Gun Control vs. Risk Assessment

Over on the Gun Values Board, Ruth has an excellent post about the inevitable flurry of anti-gun legislative effort following the Aurora shooting.

Ruth writes:

One of the bills proposed is against the sales of ammunition online. You would need to have a license to be able to purchase ammunition online, and the dealer would be obligated to report purchases of large amounts of ammo (I think over 1000 rounds).

The architects of this bill, McCarthy and Lautenberg, think that if someone wants to purchase ammunition they should have to present a picture ID, and do it face to face.

I’d like to talk about this a bit, because it points to a flaw many people seem to share in how we think about risk assessment.

Suppose the McCarthy/Lautenberg bill passed. Then what? We’d force would be mass murderers – and a slew of law abiding citizens to travel to a physical store to buy ammo. What does Sen. Lautenberg think would happen there? Remember, the Aurora killer bought four firearms – which required him to travel to a store and show ID. Unfortunately, his driver’s license didn’t say “homicidal nutjob” on it, so the stores had no reason to deny him the sales.

It is true that showing ID and creating a record of sales might help find the next killer after the fact, though mass murderers almost always commit suicide or are apprehended, so that’s of dubious value. It might also help law enforcement notice people who buy lots of ammo – though I’d venture a guess that nearly all the people who buy lots of ammunition are law abiding citizens and not mass murderers. That being true, such a record would likely do little more than create lots of extra work for already over-burdened and under-funded police agencies.

But the real problem with this law, and the point I wanted to talk about, has to do with identity and risk assessment. When we buy a gun, we have to show ID. Boarding an airplane? Show ID. Writing a check or entering some government facilities? Show ID. Somehow knowing that people have produced identification to do something we perceive as dangerous makes us feel safer.

The trouble is, showing ID only helps if you know in advance who the dangerous people are so you can stop them when you see their ID. Given that we don’t usually find out the identities of mass murderers and terrorists until after the fact, what good does showing ID do? Their ID doesn’t say “homicidal whacko” or “bomb-toting terrorist” on it, so what does it tell us about their threat potential? All that demanding ID does is make us think we’re “doing something to prevent crime/terrorism/etc.” so we can continue our oblivious Condition White lives without having to stare too closely into the face of the monsters that roam in our midst.

So if banning the sale of ammo online isn’t the answer, and demanding ID to buy it isn’t the answer, what IS the answer? The unfortunate truth is that about the best we can do is to watch for pre-offense behavior (particularly, I think, in the mental health system), and we can train and equip the predators’ would-be victims to respond effectively to the threat of violence. We can arm and train ourselves so that, when the predator comes calling, we can take the necessary action to safeguard ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors.

To believe anything else is to CHOOSE to live in the Condition White fog of magical thinking. The truth, as you who are reading this probably all know, is that simply being “a good person”, living in “a safe neighborhood”, and blindly trusting that “the police will protect us”, is not enough to keep the monsters at bay. And while there may be things we can do to spot some of the monsters coming, such as improving the links between law enforcement and the mental health system, even those steps are not a cure-all. The monsters are out there, we definitely won’t be able to see them all coming, and our best hope – individually and collectively – is to arm as many law-abiding citizens as we can with the tools and training to respond effectively when trouble finds us.

Anything else is just self-delusion, and anyone who’s survived a violent crime knows firsthand just how dangerous self-delusion can be.

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