Can’t We Do Something About School Shootings?

Published March 13, 2018

The recent tragedy at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High has sadly raised this question again.  The failure to prevent the loss of young lives reflects both an unpleasant reality and some problems of politics.

Preventing school shootings is very hard in a nation with millions of guns.  Once someone decides to do evil, they can usually get guns and pick the time and place for their act.  Law enforcement can only react, and mass shootings typically last just minutes.  If deterrence, discouragement, and intervention (if possible) fail, protecting 100,000 schools is nearly impossible.

The impossibility of preventing shootings does not justify doing nothing.  Economics emphasizes that we make choices on the margin.  Can measures prevent, or reduce the harm from, school shootings without unacceptably abridging citizens’ gun rights?

The occasional failures of agencies administering gun laws provide one component of this difficulty.  Convictions that should have prevented the perpetrator of the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting from legally purchasing weapons were never entered into a national database.  The FBI and local police did not act on threats made by Florida suspect Nikolas Cruz.  And the sheriff’s deputy assigned to Stoneman High failed to engage the shooter.

Several elements of politics make this already challenging task even harder.  One is short political attention spans, or what public choice economists call rational ignorance.  Our actions have little impact on outcomes in a large democracy: one vote almost never decides a Federal election.  So voting against our interests because of not paying attention to politics is almost costless.

Rational ignorance helps politicians appear to act decisively against societal evils like school shootings.  If some politicians claim that banning bump stocks (which allow semi-automatic rifles to fire at higher rates) will prevent mass shootings, who could object?  Clever politicians know that easy solutions have little chance of working, and that voters will not hold them accountable for ineffective policy.

Defenders of gun rights seemingly fear that even the most innocuous restrictions will contain provisions somehow restricting gun rights.  Such lack of trust may be understandable.  Laws are difficult to repeal, as Republicans have discovered with the Affordable Care Act.  This difficulty can encourage deceit and subterfuge; trick people into supporting a law they will eventually oppose and policy can be altered for years.  In markets, deceit and subterfuge typically provide only temporary benefit.  Suppose that a home security company offers an armed response against intruders, which turns out to be calling 911.  Disappointed customers will cancel their contracts, and the company’s reputation could be harmed permanently.

One final relevant element of politics is what economist Bryan Caplan has labeled rational irrationality.  Voters face few personal and direct consequences from inconsistent or incorrect beliefs, helping these beliefs persist. 

What’s the rational irrationality on gun control?  If government is for the people, citizens must have a right to reign in an overreaching government.  And because a tyrant may not surrender power if citizens ask nicely, “reigning in” must mean armed resistance.  But does gun ownership preserve freedom in the United States today, or is this just a libertarian fantasy? And even if an armed populace checked tyranny, would a waiting period necessarily undermine this check?

These are hard and troubling questions for libertarians like me.  In politics, we can join the NRA and vow no compromise.  In other contexts, gun owners might make tradeoffs.  A libertarian gun owner with young children might decide that guns locked safely away can still prevent tyranny.

Unions and management are often as skeptical of each other’s motives and intentions as the two sides on gun control.  And yet strikes are rare, because their cost provides an incentive to get past rhetoric and negotiate a mutually acceptable agreement.  Politics features few personal costs and consequently lots of bluster, deceit, and fantasy.  Should we be surprised then that we make little progress on really hard problems.