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The Chess Game of Gun Control

Consider a nightmarish question: Are you in danger of getting shot at school? Here at Yeshiva University? If so, can we lessen the danger?

Several months ago, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, the issue of gun control surged to the forefront of the public consciousness when a deranged teenager killed numerous schoolchildren. Whose children could be next? Blogs, news outlets, and political forums boiled over with ideas for protective policies, calls for political action, and cries to “keep our children safe.” On the table lies not the categorical right to carry firearms per se, as the Supreme Court has protected this right repeatedly, but rather the imposition of restrictive measures intended to prevent future tragic gun violence by determined, premeditative criminals. These measures, however, often clash resoundingly with other values. They would likely impose burdensome new regulations on law-abiding citizens who value both their liberty and easy access to firearms for recreation and personal defense. The ideal policy initiatives to prevent determined shooters would balance the two interests by reducing gun violence without substantively imposing on gun owners or taxpayers.

But which policies are these?

Therein lies the problem. Few of the options currently under legislative consideration would fulfill both criteria. Indeed, many of them would hinder rather than help. Why so? Partly because they reflect a fallacy that Adam Smith observed in the late 18th century, in a related context. He explained that many administrative officials, in attempts to order society, treat individuals as inanimate “chess-pieces” to be ordered about by a wise-guiding hand of rules and regulations. In reality, Smith notes, the masses of humanity behave according to their individual initiatives, where each person pursues innumerable, unknowable, and sometimes conflicting ideas and activities that, ultimately, doom much planning to failure. How does this manifest in the gun control arena? Though there are a plethora of policies under consideration, let us examine three of them: heightened security at schools, limits on magazine capacity (the number of bullets that can be fired before reloading), and stricter screening measures for gun purchases.

Legislation that requires heightened, airport-like security at schools entails metal detectors, security guards, or security cameras in order to detect would-be killers. Unfortunately, however, even as killers rarely announce their targets beforehand, instituting any meaningful form of security would come at an astronomical cost. Take a look at YU, for example. Currently, a determined killer would have little difficulty penetrating our “fortress of security.”  Yet, to make any meaningful difference in the level of security, the costs for metal detectors, cameras, and trained (not to mention armed) personnel would be prohibitive. Government grants might ease the pain, but that only shifts the financial burden onto the taxpayers. Even worse, could you imagine the hassle of being searched each time you went to Nagel Bagel? Even if the security measures would be enacted, they would drain large amounts of resources to target an incredibly rare event. As Gene Healy reports in Reason, the “Indicators of School Crime and Safety survey consistently shows that ‘a student's risk of being murdered in school was de minimis - so tiny it was effectively zero.’” Statistically, in order to be in the same school as a homicide, you would have to attend it for over a thousand years. Repeat: a thousand years. Perhaps that’s why we sleep perfectly well in our dorm rooms, where not a single person (including the guard) is armed with more than a pocketknife. We would probably still feel safe in elementary school, as well. Despite the instinctive appeal of increased security, the titanic investment would fail to reduce gun violence relative to its burden on taxpayers. The policy fails to meet either one of our two criteria.

Limits on magazine capacity, background checks for gun purchases, and increasing the cost of buying ammunition, measures currently under legislative consideration, all suffer from comparable problems. The measures attempt to restrict potential shooters’ access to firearms, either through preventing their purchase or limiting the capacity to use them. Whereas these approaches impose burdens on law-abiding citizens, however, the restrictions do not bind criminals who, unlike chess pieces, have initiative of their own. As deranged shooters by definition have decided to murder, we can imagine their cheerily dismissive attitude towards law in general. Indeed, as a 2001 Department of Justice Report shows, nearly 80% of guns used in crimes are bought illegally or acquired through a third party, such as family and friends. (For comparison, fewer than 1% of these firearms were bought from gun shows.) This indicates that, in response to burdensome fees or screenings, criminals might simply buy all the weaponry through a front man or, as in the Newtown tragedy, steal from others. No interview. No background checks. Nothing.

Alternatively, the shooter can easily use the black market, just like the market for illegal drugs, which flourishes right here in Washington Heights. There are between 200 and 300 million guns in America, which makes keeping track of even a fraction practically unfeasible. Imagine, for comparison, keeping track of all the “YU logo” pens on campus. Some will always slip past your radar, if you don’t give up from frustration first. Finally, a shooter can legally circumvent the intent of the law by simply bringing multiple weapons to the crime scene, as the Newton shooter did, overcoming the limits on magazines.

Determined shooters, while deranged, are not idiots. Even as shootings are incredibly rare, restrictions and taxes would likely not make any positive difference in school safety. Indeed, herein lie unintended consequences, as the average citizen may end up in more danger with the policies than without. Even as the chances of a school shooting in particular are miniscule, disarming more Good Samaritans does not seem like a recipe for greater safety.

What, then, can we do to reduce gun violence by determined criminals? Though outside the scope of this article, two approaches that may balance safety and costs would be eliminating gun-free zones around schools and ending the ‘War on Drugs.’ Currently, areas such as schools, universities, parks, and other public venues prohibit guns from entering their boundaries. However, as mass shooters can already access guns, and, as seen from school shootings, disregard the bans, we should consider allowing responsible adults to arm themselves on campus as well. Some critics, of course, might raise concerns over gun safety and the prevention of accidents in public areas. Though this topic could be explored in greater depth, we will merely note that the rate of accidental deaths from guns is lower than both bicycles and swimming pools. Do you own a bicycle? Do you swim? If so, then perhaps this may indicate a stance towards gun-related risk. Similarly, the ‘War on Drugs’ has claimed 50,000 lives as of 2006, with a significant number coming from gun violence. An alternative option may be to end the ‘War,’ though numerous unrelated considerations (in terms of drug policy) would need to be discussed to reach a conclusion on that matter.

Though Newtown was a horrific tragedy, many legislative responses to the shootings would either fail to accomplish their safety goals  or even lead to adverse, unintended outcomes. These proposals assume that individuals behave in predictable patterns and that, as a result, they can be regulated through strict, inflexible rules. However, as we know from our own experiences, and, in the case of gun control, from the considerations above, this rarely proves to be true. As with the case of premeditative criminals, the sly intelligence of the human mind often finds ways around the clumsy, unwieldy regulations of the Planner, which then victimize only the law-abiding citizen.