It’s not about guns, and Tucson is not why hateful speech is bad

The “Second Amendment remedy” discourse of the last few years is a near-monopoly of the far right, “crosshairs map” and all.  And  Arizona does have extremely permissive firearms laws, and it’s full of people who really, really, want to be able to play with guns and take them everywhere.  I would love to hang the Tucson massacre on both, the first because the hate/revolution/kill speech is deeply execrable per se and the second because like everyone, I really want there to be a legislative fix for crime and killing.  Unfortunately, neither dog will hunt and they both distract us from the real work.

Here are some thought experiments.
I. A lunatic has reached the stage of fear and paranoia that he wants to kill someone, or some people.  What is the probability that he will find something somebody said that he can take that way?  That after the fact, it can be shown that he read or heard something that could be interpreted as instructions to do it, or that the crime can be portrayed as having similarities to something someone somewhere publicly advocated in a figure of speech or literally? Can any imaginable policy change these much?
II. A public figure, or many public figures, use violent imagery.  What is the probability that, in a world with plenty of crazy, desperate, resentful people and fairly easy access to weapons, fertilizer and diesel oil, vehicles to drive into a crowd, gasoline, and the like, some nut will act out?
How does the probability of an attack change with 10%, 50%, or even 90% less violent public talk?
III. If public discourse matters, we need to think about what proportion of all the input assassins receive is sermons, Ann Landers columns, speeches, and whatnot urging good behavior and being nice to people, or just talking about issues without alluding to any mayhem.  If that went from 98% to 99%, would it make much difference?

The smirking, bloody-shirt language of the far right is despicable, but not despicable because it causes literal mayhem (which is extremely rare), and trying to nail it for that moves the effort to excuse or justify it to the wrong place.  It is despicable because it is intrinsically coarse, crude, heartless, and inhumane, and the people who do it would be contemptible with or without Jared Loughner.  It makes us dumb and angry instead of smart and thoughtful.  Its important consequences for life and limb are many more than the victims of a political or ideological assassin; it’s all the death and suffering caused by vicious policy that denies poor people effective policing and sick people effective medical care and all the rest of it.  There’s blood in the streets because one of our great parties has enshrined its worst self and abased itself before the likes of Limbaugh, but the blood at the Tucson Safeway is the least of it. Accusing Palin and Angle of being the cause of Loughner allows them to defend themselves by a cloud of “I didn’t mean that’s!” and “You can’t prove he did it because of us’s!”.  But they are just as despicable with or without Tucson, and should be attacked for their real evil.

What does make the Tucson event important in this context is not that violence in political talk causes stuff like it, or makes it more likely; it’s that it’s a salient, memorable, horrifying example of what that talk is frivolously using to make cheap points.  Every lout trying to put on the fake toughness of a bully surrounded by a retinue with this kind of imagery can now be called on it with the reality of Tucson: “Is this, or is this not, what you are asking for when you talk like that? and if not, what can you possibly mean, and what kind of person are you to talk that way?”

[UPDATE: Harold Meyerson sheds light in a similar vein here]

As to guns, I take the view of Mark K because he has studied these things and understands them. Arizona’s gun laws are almost exactly the same as those of Vermont, that savage, violent Wild East killing ground. Having more or fewer guns in the hands of the people who will have more or fewer with lax gun laws doesn’t lead to a lot more or less killing with guns. Some more, because a privately owned handgun is most likely to kill a member of its proprietor’s family, but not a lot. There may be some leeway at the margin about large-capacity clips, but even there, it would have been pretty easy for Loughner to have had two weapons instead of one, like the Virginia Tech killer of 32.  Or to have thrown a stick of dynamite, or a bucket of battery acid. Or to have made himself into a suicide bomber; there’s no indication he expected to get away afterwards.
At the same time, we need not be distracted by the completely loony idea that more guns everywhere will make less gun crime.    It’s instructive that even Arizona’s armed citizenry did not make the slightest difference in the body count; in fact, the only other  person on the scene with a gun in his hand didn’t use it, but he did almost kill the citizen who had disarmed Loughner.

If you feel better imagining that you will draw your weapon in time to make a difference when the shooting starts, and you’re sure you won’t blow away the other guy who had the same idea taking him for the perp, you are deluded, but probably not very harmfully.  I admit I am a little afraid that a bar or restaurant will turn into a general shambles sooner or later.  (The idea that a Glock in everyone’s pocket, or even an AR-15 in every coat closet, is what will make us safe against the US government should it choose to oppress us by force is also a delusion. But  for anyone who has seen on TV what five minutes of attention from an Apache can do, never mind an aircraft carrier, it just doesn’t bear discussion by the reality-anchored.)  Less killing by guns or anything else is not available to us by a quick-fix law either way; it requires seeking peace and civility the hard way, changing society in many ways, in small steady steps, at retail, with actual heavy lifting by everybody.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

52 thoughts on “It’s not about guns, and Tucson is not why hateful speech is bad”

  1. Three states have had concealed carry for quite some time. A number of states have instituted it in recent years. How many cases has there been with carriers having a shootout?

    The carrier in Tucson did better than police have been known to do when arriving on the scene and not knowing who the players are. A number of 911 callers have been shot by police responding to their calls.

  2. The carrier in Tucson didn't draw his weapon precisely because he said he was afraid of being mistaken as a 2nd gunman. He also admitted that he nearly shot the man who subdued the killer because the man was holding the gun. I think the carrier was a fairly alert individual and we were lucky. It seems to me that adding more guns to the scene would only increase the probability that a less alert dufus will be present. And then all bets are off.

    How many cases? I honestly don't know. Doesn't matter. The killer was subdued without extra guns. The carrier's gun only helped him psychologically. But his "help" was entirely unwarranted and he was a hair-trigger from making things worse. Again we lucked out. From a risk management perspective, fewer guns in a chaotic scene makes us safer.

    That the guy in Tucson did better than some police somewhere is a red herring.

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