Things I can’t explain to Europeans

I’ve learned, after something happens in America, to wait a few days, first for the inaccuracies inherent in the twenty-four-hour news cycle to be spun out, then for the inaccuracies introduced by the inevitable political spin to cancel each other out, then for the inaccuracies introduced both by textual and cultural translation into the German-language media to at least settle down to a consistent-if-subtly-incorrect picture of what, exactly, it was that just happened, before I try to discuss it here in Switzerland. This is different in America, I explain, or that in the English-speaking world, we don’t have a word for whatever, Prohibition this, Puritans that, let’s not even talk about how the Second World War began in 1941, and so on.

I can’t explain this.

In simple terms of cause and effect, the tragedy in Newtown was the inevitable result of a set of interactions among situations on the ground: firearms are ubiquitous in private ownership (why?), identification and treatment of mental illness is severely deficient (how?), to the point it’s far easier for the mentally ill to get their hands on a gun than into a bed in a mental health clinic or hospital (ähm, what?). Add to this the perverse incentive that the swarm of media coverage virtually guarantees you’ll be the most famous person in the country for a week, and mass murder starts to look like an attractive option, if the twisted logic of your disease puts you in the market for going down in a blaze of evil glory.

The natural human reaction to such events is to ensure it never happens again, or at least to try to. Here’s where my powers of explanation fail me.

“Certainly this will lead to a gun ban.”


“But Britain and Australia banned guns after the same thing. Australians are basically Americans, right?”

Not really, and doesn’t matter.

Philosophically, one of my core beliefs is that tools can’t be evil, only people can; therefore, the right to the manufacture or possession of any tool or technology should be guaranteed within reason unless there is a compelling social interest in restriction due to external dangers inherent to that tool or technology. This puts me pretty firmly in the independent-clause Second Amendment camp1: my problem with it is that it only applies to weapons and not to everything.

One of the only things I believe more firmly than this is that policies have consequences, and should be evaluated and enacted based upon the expected and/or measured results thereof. Here is where the rubber meets the road in the weapons control debate I hold a few shreds of hope that America might finally start having.

We’ve been here before. After Columbine, America looked at the combination of ubiquitous weapons, untreated mental illness, and schools, and decided that schools were the problem: we continued locking down our schools, building fortresses out of them. I’m not sure how locked down Sandy Hook was, but I presume moreso than fifteen years ago, and whatever fortress-building they did do would not seem to have been particularly effective.

I guess the response went a little in the direction of mental illness with the idiocy that was and is zero-tolerance, threatening serious time in a grown-up jail for kids who draw exactly the same pictures of stuff blowing up in the margins of their notebooks that I did back in school. This is would seem to be more about making sure you’re not liable when it turns out the angry kid in the back of the class is really, truly disturbed and in need of serious help — and not just fifteen and deeply awkward as fifteen-year-olds are wont to be — than it is about actual safety.

The math2 works like this: let p(w) be the probability that a given individual is in possession of massacre-capable weaponry, let p(x) be the probability that a given individual is sufficiently uninhibited (due most probably to a mental illness) to be capable of a massacre, and let p(z) be the probability that a given individual has access to a school. Ignoring dependencies, the probability of a Newtown is p(w) * p(x) * p(z).

If we take as given that preventing another Newtown is a policy aim, there is a trivial solution: set p(z) to zero. This is the post-Columbine fortress approach: “Close all the schools, there will be no more school shootings.” While this argument has actually been made by fringe advocates of homeschooling, I don’t think we can really take it seriously if we want to have a coherent society.

It would be great if we could put serious effort into reducing p(x), because untreated mental illness has social costs well above and beyond those of Newtown, Aurora, and Tucson. However, America is still a generation or two away at the least from comprehensive, means-independent, explicitly socially guaranteed medical care.

The preferred European solution, the one that everyone here seems to see as self-evident, is to set p(w) to zero or very close to it: if nobody has guns then there is no gun violence. Even Switzerland, which once bristled with army reserve assault rifles and to some extent still does, is taking guns out of reservists' homes following a 2007 incident wherein a recruit shot a sixteen year old girl at a Zürich bus stop.

That isn’t to say there’s no violence: people get beaten and knifed here not-infrequently. But the massive difference in scale between blades and guns is a question that is considered well-settled by military historians. Killing once with a knife is difficult. Killing twenty-six times with a knife is not unthinkable but requires significant skill and luck.

Given the political strength of the weapons and ammunition manufacturers and their proxy lobbying organizations, backed up by a… I don’t even know what it is, a myth America has about its revolutionary self, a myth about its conquering of an unspoiled frontier, a red-blooded machismo that masks a deep-seated fear that someone will take everything you have if you cannot defend yourself, a history of pitched battles fought in our towns, from Stono to the Alamo, from Haymarket to Homestead, from Watts to Katrina… well, let’s just say, I’m not optimistic that you can separate America from its guns without a few generations of change.

In a different political climate, one in which anything that looks like government wasn’t automatically suspect3, it might be possible to reduce p(w|x) enough to have an impact. This is roughly “guns for everyone except those disturbed enough to be likely to use them for evil”. On the other hand, given how many people get convicted of having guns they’re not supposed to — I saw so many of these on a grand jury stint in Pittsburgh that I still have the relevant section memorized: 18 USC 922(g)(1) — this is not likely to be effective without significantly reducing p(w) as well: if guns are everywhere, they’ll be easy to get even if they’re controlled.

There seems to me to be enormous practical room for the restriction of firearms ownership, and a drastic reduction of the number of firearms in circulation, without impacting the fundamental freedoms of responsible hunters, sportsmen, and yes, straight-up I-like-to-see-stuff-go-boom gun enthusiasts. Three possible practical control measures right off the top of my head: (1) security clearances for firearm owners, (2) periodic proficiency-based licensing for each firearm, (3) periodic per-firearm taxation, to reduce stockpiling of weapons that aren’t actively used for sport or practice. I doubt these are politically feasible.

So I don’t have any real ideas, I don’t have any real explanation. And then we come to the reaction. I know I should’t pay attention to anything I read in the American news, but I get questions.

“Did some guy actually blame the massacre on not enough God in public?”

Yeah, and that guy was a semi-serious contender for President for a while this year. But didn’t Mörgeli just get caught comparing homosexuals to housepets? So I think this might just be yet another case of politicians saying stupid shit.

“Did some other guy say the solution was more guns in schools?”

Almost certainly. There’s so many of those guys, though, that I don’t even know which one you’re talking about.

It’s hard to take the murder of twenty children as anything other than completely senseless. I feel for the families shattered by the massacre, and grieve for the lives barely lived. But I hope, yet, that something good could come from a conversation in the aftermath about what kind of society America really wants to be.

1: I actually believe the dependent-clause interpretation was the intended one: we needed guns because we needed militias as we didn’t have the money for an army. However, I’m not a Supreme Court justice, so at this point my opinion on the matter is moot.

2: With profuse apologies to my mathematician readers.

3: Thank you, Grover Norquist.

Brian Trammell
Brian Trammell
Scientist, Synthesist, Cyclist, SRE