Friday, April 20, 2007

Can Mass Murderers be Stopped?


But NOT by these methods:

1. Gun control. Anyone who is risking life imprisonment, the death penalty -- or ending it all with suicide -- will probably not be deterred by the penalties of gun control legislation. As with drugs, guns will always be easy for criminals to obtain.

2. Better defenses; e.g., metal detectors, communications, etc. The most effectively fortified building will only shift the murderer's location to another venue, and for every potential victim who runs to safety, another (who was outran) will be killed. By analogy, a well-guarded home will not stop burglaries; at most, it will shift the burglaries to less-guarded homes.

3. Postmortem candlelight vigils.

Someone who is really determined to kill other people will find a way, and therefore must be "neutralized" beforehand in order to be stopped.

An objection to this sort of "neutralization" (i.e., jailed, killed, or physically incapacitated) is that it requires that punishment precede the execution of the crime. Whether or not this is a sound principal, such laws are enforced all the time -- from the seemingly useful laws against drunk drivers who haven't run over anyone yet -- to the seemingly useless drug prohibition laws. So, the question is: Under what conditions can potential murderers be stopped before they kill people?

It comes down to balancing the two types of error:

1. Mistakenly killing someone who fits the mass-murderer "profile" who in fact would not have done so.

2. Mistakenly NOT killing someone before they murder many people.

Criminal laws are designed to absolutely prevent Type (1) error, which results in the occasional occurrence of Type (2) errors. There's no good way of determining whether this approach lowers the "body count" (we have no idea how many innocent people would be killed by the government's preventive neutralization schemes) -- and besides, many people on principal would not want their governments to have the power to make such decisions.

[There is a big exception to this: The military, in war, will give much less benefit of the doubt to the enemy, and therefore kills first -- even at the expense of innocent civilians ("collateral damage"), and their own members ("friendly fire").]

A compromise solution is an armed citizenry that can restrain (or preferably, "neutralize") the murderer after the murders (or the immediate threats of murder) begin. An objection to this is that if, say, every college student had a gun, then there would be an increase in deaths -- presumably in the spontaneous "manslaughter" category. This seems like it should be of little concern, though, for two reasons:

1. Gun ownership could still be restricted to those who demonstrate firearms competence; people who cannot be trusted with weapons would be denied a permit. (Yes, criminals would have guns anyway. But this would at least keep guns away from incompetent law-abiding people.)

2. You don't need a gun to kill someone. A bat, a pipe, or even a pen will do. For that matter, a big person can kill a small person without any weapons. Has this been a problem on college campuses and office parks? The most weaponized institutions next to police stations are hospitals and doctor's offices; poison away, if you are a psychopath so inclined. But has this been a problem? Then why would armed teachers, or office managers, or college students, present a problem?

Reason #2, though, is a bit troublesome. This is because there is a weapon that is more deadly than any gun, easier to aim, easier to operate, perfectly legal, and ubiquitous: The automobile. Almost everyone "carries" an automobile. Is it used for murder? Rarely. Is it used in manslaughter? That depends on your perspective (absolute deaths vs. the percentage of the population), but it is certainly not zero. However, we feel that the benefits of automobiles are worth the costs.

Back to guns: Manslaughters would probably increase by a negligible amount with widespread gun ownership, but (the rare) mass murders would decline. But another benefit of widespread gun ownership would be a decline in burglaries and everyday muggings.

It all comes down to A) The comparative body counts, B) Which, on an emotional level, scares you more: Premeditated murders, burglaries, & muggings, or the negligence and impulsiveness of manslaughter, and C) Do the ends of less violence justify the means of obtaining it?

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