Tragedy in Virginia

Seeing the news this afternoon, that a shooting had occurred at Virginia Tech, resulting in the killing of over 30 students and the gunman, was, to say the least, chilling. Virginia Tech is a good school - I've got friends there - and, as is sadly the case with many such events, it's just not where you'd expect to see a mass murder. (Which sort of suggests the question "just where would you expect to see a mass murder take place?" but that's beside the point.) We here (I can safely speak for everyone, I think) at Princeton Political Argument send our condolences to the families and friends of those affected by the incident.

As always, this tragedy will not be an isolated event, but will spur introspection from all fronts. Take, for example, that our Class of 2010 Assassins game has been put on hold for a week. It's likely that other topics will come up, and I wanted to discuss briefly one that already has shown up in the news as a reaction to the VA Tech shootings. In the wake of the shootings, gun control activists have already seized the moment to once again call for stricter gun control laws. While admirable in intent (duh, they want to stop violence) I'd like to present a brief argument against gun control, lest we forget our reason in the heat of the moment.

Most arguments (and indeed ones we are likely to hear in coming days) focus on gun control's ability to reduce crime. Statistics can be cited for both sides, and then attacks on both sides' statistics can be cited on and on. There are countries in the world with stricter gun control laws and both higher and lower rates of crime than the US. Crime being such a complicated issue, it is relatively hard to isolate the legality of guns as a variable.

For the sake of argument, it is at least safe to turn to ideas of statistics. If guns are made in some measures illegal or harder to obtain, it is likely that fewer people would possess them. The question to be asked, then, is who is it that will be deterred from getting a gun? The argument that criminals in general will be kept from gun ownership is unfortunately naive. Since guns are still widely available and cheap, slapping regulations on the legal market will only fuel the illegal black market of firearms. Why would a criminal wait for a background check or fill out a long series of forms?

Also easy to see is that guns can indeed increase the safety of a neighborhood whereas gun control laws can endanger it. If a burglar is sure that no law-abiding citizen will have a gun, he can rob with great impunity. If he knows that any given potential victim could be a potential gun carrier, he is much more likely to think twice.

Worth noting is the effect guns have on people's psyches. Gun deaths from children left unsupervised are far fewer than deaths caused by children drowning while left alone in swimming pools. Yet which is more likely to keep parents from letting their child play at a friend's house: knowing the friend's parents have a gun or a pool?

Guns can do terrible things, but, as the cliche goes, if guns are outlawed then only outlaws will have guns. If some madman opens fire in Frist, I sincerely hope that someone busts out a pistol and returns fire. While there is clearly a law to be drawn (I don't think we should be allowed to have nuclear bombs) it may be wider than one would think. In whatever debate issues, we need to remember that while tragedies are visible on a national scale, whatever crimes guns prevent are (happily) not so newsworthy.


Freakonomics, Steven Levitt


cody said...

My first coherent thought after hearing news of the shootings at Virginia Tech (as opposed to the immediate emotional response), was to think back to some comments I had made earlier about gun control. Namely, I had posed a rhetorical question that basically said, "Would students feel safer in a classroom, if they knew that the teacher kept a loaded gun in his/her desk?"

In the wake of these tragic events, I'm sure peoples' responses to such a rhetorical device would be very different. Personally, I can definitely see why someone would say, "Absolutely, imagine the lives that might have been saved if one of those professors or some other staff member or student could have shot back." While this sort of thinking might receive wider support given what's happened, I ask only that we consider the logical extension of such a principle of deterrence.

In my opinion, I see two ways that gun control or the lack thereof can affect crime. We can basically live in one of two worlds:

1) where everyone (and I do mean, EVERYONE) has a gun, so that criminals are deterred because every single one of their potential victims can shoot back, or,

2) where no one (and yes, no one, not even criminals) has a gun, where no one would have the ability to commit violent gun crime in the first place, or to use guns to threaten others.

All things being equal, i.e. assuming both worlds result in similar reductions in crime for the stated reasons, which one would you want to live in?

Of course neither is at all a feasible option, but it is important to keep in mind the sort of guiding principles we keep behind our policies towards guns. To say that students should be armed and able to defend themselves against future attackers is a dangerous step towards that first scenario. We must accept that to live in a free society means accepting a certain degree of risk, and that determined sociopaths will ALWAYS be able to hurt and kill, no matter how much security we may try to keep in place.

John Galt said...

I find your hypothetical situations interesting but perhaps misguided. Gun control or lack thereof would not even theoretically lead to either of those scenarios. Considering extreme cases is only as useful as the extreme cases are related to reality. A crazy counterexample to utilitarianism may disprove a theory but two unrealistic outcomes can't help us decide between a policy and its altenrative.