Saturday, December 15, 2012

Volokh's Thought(less) Experiment

I have been hesitant to write anything about yesterday's school shootings in Connecticut because they are just so abominable and inexplicable that I have a hard time getting my head around them. Of course, like other welfare-consequentialists, I wonder how crazy people so easily manage to get control of dangerous weapons in this country, and why gun advocates cannot acknowledge the obvious fact that it is much harder to commit mass slaughter with a knife than with a gun. An article appearing today at The (here) makes the point plainly:

In 1996, a gun massacre in a Scottish school in Dunblane killed 16 children and one teacher. The political impact was significant. The next year the Firearms Amendment, which prohibited private ownership of cartridge handguns, was passed. Security in British schools quickly improved, too. 
As it happens, halfway around the world, on the same day, a deranged man attacked primary-school students at a school in China’s Henan province. He had a knife. Twenty-two students were wounded. None died.

As I said, I wasn't going to write anything about this tragic episode. But then I saw that, over at the Volokh Conspiracy (here), Eugene Volokh conjured up a "thought experiment" positing the policy prospect that elementary school teachers might be armed. On the continuum of arguments about gun control, this position represents the opposite extremity from the position that all private ownership of guns should be banned (an argument that is a non-starter, which virtually no one makes). The unstated presumption is that crazy people will think twice about entering schools with murderous intent if they suspect the teachers might be armed. It's a simple application of John Lott's dubious "more guns, less crime" argument (see here). Professor Volokh's "thought experiment" ignores the sizable empirical literature testing Lott's hypothesis (see, e.g., here and here).

Professor Volokh's appallingly simplistic "thought experiment" is symptomatic of knee-jerk, casual responses to complex social problems, which have become all too common in the academy and, especially, in the blogosphere (not necessarily excluding this blog). Although his "analysis," is not really worthy of any kind of thoughtful response (either supportive or critical), it's clear that Volokh failed even to reflect on a couple of obvious rejoinders before hitting the "publish" button:

First, the notion that a crazed individual, who is perfectly content to take his own life after taking many others, would be deterred by the knowledge that teachers in the school might have guns (presumably secured against the possibility that students might gain access to them) is more than a little presumptuous.

Second, even a rational, cold-blooded killer, rather than being deterred, might simply walk in, shoot the teacher(s) first, then go about the rest of his abominable business. He might eventually be taken down by an armed teacher from another classroom, but how much death and destruction might he cause before that happens? And how many teachers would be willing to enter the fray, especially given the fact that students (or others) might be caught in the crossfire?

I could go on, but I've already spilled more ink on Professor Volokh's thoughtless "experiment" than it deserves. Notice that I have not argued for any specific policy response to this senseless tragedy (although I do think it would be wise to make it more difficult at least for the demonstrably pathological to get their hands on guns). Those are debates for the coming months.  For now, like every other feeling person writing about this immense tragedy, my thoughts and condolences go out to all the victims, their families, friends, and neighbors in Newtown, Connecticut. It can only be scant consolation for them to know that we all share in their loss.

UPDATE: Rep. Louis Gohmert of Texas, one of Congress's craziest members (and that's saying something),  wants to implement Prof. Volokh's "thought experiment" as policy (see here). Enough said.

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