Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Policy for the Edge Cases

Joe Nocera, writing an opinion piece for the NYT on Tuesday, uses a lot of his word count highlighting pre-existing mental health concerns for the latest spree-killer, Elliott Rodger, who killed three people with a knife, three people with a gun and then finally himself. Mr. Nocera outlines a list of qualifications for mass-shooters:

  • Young
  • Male
  • Alienated Loner
I might add another observation that would apply to more than a few of them - a history of being bullied. This was true with Rodger, Lanza, and others. 

Twelve years ago, the Secret Service made a go at profiling school shooters. In 2002, they concluded that only 34% of the studied shooters were considered 'loaners' with fully half being considered part of the 'mainstream' crowd. Yes, the overwhelming majority were male, and by definition perhaps, a school shooter is going to be "young". But interestingly, 71% felt bullied or persecuted.

Most spree killers were bullied, but most students who were bullied did not become spree killers, illustrating how little value there is in these correlations. You can read the report here, but the bottom line of their study comes down to this quote: 
"There is no accurate or useful profile of students who engaged in targeted school violence"
Mr. Nocera echos this conclusion in more practical terms, saying in his NYT piece that: 
"you can’t go around committing them all because a tiny handful might turn out to be killers."
This wisdom of not legislating for the edge cases is turned on its head in his hasty wrap-up. Mr. Nocera recommends that the solution would be in making guns harder to get for everyone, though he doesn't point out that the vast, vast, vast majority of gun use is lawful. If we were to force him to be consistent in his logic, he might make the corollary statement that,
"you can't go around denying the right to self defense because a tiny thimbleful of gun owners might turn out to be killers." 
Assuming he recognizes this, Nocera is balancing the relative consequences of these options, implying that the disadvantages suffered by those losing gun access would be less severe generally than the acute disadvantages suffered by those caught in a dragnet of institutional commitment. To put it simply, he suggests that we'd do more harm to society if we lowered the bar for involuntary commitment than if we made guns harder to get for the entire population.

This is a bit of a false choice. Institutional commitment is not the only avenue for denying gun rights to the mentally ill. Presently, as described by Form 4473, the ATF denies gun-ownership rights to people who have been adjudicated mentally ill, which does not require - and is a far lower bar than - institutional commitment. Regardless of whether you agree with Nocera's interest balancing as described earlier, one must respond to a more accurate question: is society harmed more by lowering the bar for declaring people mentally ill than if we made guns harder to get for the entire population. It's a substantially different question once we take commitment out of the equation. Now we're balancing the negative impact of "stigma" for a subset of the population against access to a practical self defense tool for the entire population.

I don't mean to minimize the negative impact of that stigma. Placing official labels on people for mental illness has all kinds of negative consequences which are readily described, but it is nothing like institutional commitment, and must certainly be less of a burden than eroding an enumerated right of the Constitution for society en masse. 

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