Megan McArdle makes some good points…then almost ruins it

Megan McArdle

I’ll be honest - I haven’t read much of the “analysis” of the Newtown shooting because, frankly, it’s almost entirely useless.  People on both sides of the political spectrum have used it to make their own points without any regard to whether said points fit the facts.  We have liberals making the case for gun control, ignoring the fact that the killer stole guns legally purchased and in fact was stopped from buying a gun by strict Connecticut gun laws.  And we have conservatives making the absurd argument that schools should be militarized with armed guards - even teachers packing heat.  Neither of these ideas is helpful in the least.  Meanwhile, I’ve spent the few words I’ve uttered on the subject trying to combat these two opposing extremes, lacking the knowledge or boldness (one could say arrogance) to say much of my own.

So far, the only piece I’ve seen that even attempts to make my own feelings clear was written by Megan McArdle at The Daily Beast.  The problem with the post is that Megan, after starting off with some good points, then veers off course and takes a leap into what I will charitably call “unconventional ideas”.  But before making that detour, I found myself agreeing with much of what she was saying - simply that all the obvious “solutions” are not solutions at all, and that we need to be realistic about what we can do to prevent events like the shooting.  Megan notes:

What Lanza shows us is the limits of the obvious policy responses.  He had all the mental health resources he needed—and he did it anyway.  The law stopped him from buying a gun—and he did it anyway.  The school had an intercom system aimed at stopping unauthorized entryand he did it anyway.  Any practical, easy-to-implement solution to school shootings that you could propose, along with several that were not at all easy to implement, was already in place.  Somehow, Lanza blew through them all.

And she’s right.  Sometimes, despite our best efforts to stop catastrophes, they still happen.  Such is part of life, and something our policymakers need to be reminded of more often - there isn’t always a law we can pass or a policy we can implement.  The urge to “do something” is often a recipe for disaster.

McArdle then goes on to take out, one by one, the possible solutions proposed by both gun control advocates and those who favor other actions like limiting the press or making it easier to commit the mentally ill involuntarily.  Each off these moves has severe limitations, and, in many cases, very strong reasons why they would be unconstitutional, or at least pose major challenges to personal liberty.  I for one do not want a situation in which people can be locked up for simply being “strange” or “anti-social.”  Nor do I want the press to be restricted in what they can say.

After spending a few paragraphs explaining why a total gun ban is not going to happen, Megan finally reaches the point that myself and many others are at - that we really can’t do that much.  We can make small changes in the laws, but at some point we need to be humble and realize we cannot predict the future or stop a madman who is truly determined.  She writes:

It would certainly be more comfortable for me to endorse doing something symbolic—bring back the “assault weapons ban”—in order to signal that I care.  But I would rather do nothing than do something stupid because it makes us feel better.  We shouldn’t have laws on the books unless we think there’s a good chance they’ll work: they add regulatory complexity and sap law-enforcement resources from more needed tasks.  This is not because I don’t care about dead children; my heart, like yours, broke about a thousand times this weekend.  But they will not breathe again because we pass a law.  A law would make us feel better, because it would make us feel as if we’d “done something”, as if we’d made it less likely that more children would die.  But I think that would be false security. And false security is more dangerous than none.

And that’s exactly the point we should be making.  No law is better than bad law.  Bad laws have unintended consequences that very often outweigh any marginal benefit.  And in this case, they would be so purely symbolic as to be meaningless.  Now, you’d think that this would be the end of the piece.  But does anyone ever write something where the conclusion is “I don’t know” or “I don’t have an answer”?  Not often.  So Megan then decides to try her hand at a solution and, well, pretty much goes off the deep end:

My guess is that we’re going to get a law anyway, and my hope is that it will consist of small measures that might have some tiny actual effect, like restrictions on magazine capacity.  I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.  Would it work?  Would people do it?  I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.

Um… how about no?  She may be right, that 8-12 people rushing a shooter might be enough to bring him down.  But I’m not sure if she’s ever seen a video of how people react when someone starts firing.  They run, and understandably so - the urge to self-preservation is one of the strongest things we experience.  It’s simply not human nature to do the opposite.  As Jonathan Chait notes in his response at New York Magazine:

McArdle does allow that such behavior runs contrary to instinct. Well, yes. Teaching even fairly aggressive young boys who are learning football to avoid their self-preservation instinct and crash into their opponent full speed rather than shying away from contact usually takes rigorous, lengthy training. This is when they’re wearing a helmet and full-body padding and going up against a kid their age. Trying to get them to fling their bodies into danger in a situation where they’re in shock, have no protection, and are facing an adult with a gun rather than a kid with a football is beyond impossible.

Exactly.  And this is where McArdle just about ruins anything she accomplished with her other points.  At the root of any good policy is an understanding of human nature.  The free market works as well as it does because it harnesses this fact.  McArdle’s argument is being called libertarianism taken to an extreme, but I think it’s anything but that.  Libertarians believe that people should take care of themselves, but we’re also aware that human nature is what it is.  You can’t make an average person run *towards* a shooter and it’s a crazy idea to suggest that as a policy.

Bad suggestions aside, the primary message of the piece remains sound - there are no satisfying answers to something like Newtown, and there are no laws that we can pass that will really prevent such things from happening.  It’s our natural instinct to think otherwise - that “something must be done”.  It’s scary to accept that there may be horrible events we cannot have any reasonable hope of preventing without making severe sacrifices.  It’s unfortunate that this point is overshadowed by the final paragraphs, because it’s something that needs to be said.  Sometimes, evil happens and we can’t do anything about it.

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