A possible action to take on mass shootings, and the importance of letting cooler heads prevail

popular_science_brain_scansWhenever there is a mass murder in this country where firearms were used, many politicians will inevitably take to social media to offer “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their community, and many other Americans will just as inevitably criticize them for offering something so useless in the effort to prevent another such mass murder. Thoughts and prayers, everyone can agree, aren’t going to stop the next mass shooter, so what will?

They also balk at the suggestion that it’s the time to mourn, not to start debating over the best method to prevent further attacks. These shootings seem be occurring with greater and greater frequency, so if it becomes verboten to discuss solutions too soon after the shootings, will there be any time when they can be discussed?

It’s understandable that people would be clamoring for ways to stop shooting sprees soon after one occurs, as was the case after the slaughter of elementary school students in my home state of Connecticut and the recent shooting in Florida. If there’s anything that humans are biologically programmed never to take in stride, it’s the deaths of human children. When over a dozen of them are slain at a time, we react with mental anguish, and from that an overpowering desire never to have to experience such anguish again.

But is a time when emotions are boiling over really an ideal climate for reasoned political debate? After senseless death occurs, people overflow with empathy towards the victims and their families. And one thing about empathy to remember is that it cannot be exercised simultaneously with logic.

Does a time when empathy is at its high point really sound like the best time to make decisions on public policy?

If we are to assume that these shooting sprees can be prevented, let’s assess the situation rationally. When many people look over the recent shootings, they notice a common thread: The majority of them were committed using a specific design of gun, the AR-15 assault rifle. Therefore, if the shooters were unable to acquire this AR-15, they would be unable to commit the murders. Therefore, if the AR-15 became illegal to sell or purchase, mass shootings would significantly decrease.

It seems so simple. So obvious. Or at least it does in the heat of the moment, when one is reeling from a mass killing and is desperate for some way to stop them from happening. But perhaps it’s worth the time to assess things further.

What motivates the average spree killer? It’s impossible to give a definitive answer, but it seems as though their goal is to kill as many people as possible. Perhaps it’s to seek fame by any means necessary. Perhaps it’s extreme misanthropy. But whatever the underlying motivation, the fact remains that their immediate objective is to maximize casualties.

Thus the prevalence of AR-15 rifles in these shootings. The AR-15 is the most powerful type of gun that can be legally acquired by civilians in the United States, so of course those preparing for a mass shooting would be drawn to it. Does this mean they would be deterred from committing a shooting if they couldn’t access an AR-15? Of course not. They’d just purchase whatever took its place as the most powerful type of gun. (If one had a dim view of Americans’ capacity to learn from their mistakes, he’d presume there would be a push to criminalize that gun, continuing the cycle.)

Furthermore, the habit of ensuring their gun is procured through legal means might be the MO of a spree killer, but not the overwhelming majority of those who purchase guns with the intent to cause harm with them. If someone wants to commit a mass murder in a twisted bid to make a name for himself, he will want to stick to legal channels when preparing for it, lest he attract the attention of law enforcement before he can commit it. Most criminals, however, have no compunction in breaking laws to acquire guns to be used to break other laws. Making guns illegal would have no impact on those already committed to illegal activity.

So if passing laws to make guns illegal won’t discourage mass shooters, what will? Let’s take another look at their apparent goal: To kill as many people as possible. And what tends to stop mass shooters from continuing to kill people indefinitely? Being confronted by someone else who is also armed.

This explains why mass shooters are drawn to places such as schools: They are crowded areas, full of targets, but where nobody is usually allowed to carry a gun. With no substantial means to defend themselves, the victims have no choice but to run to the nearest room and lock the doors until someone else with a gun arrives on the site.

But what if guns were allowed on the premises in the first place? What if there were a number of firearms throughout the building, that if need be could be accessed by adults who were trained in how to use them? What if this was well-known?

Would such a building still attract a mass shooter? Given that the number of likely fatalities would presumably be significantly diminished in such an attempt, it wouldn’t be nearly as tempting a target.

So that’s the solution that is reached when logic is employed rather than emotions. You may scoff at such an idea, but open-mindedness toward concepts that seem illogical at first blush is the responsibility of those who aim to set policy. And the possibility of an unorthodox solution to be the most (or only) viable one is why it’s necessary to wait until one’s empathy has ebbed and logic can take over.