Another tragedy and another proliferation of desperation and outrage.

Unfortunately, desperation and outrage are rarely grounds for effective solutions, and may be as likely be counterproductive.  The Brady Bill of 1993 meant to restrict and delay access only led to record gun sales and showed no significant decline in gun crimes. Even with no new legislation Obama’s flippant comment on a 500% tax on ammo sales led to record sales of ammo in advance of the tax that never came.  Just the fear of a policy of restriction leads to increased gun sales.

We have a gun problem. We also have a mental health problem, and we also have a police problem. This is a terrible mixture. Any policy that addresses only one aspect of this complicated social ill is doomed from the start. In the words of Shimon Peres, “we should not mistake a problem to be solved for a fact to be accepted”.  That does not mean we give up and accept this madness, it means we should analyze the problem carefully and seek effective solutions.

It means we should not waste time on cheap political posturing that solves nothing.  It is no time for virtue signaling; loudly expressing our outrage while making no progress.

We have a lot of guns and a lot of gun owners. Like it or not ownership is a sensitive issue, and the proliferation of arms is not going away. Most gun-owners would readily support policies to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally dangerous.  The NRA is a handy target but they do not engage in a sinister plot to put guns in the hands of irresponsible owners.; most gun-owners are not members.  The Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership and the National African American Gun Association indicates the diversity of gun owners.

We also have a mental health problem is that will not be quickly solved.  This may be from family breakdown, social isolation, the decline of mediating institutions, social media, new levels of violence experienced in video games and movies (John Wick) or some toxic mix of these factors.  We may not be any more successful at reducing these factors than we would be reducing the number of guns, but we are still faced with the results.

Lastly, we have a police problem. The poor performance of the cops in Uvalde does not engender trust, and the unwillingness of the police to protect property in the wake of the George Floyd riots only encouraged more first-time gun buyers; many who were women and inner-city minorities.

Given the three legs of this problem I suggest the following:

  1. Enforce the existing regulations against straw buyers.  Unfortunately, these are often mothers, brothers and other family members and are more sympathetic than convenient demons like ‘the gun lobby’ or the NRA.  A 10-year sentence for buying a gun for another user will discourage this common source of guns in the wrong hands.
  2. Increase sentences for gun crimes. I do not like mandatory sentences but if judges will not insist on incarceration, it can be legislated. Be forewarned this burden will fall disproportionately on minorities given the current crime data, but we must decide if we prefer criminal justice over social justice.  It is time to place concern for the victims, which are also disproportionately minorities, over concern for the perpetrators.
  3. Clarify rules and procedures for red flag reporting. Teachers and therapists should be able to report a threat without fear of repercussions. Care must be taken that this is not abused.
  4. Turn social media into an asset.

 From Holman Jenkins in The Wall Street Journal, Red Flag Laws Are As Good as the Data:

Red-flag laws, by acclamation, may be our response to the latest Texas and Buffalo shootings. But red-flag laws are only as good as the evidence that causes somebody, often police, to invoke them. Most are single-data-point laws—somebody complains for some reason. The results are bound to be mediocre, producing false positives and harassment of innocent citizens. But now punch the name into a hypothetical Google Mass Shooter Profiling Tool, scanning the subject’s recent online history, purchases and school, employment, police, medical, and travel records. A subroutine, the Google Social Stability Matrix, examines data related to the subject’s longer-term life pattern. Is he a stable, invested member of the community or adrift and unconnected?

Many data points are better than one, making the red-flag petition less of a shot in the dark and less of a menace to the law-abiding. A subject who rates a 3 might merit a welfare check, one who earns an 8 an immediate lookout-order using networked license-plate readers and face-recognition cameras. But then ask: Why wait for a red-flag petitioner to supply a name? Why not have an algorithm already looking for warning patterns that even a family member, school official or employer might not see?

  1. Research AI technology that can determine one’s state of mind from a facial photograph and deploy to gun dealers.
  2. License gun buyers. You can buy without a license but only with extensive background checks, The license just removes the inconvenience to most responsible gun owners. Perhaps the minimum age for a license other than military or police is 25 and such a license would require a thorough background check.
  3. Lack of enforcement of small crimes leads to more serious crimes. Every shop lifter may not become a school shooter, but one who has committed one offense with a weapon is more prone to commit another if allowed the opportunity.

The hard reality is that these solutions are expensive and compromise rights, but any solution that respects gun rights and  seriously intends to reduce the carnage will require compromise.  We underspend on mental health substantially even if only a small portion are physical threats.  We also underspend on police pay and training.  It is time to re-examine those priorities. These rules can sunset and require reauthorization, as we did with the Patriot Act, putting those on notice who would be tempted to abuse these rights and be overzealous.

We could ban ‘assault rifles’ and close gun show and private sale exemptions but these would have had little effect on mass shootings. If the shooter in Uvalde had a high-capacity pistol and a dozen clips he could have reaped the same results. It also would have been much easier to hide.  Rifles are a very small proportion of gun assaults.  Banning assault weapons panders to virtue signaling, but yields little results. This is also true for clip limits.

If we put these unproductive bans in place, how do we explain the next shooting? It erodes our faith in effective solutions.

Peggy Noonan notes the social change requiring a new perspective in The WSJ, In Let Not Our Hearts Grow Numb:

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said Wednesday that Texas has a long history of letting 18-year-olds have long guns. That is true. He also said cops, after the shooting, told him they’re seeing a crisis in mental health in young people. That’s true too, it’s all around them, all around all of us.

But Mr. Abbott should listen to himself more closely. It is one thing to let an 18-year-old have a rifle to shoot rattlers in 1962. It is another thing to allow an 18-year-old in the middle of a mental-health crisis to buy an AR-15, which is what the sick Uvalde shooter bought on his 18th birthday.

I would only modify her statement that the shooter with his profile should not have been able to buy any gun.

From Kevin Williamson at National Review, While We Panic about Sharks, the Bees Keep Stinging Away:

Kristof writes a great deal about guns, but very little about shooters. He might consult his own newspaper’s reporting, which has found that four out of five of the murders committed in New York City are committed by offenders with prior arrest records. In many cases, these include prior weapons offenses. The same has held true in studies of crime in other high-crime cities. Statistically, the number of homicides that are committed by means of semiautomatic rifles is negligible: All rifles together account for only about 2.5 percent of homicides. But Kristof and others like him would rather focus on the maybe 1 percent of murders that involve culturally resonant “assault style” rifles than the 83 percent that involve prior offenders.

As it turns out, crime is committed by criminals.

Though shark attacks happen, as a practical matter, we don’t have a shark problem — we have a bee problem: ordinary, undramatic social pathologies related to family breakdown, misgovernance, deficient law enforcement, an ineffective criminal-justice system, shockingly dysfunctional schools, etc. But we don’t pick the policies that are likely to prove lasting solutions — we pick the villain who suits us best politically and proceed from there.