Blind Spot: The exaggerated risks of and solutions to mass shooting

Whenever there’s a high-profile mass shooting, there is no shortage of people demanding that we “do something.” While these demands are well-intentioned, they’re also equally ill-informed and ill-conceived.

The exaggerated risks of and solutions to mass shooting
By Jesse Harris

One of the immediate problems comes in the risk assessment. If you are overestimating the likelihood or severity of a given scenario, the prescribed solution is almost guaranteed to be a gross overreaction. FiveThirtyEight has done a great job at breaking down the numbers on this. Their conclusion?

However mass shootings are defined, the deaths they cause represent a small proportion of all homicides committed with firearms in the U.S., which have declined from a decade ago, as has the overall murder rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While someone who is murdered is more likely to have had it happen in a mass shooting, the risk of being murdered (with or without a gun) has dropped pretty precipitously. This is right in line with the trend that began in the early 90s (which is possibly tied to decreasing lead). Mass shootings also still comprise a very small segment of both total murders and gun murders despite their heightened visibility. The entire discussion starts off on the wrong foot because the threat is exaggerated, and the proposed overreaching solutions seem more reasonable through that lens.

Inevitably, the solutions fall into the trap of trying to eliminate Bad Things or Bad People (and often both). These approaches require massive amounts of data and smart analysis to prove useful, things that often lead to a surveillance state (and worsening the problem). They also tend to have a very high failure rate. Once you eliminate Bad Thing A, Bad Thing B all of a sudden becomes a viable alternative. Once you have Bad Thing B under control, Bad Thing C pops up. It’s a game of whack-a-mole that often ends up catching innocents in the crossfire. If you don’t believe me, look at the way the TSA has gone to great lengths to keep you from carrying on a water bottle.

Trying to eliminate Bad People is even harder. Despite massive amounts of metadata collection, no law enforcement agency has been able to prevent mass shootings at home or abroad. Most of the perpetrators have no criminal history. While it’s common to see some form of mental illness or extreme political views in play, those by themselves make poor predictors of who will be the guy that makes everyone uncomfortable at family gatherings and who will be the one who empties round after round into a crowded area. Human behavior is notoriously difficult to predict; just ask any economist.

This makes for the greatest blind spot in the “do something” mentality: we still don’t know what has led to an increase in mass shootings against the trend of overall decreasing murder and gun violence rates. The recency of the rise in mass shootings makes it hard to have any good analysis, a void that has been very quickly filled with talking points from the gun control debate. Absent a cause, every potential remedy is a blind shot in the dark. Combined with our exaggerated risk, this makes for very poor public policy. This is much like our national anti-terrorism strategy which has, ironically, been to be scared and reactive, a dangerous combination.

I’m okay with cautiously compiling more information on the causes of mass shootings before we take any action. With gun violence overall still on the decline, we’re apparently already on the right policy path. Anyone who’s trying to tell you otherwise is likely trying to exploit your fear.

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