As Congress returns to gun bills....
And the president speaks gospel truth in Chicago....
The sad truth may well be: rarely....
The horrific murder rampage of a renegade LA cop--wily, coldly determined, trained to commit mayhem & evade capture--is perhaps an extreme example. But others less well-trained can be just as determined, and do great damage. Such killers will not have trouble circumventing even the strictest gun laws--which grow increasingly problematic due to the emerging application of 3D printing technology. And they may be able to evade early detection too.
Megan McArdle's absorbing interview with mass-killing expert James Alan Fox punctures many common misconceptions.
James Alan Fox: Mass murderers are extraordinarily ordinary.
Most mass killers kill people they know, with a clear-cut motive. They typically plan their crimes in advance, often weeks or months in advance. They are calm, deliberate and determined to get justice for what they perceive to be unfair treatment.
The idea that they suddenly snap actually makes little sense. They snap and just so happen to have 2 AK-47's and 2000 rounds of ammunition around for just such an occasion? Hardly.
Megan: We can see the evidence of planning, but how do we know their motive? Do they typically leave behind an explanation?
James Alan Fox: Yes, they often do leave behind an explanation, or articulate it if they survive. Or they make it clear while they are doing their shooting.
As for preventive remedies, the picture is bleak:
Megan: So you have been saying that many of the most popular remedies for mass shootings won't work. They aren't all identifiably crazy before the shooting, so mental health screenings for gun buyers won't stop them. Neither will waiting periods, because they're long-term planners. And restricting certain scary guns (an "assault weapons ban") won't have much effect, because they'll just pick another gun.
Which leaves the question: is there anything that would work?
James Alan Fox: Let me say, first, that expanding mental health services would be a good thing, even though it would have little effect on mass murder, because these guys typically see the problem in someone else, certainly not themselves.
Also, certain sensible gun policy changes would take a bit out of ordinary crime, but at most a nibble out of mass murder.
These are very determined and deliberate people who will almost always persevere no matter what impediments we place in their way.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. We will probably enhance the well-being of countless Americans in the process. So mass shootings may motivate us to take important steps: they are the right things to do, but we’re not so much doing them for the right reason.
We have seen a tremendous eclipse of community. People no longer know their neighbors, much less are aware of when they may lose their job or are kicked out of school. The best thing we can do is be proactive in intervening in the lives of those around us who are in need of support. We need to assist people who are troubled before they make trouble.
Fox then summarizes why it will be very hard to identify potential mass killers in advance, and stop them:
I'm often asked if there is a profile of the mass murderer. Well, there is. Typically a white male who has a history of frustration and failure, who is socially isolated and lacking support systems, who externalizes blame onto others, who suffers some loss or disappointment perceived to be catastrophic, and has access to a powerful enough weapon (usually, but not necessarily a gun).
The follow-up question I usually get is whether we can therefore identify mass murderers in advance, and the answer is a resounding "no."
Although there is a profile, thousands of citizens fit the profile yet will never hurt anyone, much less kill a crowd of people.
"And what about the warning signs?" people ask. Well there are warning signs, but they don't come into focus until after the fact when hindsight is 20/20. There are "yellow flags" that only turn into red ones once the blood has spilled.
Part of the reason for lack of predictability is the rarity of mass murder. Rare events simple [sic] cannot be predicted in a reliable fashion. For example, plane crashes typically happen in bad weather, but bad weather is not a reliable predictor of a plane crash.
The danger in trying to round up all those who might have the potential for mass murder is that it could even intensify their sense of persecution and precipitate the very act we are trying to prevent. We should intervene when needed, but not in a way seen as punitive.
So there are things we should do: sensible gun policies, expanded mental health services, proactively reaching out to those who need our support, changing the tone of media coverage to avoid playing up the perpetrator as someone worthy of attention. However, when people say we need to do X, Y, or Z to ensure that something like Sandy Hook will never happen again, well, they should prepare to be bitterly disappointed.
Unfortunately, mass shootings will occur even if we take these steps. We cannot eliminate the risk; the best we can do is reduce it a bit.
So we learn, if Fox is right, that most of the noise being made about what to do is likely to make very little difference.
The missing link may be our trashy culture, with atomized individuals isolated from traditional,s table community, pumped into our social consciousness by a hyper-amplified, omnipresent mass media--TV, films, Internet social media. Societal remedies for many of these ills are a massive, long-term, precarious project. Which means that mass murder events will be with us for a long time.
Misinformation abounds about murder rates too. Chicago this January had a higher murder total than that for January 1929, when Al Capone ruled the Windy City: 42 in 2013, versus 26 in 1929. Nor does population change account for this: Chicago's population is now 2.7 million, versus 3.4 million in 1930.
Yet there are no mass media reports of Chicago under a heavier murder siege than in the halcyon days of the legendary crime lord of the Roaring Twenties. Were that the case, perhaps politicians would focus on the handgun violence responsible for most Chicago deaths. Oh, and there were hardly any gun laws then--it was not until 1934 that automatic weapons were outlawed--sub-machine guns were notorious weapons used by mob killers. With guns, correlation is a tricky business indeed, and causation even trickier. Yet even here the odds are extremely long, due to a deeply-entrenched gang culture that frustrates law enforcement.
Bottom Line. Quick fixes make for good news coverage, and serve the interests of promise-happy pols seeking to reassure voters. But they will fix very little, if any, of the problem, on the fair odds.
Letter from the Capitol, LFTC, Conservative Politics