Monday, October 12, 2015

Can Technology Stop Mass Shootings?

The mass shooting at Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1 brought a violent end to the lives of nine victims (eight students and one professor), besides the death of the perpetrator, Christopher Harper-Mercer, at the hands of police called to the scene.  This tragedy has inspired a predictable chorus of editorials calling for something to be done about such things. 

Two voices heard on opposite sides of the political fence are E. J. Dionne, based at the Washington Post, and Charles Krauthammer, a familiar face on Fox TV.  In a recent column, Dionne decries the standard knee-jerk responses of his fellow liberals who call for gun control laws that they know won't pass Congress.  He rightly regards this as a futile gesture, especially now that Republicans control both houses of Congress and the National Rifle Association's influence is strengthened thereby.  Dionne's idea is to focus on gunmakers, who sell almost half their output to governments of various forms (federal, state, and local) and who might start making safer guns if that segment of the market demanded them. 

Safer how?  Dionne mentions two technologies that might mitigate unlawful gun use:  smart guns that can be used only by their owner, and microstamping of guns and bullets.  Several gunmakers have marketed various versions of smart guns, which typically use some add-on such as a magnetic ring or RFID chip worn by the owner to allow use of the gun.  These things are not popular with the gun lobby, and a sea change in attitudes would have to happen for any one of the smart-gun technologies to become common.  Microstamping is a patented technique of engraving a tiny serial number on the firing pin of a gun, which is then stamped into the cartridge when the gun fires.  If the cartridge is recovered, it can be matched with the microstamped gun.  Although California passed a law requiring microstamping of semi-automatic guns, it specifically exempted law-enforcement weapons (there goes the government tie-in), and two gun manufacturers have quit selling semi-automatic weapons in that state, citing the microstamping requirement as a major reason. 

The main weakness of Dionne's technological fixes has nothing to do with the virtues or flaws of a given new technology.  As Charles Krauthammer pointed out in his column last week, even if every new gun sold was smart enough to shoot only at truly bad guys, there were some 350 million guns in the U. S. as of last year (more than one for every man, woman, and child), and the only effective gun law that would stand a chance of reducing mass shootings would have to round up the ones out there already.  Krauthammer cites Australia's compulsory buy-back program as an example of this, but for a number of reasons it would never work in the U. S.  To stop such a program here, all that gun proponents would need to do is to cite the Second Amendment, which the U. S. Supreme Court has interpreted as granting citizens the right to bear arms.

And that gets to the tradeoff involved in this situation.  Australia decided that the risk of gun-related crime was so great that they sacrificed the freedom of average citizens to bear arms, by and large.  In this country, the right of private citizens to own guns is valued more highly, and the result is that we have to run the risk of unstable individuals now and then getting hold of a gun and shooting lots of people.

Is that problem any worse now than it has been?  Every mass shooting is a unique tragedy, but if we look at them in the same light as other unlikely but spectacularly awful ways to die such as airplane crashes, the problem takes on a different look.  According to the Stanford Mass Shootings in America Database, a comprehensive but not exhaustive study of mass shootings in the U. S. since 1966, 1011 people have died in mass shootings in the last 49 years.  To put that into perspective, more than 1300 passengers have died in commercial airline crashes in the U. S. since only 1996, although many of those fatalities happened in the 9/11 terrorist attack.  Graphing the Stanford data versus time produces a curve that has no clear upward or downward trend—just noticeable spikes that don't seem to be clustering toward the recent past. 

Maybe it's coldhearted to view these things as statistics, but one way to view this is that as a society, we have decided to tolerate a certain risk of a small number of unstable people getting hold of a gun as the price we pay for the freedom of the vast majority of well-behaved, law-abiding gun owners to keep their firearms.  Krauthammer speculates as to how you could stop the isolated mass shooters, but most of them prior to their flame-outs never do anything illegal enough to warrant taking their guns away before they come out shooting.  What has emerged about Christopher Harper-Mercer's background has eerie resonances with that of another mass shooter, Adam Lanza, who walked into a schoolroom in Sandy Hook, Connecticut and killed 26 people after shooting his mother, and then killed himself on Dec. 12, 2012.  Both were loners with absent fathers whose mothers struggled to socialize their autistic-spectrum sons.  But if having minor autistic tendencies is made a crime, we'll have to lock up a lot of engineers.

These matters come close to home here at my university, just down the road from Austin where Charles Whitman inaugurated the modern era of mass shootings in 1966 from the famed University of Texas tower.  In its most recent session, the Texas legislature passed a law making it legal for qualified concealed-weapons owners to carry their firearms into classrooms and other buildings at public and private universities.  The idea seems to be that if a nut case suspects that somebody besides himself may have a gun in the room, he'll at least hesitate before he starts anything.  Even if he does, maybe dead-eye Annie there in the back row will take him out before he gets too far. 

Needless to say, I don't look forward to the Shootout at the Mitte Engineering Building taking place in my classroom.  Fortunately, you have to be 21 to get a concealed-carry permit, and so only a small minority of our students would qualify. 

We can count on oceanic news coverage of any mass shooting, but it's hard to keep a sense of perspective while the media rattles on.  Unless the great majority of gun owners in the U. S. decide it's just not a good idea to have a gun around, those 350 million weapons are not going to go away any time soon.  And anybody without a serious criminal record (and even some with one) can still get one of them.  Current technological fixes for the problem simply don't seem to have the political traction to get very far.  Maybe smart, unobtrusive metal detectors with RFID chips for people authorized to carry concealed weapons could work, but that would be a lot of expense for an unlikely problem.  In the meantime, I'm going to act like nobody in my classroom has a gun.  But all the same, I'm glad my podium is close to the exit.

Sources:  E. J. Dionne's column "Let's focus on gun makers and smart-gun technology" was carried by the Austin American-Statesman on Oct. 9, 2015.  Charles Krauthammer's "Massacre begets charade with confiscation a no-go" appeared in the same publication on Oct. 10.  The Stanford Mass Shootings in America Database is available to anyone (after a check-in procedure) at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on smart guns, microstamping, and airline fatality statistics. 

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