Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Everyone wants to live at the expense of the state. They forget that the state wants to live at the expense of everyone.”     Frederick Bastiat

July 25, 2012

Random Acts of Violence Can Be Mitigated But Not Prevented

by Stephen Littau

In the aftermath of the senseless killing that occurred last Friday in Aurora, CO at the premier of the latest Batman movie, the question on most people’s mind is how this kind of violence can be prevented. What is the appropriate public policy that will prevent something like this horrible event from ever happening again?

Unsurprisingly, those who favor stricter gun control laws and those who favor less have come to very different conclusions. If the shooter had to jump through additional legal hoops to acquire the guns, the ammunition, the body armor, didn’t have the ability to purchase high capacity clips (because they were outlawed), etc., would this have certainly prevented this tragedy? If the movie theater didn’t have the “gun free zone” policy and one or more of the movie patrons with a CCW and a hand gun to return fire, would this have certainly prevented this tragedy?

In a word the answer is no to either approach.

Others blame the “coarsening of our culture” due in part to violent movies, video games, music, etc. The pervasiveness of pretend violence inspires real life violence, some might argue. If the entertainment industry toned down or eliminated violence in their respective art forms (whether voluntarily or by government censorship), would this have certainly prevented this tragedy?

Again, the answer is no.

There is no public policy nor security approach that will certainly prevent another random act of violence such as this. When you think about it, the question is quite absurd. The question should not be whether these acts of violence can always be prevented but whether they can be mitigated or reduced.

Is it possible that with additional gun control laws, this individual wouldn’t have been able to perpetrate this evil? While I oppose additional gun control laws, I have to concede that it is possible that if obtaining these weapons were more difficult, that this wouldn’t have happened. By regulating the type of firearms and ammunition the average person can purchase, certain criminals would be otherwise prevented from using a firearm in an unprovoked, violent fashion. But as the NRA likes to point out, criminals by definition don’t care about the law (the Aurora shooter didn’t change his mind when he walked by the “gun free zone” sign that would have notified him about the theater’s policy). Those who are determined to commit crimes with guns will acquire them through the black market. Would the killer in this instance gone through the trouble to seek out these weapons on the black market? Probably, but it’s impossible to know for sure.

While I agree with John Lott Jr.’s arguments he outlines in his book More Guns, Less Crime* and can be found making his case at various media outlets, I think it’s a bridge too far for some of my fellow travelers who support the right to bear arms to say that a single person with a gun in the theater would have prevented 12 people from being murdered and dozens more from being injured. The truth is, we cannot know for sure because there are too many variables. It’s entirely possible that a CCW holder who was properly trained might have reduced the body count and the injuries. I certainly think the odds are that more people would have survived, but given the circumstances of this event, I doubt seriously that the whole tragedy would have been averted.

So if random acts of violence cannot be prevented regardless of the security measures or public policy reforms, the question necessarily becomes: just how much risk of being a victim of a random violent act are we willing to tolerate and at what cost**?

With all the murders and scary things reported in the news, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that our culture is more violent than ever. The thing is though, it’s just not true. With the news of a mass shooting occurring on school campuses, at the grocery store in Tucson, and the latest shooting at the theater in Aurora, it might seem that there is a lunatic with a gun around every corner ready to do carnage. You may be surprised to learn then, that every school campus is due to be the place of an on campus murder…once every 12,000 years.

You may be even further surprised to learn that our world as a whole is a much less violent place than any time in the history of humanity. According to research by Harvard’s Steven Pinker, the 20th century was less violent than the previous centuries even considering all the death and destruction from the world wars, the cold war, Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Mao’s China.

You are less likely to die a violent death today than at any other time in human history. In fact, violence has been on a steady decline for centuries now. That’s the arresting claim made by Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Just a couple of centuries ago, violence was pervasive. Slavery was widespread; wife and child beating an acceptable practice; heretics and witches burned at the stake; pogroms and race riots common, and warfare nearly constant. Public hangings, bear-baiting, and even cat burning were popular forms of entertainment. By examining collections of ancient skeletons and scrutinizing current day tribal societies, anthropologists have found that people were nine times more likely to be killed in tribal warfare than to die of war and genocide in even the war-torn 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was 30 times higher than today.

So despite the “lax gun laws” and despite the “coarsening of our culture,” somehow we are less likely to be a victim of a violent act than at any time in history if we are to believe Steven Pinker. Of course, I realize that this probably isn’t much comfort to those who have been victims of these violent acts. We must remember, however; that if we succumb to fear that follows these horrific acts, we risk surrendering our privacy and our liberty*** for very little net benefit. We must recognize that there will always be those who want to harm his fellow man. Be alert, be vigilant, but under no circumstances allow yourself to live in fear.


*Notice the title says “less” crime not “no” crime.

** Everything has a cost to consider. How much money are we willing to spend to reduce the risk, how much of our privacy/civil liberties are we willing to surrender, among others.

***As recent history has taught us with the Patriot Act as a response to 9/11.

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2 Comments

  1. People claim that Americans are desensitized to human suffering because of the widespread viewing of movies, TV shows, cartoons, and video games that feature killings and maimings. I contend that such desensitization is minimal because the violence is at two removes: distance (the violence is viewed on a screen) and reality (the victims are actors or cartoon or computer characters).

    It was common for people in early America to turn public punishments and killings into entertainment spectacles. They watched beatings and floggings, tormented people in stocks, and were thrilled by hangings. People in other nations not only watched public punishments and killings, they participated in stonings. I contend that those cultures were much more desensitized to violence than American today.

    Comment by MingoV — July 25, 2012 @ 3:11 pm
  2. IMO, If even one person there had a CCW, I bet there would have been at least one less murder. At the very minimum, the gunman would have been distracted with the gunfight while more people escaped. At the maximum, he would have been incapacitated and/or hopefully eliminated.

    I’m not a gun-nut, either. In fact, I’m almost the contrary. I believe that firearm’s should be limited to a reasonable amount per registered owner. (Even if that’s 10 per) however, CCWs should be rewarded more often to those that are proven responsible of having them. Otherwise, only the bad guys have firearms and carry them illegally while the law-obiders are screwed. [Q.E.D.]

    Comment by Nevery — August 3, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

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