What should we do about mass shootings? Probably nothing...
As anyone who isn't in a cave knows, there was a horrific shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut yesterday that left 26 people, including 20 kids, dead. As with any event like this, people are wondering what should be done to prevent it - and advocates of increasing gun restrictions or eliminating gun ownership are using it as an opportunity to advocate their positions.
But should we do anything in response to events like this? I would say no. For all the press these things get, they are exceedingly rare. That's why they get so much press - because they are unusual, as well as because we can relate to them - we all went to school at some point, many of us have kids in school, and we all go to public places like movie theaters or malls. The idea that someone could start shooting at us randomly is terrifying.
But it also probably won't happen. This year has been unusually bad for mass shootings, and this report from left-leaning political mag The Nation puts the number at 88. I would quibble with that number, as several of the shootings on the list don't fit the traditional definition of a mass shooting like the one used by this Mother Jones article - one public place, killing people at random. The Tennessee nightclub shooting followed a fight, the Miami funeral home shooting was gang-related, and the Delaware soccer tournament started when a shooter shot a specific individual. The racially motivated drive-bys in Oklahoma, by the Mother Jones definitions, were spree killings and not mass shootings. So that leaves us with 79 people killed in "traditional" mass shootings this year.
On the other hand, in 2010 (the most recent year I could easily find data for) according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 32,885 people were killed in vehicle accidents.That study doesn't break them down by age, but this 2003 study puts the number at 2,136, with traffic accidents being the biggest killer of children age 0-14, with 6 per day being killed.
You don't hear people talking about banning or seriously restricting cars, though, despite the fact that each and every week more kids are killed in car accidents than were killed this week in the worst school shooting ever. Nor should we - life is inherently risky - none of us get out of it alive - and shootings like this are part of the risk we take for living in a free and open society, just like getting killed by a car accident is a risk we take every time we turn the ignition and shift into drive.
But cars fulfill a need. I would argue that guns fulfill a need to - for defense, for hunting, and for keeping the government in check. But let's say you disagree, and you think most people just have guns because it's fun to shoot stuff. You know what else is also fun but not really necessary? Booze. Getting back to that 2003 NHTSA study I cited earlier, 21% were killed in alcohol-related crashes - that's about 420 kids a year. Disturbingly, about half of them were passengers with drivers who had been drinking. I'll admit that alcohol-related is a bit of a weaselly definition - it defines it as any alcohol in the bloodstream, not just being over the legal limit. But it seems fair to say that more kids will be killed this year by being passengers in cars driven by drunk parents than have been killed in mass shootings in decades.
Humans are not rational. And it's hard to be rational in the face of so much sadness and craziness. But good laws stem out of addressing the most serious problems with solutions that address those problems with the least possible cost - in terms of money and freedom - to citizens. Saying "we need to do something, and this is something" is how bad laws get passed, and events like this are the times legislators and citizens most want to do something. As difficult as it is, we need to reflect on how rare these events are and perform cost-benefit analysis if it's really worth taking the time and resources away from solving other, bigger, more deadly problems to fight something that is rare - if we do so, we'll actually cause more people to die.