Following last weekend’s Aurora tragedy, liberal columnist Eugene Robinson took a typical stand:
Will we even pretend to do anything to prevent the next mass shooting by a crazed loner? I doubt it. We’ll just add Aurora to the growing list — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson — and wait for the inevitable…
Congress should pass an assault weapons ban this morning and the president should sign it tonight…
Eugene is upset that the risk of a mass shooting in America is high enough that one occurs every few years while there is little will to lower that risk. It’s a reasonable position, but I think the high visibility of these tragedies skews people’s perceptions about risks. I think the risk of this kind of tragedy is already so low that it’s 1) hard to lower the risk even more, and 2) hard to justify lowering this risk relative to many other risks we could be lowering.
When risks are high enough citizens will accept and even demand government intervention to lower them. But as risks decrease, further decreases have an increasing marginal cost – not only monetary costs, but costs of privacy and unintended consequences and opportunities for mistakes and corruption. No risk can be completely eliminated, and citizens generally accept some balance of risk and freedom. As Ron Paul said, “Government cannot create a world without risks, nor would we really wish to live in such a fictional place. Only a totalitarian society would even claim absolute safety as a worthy ideal, because it would require total state control over its citizens’ lives.”
Eugene suggests passing an assault weapons ban as an easy way to lower the risk of a mass shooting. I don’t think this kind of law is quite as offensive to the Second Amendment as many conservatives; if the general public is OK with attempting to restrict a set of somewhat rapidly fireable weapons (albeit an inconsistent set) having the potential for somewhat large negative externalities, I don’t see how that interferes with the right to bear a bunch of other arms. The assault weapons ban in 1994 didn’t lead to a slippery slope of more bans or unfair shootouts where criminals had better guns than law-abiding citizens.
But I don’t think this kind of law would do much to reduce the risk of mass shootings, either. There weren’t noticeable crime increases when the original ban expired in 2004. And Eugene’s own list of tragedies is not convincing. Columbine happened during the assault weapons ban of 1994-2004. The pistols used at Virginia Tech would not have been illegal under such a ban. It’s certainly plausible that an assault weapons ban could have decreased the damage of the two other tragedies, but it’s not a given; the shooters might have used illegal weapons, or legal weapons with similar functions.
What if there’s no way to definitively lower the current risk without beginning to threaten citizens’ abilities to protect themselves? If there are no easy ways to further lower this risk, I think it’s possible there are many other risks that deserve more of a focus. These mass shootings are so rare that it’s easy to find other tragedies that are much more dangerous. Perhaps too obvious are the over 35,000 traffic fatalities that occur every year*. That number has been decreasing by the thousands over the last decade, but it’s mind-boggling that 95 people still perish every day on our roadways, and we consider this pretty normal. As an American, your lifetime odds of dying in a car accident are about 110 to 1. Your odds of dying in a random shooting in a public place are something like 384,000 to 1.
We demand and accept many regulations to reduce the risk of someone else driving a giant fast-moving metal machine into our bodies, from tests for drivers to requirements for vehicles to laws that police offers try to enforce. But we don’t accept speed limits of 30mph everywhere, even though it would undoubtedly reduce traffic fatalities, because it would cost us too much time. So we settle for a balance, with people always ready to try to adjust things if they feel the negative externalities are still too high. Similarly, we have background checks and restrictions on various firearms and other regulations to reduce the risk of gun violence more than it would be otherwise.
We should always strive to continue to reduce all risks of death, especially the preventable risks of other humans, wherever possible. But the risks will always exist. If your chance of dying in a mass shooting is 0.000003% and your chance of dying in a car accident is 0.9%, with a whole lot of other risks in between, I think it’s reasonable to ask if there aren’t a lot of easier and more effective ways to try to use the government’s limited resources to save lives than trying even harder to prevent the next shooting tragedy than we already are.
*Some say that cars do “good” things, while guns can only kill things. Others argue that guns can do good things, but that’s all beside the point; if there was something totally awesome that killed 10 million people every year, we wouldn’t accept it no matter how “good” it was otherwise. What matters is how big the risk is and how much it costs to reduce it more.