Yesterday’s tragic shooting at Umpqua Community College has renewed the national debate on gun control. We won’t take a firm position on that debate here, but there are a few things that are worth considering.
First, advocates of gun control often make the point that gun violence kills dramatically more people than terrorism. This is indisputably true and this article does a good job highlighting the disparity. The general argument that follows is that since we spend an absurd amount of money and political energy directed at stopping terrorism, it’s therefore obvious that we should do more on gun control since guns kill dramatically more people. However, a more direct conclusion is that the threat of terrorism is given far too much influence in our political discourse. The comparison above works with gun violence, yes. But, as the article notes, it would also work with virtually any other deadly malady of society–car accidents, diabetes, or even nefarious toddlers, according to a recent tally. So it would seem this data makes a compelling case for spending less resources addressing terrorism. What should be done with those resources, however, is not clear.
Second, the facts surrounding this story are still emerging. The name and background of the alleged shooter was not released yesterday, and from what I’ve seen, it’s still not clear how the shooter acquired the gun. In spite of this uncertainty, many politicians and pundits jumped on the event to make their case for gun control in the abstract. In the case of President Obama, this may be reasonable. He was obviously going to be expected to give a statement on the event, and as president, he may have actually known the details of this case before it was publicly available and made his argument accordingly. But for everyone else, using this event to bolster your particular position makes no sense until the details come out. It may turn out that the shooter had a completely clean record and would have been eligible to acquire a gun even under the most stringent of regimes. Or conversely, it may be a perfect anecdote of how gun control legislation could have helped. But until we know more, it’s a bit questionable to use this event to justify your position, regardless of which side you’re on.
Finally, there seems to be a widely accepted, but unspoken, premise among gun control advocates, that with the right legislation in place, these sorts of things would never happen. It is certainly possible that the right legislation could decrease the likelihood and frequency of these tragedies, but 100% prevention is simply not a reasonable objective in a free society. This premise is also found often in discussions of combating terrorism and is equally invalid there. To understand exactly why this is implausible, I would recommend the analysis of Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University. This article was written in response to the France train attack a few months back and concentrates on the threat of terrorism. However, the points he makes are equally relevant to the discussion of mass shootings. Simply stated, if you want to live in a free society, then there will always be some risk. We should acknowledge this fact and stop pretending that the right combination of governmental intervention could ever make us 100% safe.