After the shooting in Colorado this past summer, Roderick Long had an important insight, which applies equally to the Connecticut shooting.
Whenever there’s a violent tragedy, someone immediately starts using it as an excuse to restrict civil liberties. Many on the left understand this when it comes to the Patriot Act, but not when it comes to gun control. (Conservatives have selective blindness in the opposite direction.). . . .
In consequentialist terms, gun control is a perfect example of the broken window fallacy. Deaths caused by gun use are seen, because they happen. Deaths prevented by gun use are not seen, because they don’t happen. (By “gun use” I mean not just firings but also mere brandishings.) First, preventions are underreported (since few are eager to be victimised twice—first by a freelance attacker and second by the cops), and second, when they are reported, they’re not exciting enough to get much publicity.
If anything, I think Long understates his point. Deaths prevented by guns are not only underreported and unexciting. Gun ownership also deters people from even trying to commit crimes in the first place: it is much riskier to go on a shooting spree when you know that potential victims might be armed than it is to shoot up a “gun free school zone.” So when a would-be killer decides to stay home instead of shooting people, that is a murder averted through gun ownership.
But the arguments for and against gun control have all been heard before. The present debate will probably not be won or lost by which side has the stronger arguments. Given that the latest shooting is particularly horrifying, its political ramifications will more likely depend on how effectively the anti-gun crowd can appeal to emotionalism, and on how effectively everyone else can resist them.
Lest we forget, the PATRIOT Act and the TSA also came about in the fit of emotion following 9/11. And after the BP oil spill, similarly emotional people cried out for a total moratorium on oil drilling. (On my drive between Ithaca and Boston I still see signs that say, “No Drill, No Spill.” Granted, without oil drilling we wouldn’t have any oil spills. We would also regress back to a horse-and-buggy economy. With a full drilling moratorium, these upstate New Yorkers will have to wait for their children’s polio vaccines to take the 200-mile stagecoach journey through foot-deep snow, but at least they can take comfort in the fact that they’ve eliminated the threat of occasional drilling accidents.)
Today, we’re hearing the same types of people tell us how gun control can “save the children.”
Implicit in all these arguments is the belief that, with just the right government interference, we can eliminate terrorist attacks, or oil spills, or mass murders. But the arguments against such interventionist policies are different. Most people who support oil drilling do not think that allowing a free market in oil production will eliminate all accidents, just as people who believe in gun rights don’t think the gun ownership can totally deter all crime. Even with true laissez-faire in oil drilling or gun ownership, the BP oil spill or the Newtown shooting still might have happened in exactly the same way. Life can be tragic. It’s just that we believe that responding to tragedies by banning guns or oil drilling will only compound the problem.
Therefore, the most important part of responding to the Newtown shooting must be to keep your cool. The TSA is living proof that politics plus emotionalism is a bad mix. Given that the first tragedy happened and is therefore irreversible, we should not compound the loss through more ill-conceived, emotionally-induced political follies. As Ludwig von Mises noted in the context of a different debate:
[Advocates of a deflationary monetary policy] do not realize that by this procedure they do not undo the social consequences of the first change [i.e., inflation], but simply add to it the social consequences of a new change. If a man has been hurt by being run over by an automobile, it is no remedy to let the car go back over him in the opposition direction.
Supporters of gun rights should not cede the moral high ground to their opponents. They should not allow themselves to be painted as callous or uncaring—and they especially should not acquiesce in the argument that gun control saves lives. Rather, they should constantly reaffirm Mises’s message: do not let concern for the past obscure rational thought about the future. Do not believe that just because tragedies happen now, further government action can eliminate them. Instead, always point out how the government’s cure is worse than the disease.
Hopefully, emotions will die down before politicians and the gun-control lobby have the chance to do any real damage. In this, as in all else, rational thought is our only hope.