Could We Have Prevented Sandy Hook?

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut leaves a nation with broken hearts, tears, and many, many questions.

I know that on that day, my elder son was in school, my younger one at daycare…and I had the urge, like many parents, to run and get them home as soon as possible.

But as with most of these cases, we are left with mostly questions and a few answers.  The political types are well on their way to the usual food fight that comes of these tragedies.  I was hoping to take the discussion one step further.  I wanted to look at what the real solutions that would solve this problem really are, if they are viable, and what that means for our country.  And hopefully, I will try to do so without injecting my own beliefs into the debate (at least, as much as I can).

So how could we prevent another Sandy Hook?  I think the solutions come down to a few choices.

1.  Gun Control

This is an overly broad category, that really has two subsets.  One is the ‘minimalist’ solution; basically, regulate the guns that are available to the public, without changing the 2nd amendment.  The second solution is much more drastic, and for lack of a better term, I call the ‘absolutist’ solution:  pass an amendment to the Constitution repealing the 2nd amendment and the individual’s right to bear arms, and then proceed to confiscate all weapons in this country.  I will take each discussion separately.

The Minimalist Solution

This option is what we would consider traditional gun control.  It is basically an analogue of the Brady Act, which banned ‘assault weapons’.  Thus, this option has a lot of historical data and numerous studies that show where it succeeded, and where it failed.  The reality is there are numerous studies on the Brady Act that all showed the same thing:  it did not significantly decrease gun crimes or homicides.

A 2003 study from Duke University Professor Philip J. Cook, regarded as the nation’s foremost authority on gun control, concluded that the Brady Act was a failure.  Data shows a slow gradual decline in gun homicides from 1993 to the present, a trend that started before the Brady Bill passed, but figures from both the control and treatment states track virtually identically. “Control and treatment states had the same gun homicide rates before and after the Brady law passed,” Cook said. “It made no discernible difference. There is no statistically significant effect.”

Below you see the results.  The bill was passed in 1993, and there was no real change in the amount of mass shootings, deaths or victims over the period covered by the Brady bill.

The one area that there was some effect was in a slight decrease in gun-related suicides; and even in that respect, the drop was not considered statistically significant.  The law did help identify and stop gun-running operations that were buying large numbers of guns in southern states and transporting them north for resale. The law has also helped improve criminal history records. Proponents of the law also point to the 60,000 people trying to buy guns who were turned down after background checks revealed that they were felons. But a later California study showed that the turn downs had no effect on criminal activity.

We can also look at other countries, and see how their gun control laws have worked.  Australia instituted harsher gun control laws after a mass killing in 1996.  Has it resulted in major improvements in homicides by guns?  Not really.  Data shows a steady decrease in gun crimes that started in the late 80s, and has continued in a linear fashion to this very day.

The other example often cited is England.  In 1996, 16 children were killed in a school in Scotland. What followed were the harshest gun control laws England had ever seen.   What resulted was actually an increase in gun crimes for almost a decade.  There has been a drop off in recent years, as the chart to the left shows, but it is difficult to nearly impossible to relate that decrease to the gun laws from a decade ago.

One other point about comparing England to the United States.  England had very lax gun laws through out the years.  As Thomas Sowell points on this piece this week, you could more easily buy a shotgun in 1950s London than in New York City.  However, even at that time, the murder rate was significantly higher in New York City.

The Brady Act was a test case for modern liberal answers to the gun problem; retain the 2nd amendment but regulate the type of guns that were accessible.  By any measure, that part of the argument has shown no statistical beneficial changes.

One side point…what is the reality of our gun homicide rates?  Have they been increasing, and are we at record high murder rates, as some in the media suggest?

The answer is no; the opposite is true, as the graph to the right demonstrates.

The homicide rate has ironically been dropping for decades…irrespective of the gun control laws, as shown in the chart to the right.  The irony of this entire situation is, we have not seen gun crimes this low in America since the 1960s.

 The Absolutist Solution

This solution is the most drastic solution of any I will discuss.  It entails a major shift in American thinking, and right now, seems virtually impossible.

First, it would take a constitutional amendment repealing the 2nd amendment.  Why?  Because according to the Supreme Court in their rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicagothe court affirmed the individual’s, and not the state or the militia’s, right to bear arms.  To take away such a right only has one solution, through amending the Constitution.  A refresher, on what it takes to pass a constitutional amendment:

There are essentially two ways spelled out in the Constitution for how to propose an amendment. One has never been used.

The first method is for a bill to pass both houses of the legislature, by a two-thirds majority in each. Once the bill has passed both houses, it goes on to the states. This is the route taken by all current amendments. Because of some long outstanding amendments, such as the 27th, Congress will normally put a time limit (typically seven years) for the bill to be approved as amendment (for example, see the 21st and 22nd).

The second method prescribed is for a Constitutional Convention to be called by two-thirds of the legislatures of the States, and for that Convention to propose one or more amendments. These amendments are then sent to the states to be approved by three-fourths of the legislatures or conventions. This route has never been taken, and there is discussion in political science circles about just how such a convention would be convened, and what kind of changes it would bring about.

Regardless of which of the two proposal routes is taken, the amendment must be ratified, or approved, by three-fourths of states. There are two ways to do this, too. The text of the amendment may specify whether the bill must be passed by the state legislatures or by a state convention. See the Ratification Convention Page for a discussion of the make up of a convention.Amendments are sent to the legislatures of the states by default. Only one amendment, the 21st, specified a convention. In any case, passage by the legislature or convention is by simple majority.

The Constitution, then, spells out four paths for an amendment:

  • Proposal by convention of states, ratification by state conventions (never used)
  • Proposal by convention of states, ratification by state legislatures (never used)
  • Proposal by Congress, ratification by state conventions (used once)
  • Proposal by Congress, ratification by state legislatures (used all other times)

In other words, a long and tedious process that requires enormous public support…support, that even today, does not exist.  In polls (usually taken after tragedies), the public supports gun control measures by large margins, but then supports the individual’s right to bear arms by large measures.  In the last polling, 68% of Americans (including a majority of Democrats) believe the right to own a gun is an individual right protected by the 2nd amendment.  So to pass a constitutional amendment, one would need to turn those numbers absolutely upside down.

Let us continue down the rabbit hole however.  If a constitutional amendment passed, unless it specifically outlawed guns, one would then have to go state by state, repealing constitutional rules in numerous states that defend the right to bear arms.

Now, if you accomplish this Herculean task, then comes the hard part.

You would need to confiscate every weapon in the country.

Without confiscation, there would be 300 million guns in this country, or approximately enough weapons to arm every man, woman, and child living in the nation.  So a house by house confiscation of every weapon would be needed to truly accomplish this goal.  Can you imagine the fiasco?

Then, to compound the problem even if you were to succeed confiscating all 300 million weapons (which would not be given up easily to begin with), you would have to seal the borders, especially the southern border with Mexico.  It is estimated there are almost 100 million guns in Mexico, that criminals would be more than happy to pay for if guns disappeared in the United States.  So sealing the border…how well has that worked out historically?   Well, in a slow year, almost 500,000 people crossed the border illegally.  That doesn’t even take into the account the tons of illegal drugs smuggled from the south.  So how easy would it be to stop the illegal importation of guns?

Am I starting to convince you this is unreasonable yet?  The reality is, this would more likely lead to far more bloodshed (if not outright warfare in some regions) than all the gun victims we face routinely now, and even if accomplished, it would be doubtful it would stem the flow of guns into the country.

This is simply not a viable option.

2. The Gun Expansion option

Now, other than the absolutist solution, this may be the most extreme solution available, and the one that many one the left cannot fathom.

We expand the right to carry guns to all places in society.  We eliminate the concept of ‘gun free zones’, which have obviously been an utter failure (every major mass killing except the shooting of Rep. Gabbie Giffords occurred in a gun free zone, and that exception could be considered an assassination attempt).  Furthermore, we allow individuals in areas of risk, such as schools, to carry weapons.  Maybe you require a training certification before allowing teachers and the like to carry guns; that is up for debate.

You additionally consider arming security guards at schools.

This is frankly the most libertarian of the arguments.  Arm as many people as possible, under the understanding that our police forces can never stop these crimes in their entirety.  Arm teachers, staff, and the citizenry to take it upon themselves to protect the public, as a subsidiary of our normal police force.

There is a lot of mixed data on this.  We have small samples of data that show crime decreases in areas that allowed concealed carrying of guns, but not large enough samples to extrapolate the results to the national level.

The National Rifle Association says that, by its definition, there are now 41 states that have “right-to-carry” laws. “Since 1991, when violent crime peaked in the U.S., 24 states have adopted ‘shall issue’ laws, replacing laws that prohibited carrying or that issued carry permits on a very restrictive basis; many other federal, state, and local gun control laws have been eliminated or made less restrictive; and the number of privately owned guns has risen by about 100 million,” the organization says on its Web site.

The leading pro-gun advocate has been John Lott.  Lott notes that, by his assessment, a majority of the research in referred academic publications supports his point of view. In a 2012 article for the Maryland Law Review, Lott listed 18 studies that found such laws reduced violent crime, ten that said it has no discernible effect and one that found it increased violent crime.

“The debate has been between those who say that it reduces crime and those who say it has no effect,” he noted. “Very few debates are divided that way.”

However, other research is mixed.  An article from the Yale law school questioned some of this data.  Their conclusions?

We conclude that Lott and Mustard have made an important scholarly contribution in establishing that these laws have not led to the massive bloodbath of death and injury that some of their opponents feared. On the other hand, we find that the statistical evidence that these laws have reduced crime is limited, sporadic, and extraordinarily fragile. Minor changes of specifications can generate wide shifts in the estimated effects of these laws, and some of the most persistent findings — such as the association of shall-issue laws with increases in (or no effect on) robbery and with substantial increases in various types of property crime — are not consistent with any plausible theory of deterrence.

In other words, crime did not increase with right to carry laws…but do not appear to have decreased crimes either, at least not significantly.

Maybe we should confront this issue from another angle.  We know for sure that crime continues to decrease in this country, and has been following that trend since the early 1980s. What is the reason for this?  Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago tried to answer that question, and in a 2004 article stated that the data is mixed on whether states with right to carry laws saw any appreciable change in crime rates.

So again, we are left with a hung jury.  However, let us be clear what the consensus of the research shows:  it shows that although right to carry laws may or may not reduce crime, they certainly have not shown any increase in crime.   This is an important take home point. 

3.  Or maybe, possibly, there was no way to stop the killer?

This is the most dispiriting of the choices…that ultimately, whether you want to believe in fate, chance, God’s hand…that this could not have been prevented at all.

We have to accept this as a real possibility.  I know that people in the modern world feel they control their lives.  The reality is, we don’t…not really.  We live under the delusion that we can control every facet of our lives, but it is only an illusion that allows us to live with a reality of horrible possibilities.

Whether it be the deaths at the school, or another shooting like at Aurora, CO; whether it is a weather event like Hurricane Sandy, or a terrorist attack like 9/11, there are too many variables that cannot be controlled by the laws of men.

The facts now coming out about the murderer in Connecticut is that he was not insane.  He was methodical, planning each stage of his killing spree in detail.  He even had the precognition to destroy his computer before starting the rampage that day.  How does one stop a sane, methodical person who is simply, for lack of a better term evil?

“He didn’t just snap. This takes a lot of planning,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, who worked for 15 years in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit where she studied psychopaths and helped capture killers.”He wanted to accomplish maximum lethality,” O’Toole said. “He was not out of touch with reality. I think he put some security measures in place so he wouldn’t be stopped.  If you pick older people you are going to have some blowback,” O’Toole said. “He didn’t want people to interfere. When people take security measures like that, you know what you are doing is wrong.”

So in face of such evil, what law would have worked?  Whether you want to describe such an individual as a psychopath, a terrorist, or simply evil, it remains that there is little to stop a single human being from harming others, if he has the time and intelligence to do so.

Let us be completely honest:  no gun control act can keep weapons out of the hands of hard-core determined criminals.  This is a simple fact worldwide.  Even laws completely outlawing guns have failed to stop violence.  Gun control could have made it harder for this man to find a gun, but not impossible.  Would the difficulty of being able to find a gun have stopped a man who put this much time and effort into killing 1st graders?  I find that argument lacking; it is like arguing that if we simply write a few more laws protecting our airports, such events like 9/11 can never occur.  That is a fallacy.

Additionally, how many people have tried to get a gun illegally?  Not very hard at all.  PBS’s Frontline did a story a few years ago, which showed the absolute ease of getting a gun while avoiding all local, state and federal laws.  “In fact, more than half the arrestees say it is easy to obtain guns illegally,” the report states. Responding to a question of how they obtained their most recent handgun, the arrestees answered as follows: 56% said they paid cash; 15% said it was a gift; 10% said they borrowed it; 8% said they traded for it; while 5% only said that they stole it.

We are left with solutions that are much less concrete.  Maybe America is inherently more violent than many places in the world?  There is data that does support this conclusion, for example the comparison of London and New York City that I described earlier.  However, even if this is the case, how do we confront it?  People mention violent movies and video games, a culture of irresponsibility, a society slowly pushing two parent homes and God out of the sphere of influence.  We can also argue for more mental health care (which is a sensible solution, regardless of its effect on murders), but again, this killer may or may not have been helped by such endeavors. Many of these points may have some validity, but they also are not easily curable nor are there any magic bullets to find.

In conclusion, I simply don’t know what the answer is.  After reviewing the data, gun control is a fool’s errand.  I support right to carry laws for a simple reason:  although they may not decrease crime, they also do not increase crime.  If there is no negative to passing such laws, I will always defer to more freedom rather than less.  In a society where there may be no solution to evil people, maybe taking the role of protecting our own lives may have to fall into our own hands.  That is somewhat depressing, but that maybe the reality we live in.

All I know is, after last week’s events, I will hold my boys closer, and pray for those children that are lost…because ultimately, that my be the only thing in this world I have control over. [please note this citation was added at a later date] [please note this citation was added at a later date] [An excellent post from August 2012 by a liberal…HIGHLY RECOMMENDED] [Excellent Article with Criminologist James Alan Fox] [first honest article I have seen asking for total repeal of the 2nd amendment] [refers to JAMA article below from 3/2013…conclusions are biased.  The study actually shows no statistical difference for homicides with and without gun control]. [nice post about homicide rates, which have fallen over the decades; below chart shows important historical correlations]

13 - 1 (1) [New DOJ report showing gun crime has been falling for decades] [The irony of this link is this is the study Obama asked the CDC to peform after Sandy Hook; it basically refutes most of the liberal arguments for gun control] [recent Harvard study, reiterating the findings of the CDC study] [AJIM study finds that countries with higher gun ownership (meaning total guns per 100 people) also have higher rates of firearm death, even after accounting for differences in rates of mental illness (meaning major depressive disorders). Meanwhile, it finds no relationship between gun ownership and the overall crime rate.] [analysis of above AJIM study] [self defense stats] [mental health and gun violence] [regarding safety and guns in the home] (gun ownership rates vs. violence). (International comparison of gun ownership, mental health, and homicides) (gun ownership by state, relative to deaths) (gun control and suicide…really linked?) (Charles Cooke rant on what the liberal alternative really is…repeal of 2nd amendment) (National Academy of Sciences 2004 review)

No correlation between gun laws and state gun crime rates.

Regarding Australia’s gun confiscation…

Mass shootings rate stable over past decade

Washington Post fact checker after Las Vegas: Chicago?

Washington Post fact checker after Las Vegas: Do tougher gun laws lead to ‘dramatically lower rates of gun violence’?

Good all around link with info about gun issues from Stephen Gutowski :

On the usefulness of age limits, etc: