stance on it either way.

        1. E.g., why not all gun violence involving mental illness? All murders within that category? It’s not ex ante obvious to me that mass killings must be treated separately.

  12. A very well thought and researched opinion. It is unfortunate the media in the U.S. do not treat most “dramatic” news with such restraint and thoughtfulness.

  13. A question on statistics and their significance: the second article you link claims that the increased killings in the last 3 years is a crisis, whereas you claim that it is a statistical blip (fluctuation).
    How would one know?

    I don’t think we can know either way by just trying to interpret the numbers. This is a question of prediction (will the coming years have higher numbers, or back to historical average?). Such prediction depends on understanding the cause and mechanisms underlying such killings.
    For instance, killings are related to certain mental illnesses, which have (or have not) increased. Such a mental model would help decide whether this is likely a trend or a blip.

  14. Despite the article’s soft tone and gradual, friendly expose`, everyone who saw it posted started cussing me.
    It’s not about tone, some content is simply forbidden.
    One form of forbidden content is the claim that one’s hysterical emotions do not necessarily make objective truth.

  15. This follows a point that I’ve been trying to make to friends, but which is not garnering much acknowledgement. The point is that yes, these deaths are tragic, but so are the deaths of the thousands of other children and adults killed each year by gun violence. Action is warranted, I agree, but it bothers me that somehow these deaths necessitate action where those did not. And I absolutely worry that we’ll put in place restrictions and think we’ve accomplished something, only to face no substantive change in the ability to kill with guns.

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