Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Calls for More Gun Control

Elliot Rodger is the latest mass shooter whose actions provoke calls for "more gun control".  It is easy in the heat of the moment to listen to emotion rather than reason.  It helps to look at the numbers.

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of seven recent mass shooting incidents that grabbed media attention.  The list has names,  where it happened,  and a judgement as to why.  There are two patterns,  one predominant. 
Of the seven,  four were known to have mental problems,  but were able to get guns legally,  because no court ever found them crazy and institutionalized them.  That’s the criterion currently used to “exclude” people judged to be crazy from getting guns,  and it clearly doesn’t work right. 

In the case of Jared Loughner,  the store that sold him his guns was reported as definitely uncomfortable doing so,  but had no grounds to deny the sale.  The background check revealed no court judgement as to Loughner’s sanity.  They were faced with a person who obviously had mental problems,  but a clean record as to his sanity.  Yet his friends,  his college faculty,  and his doctors all knew he had problems. 

Elliot Rodger.......CA girl shooter.........crazy,  never institutionalized
Wade Page.........Sikh temple shooter..seduced by extremist politics
Jared Loughner...AZ rep shooter.........crazy,  never institutionalized
James Holmes.....CO theater shooter...crazy,  never institutionalized
Harris&Klebold..Columbine school......crazy,  never institutionalized
Adam Lanza.......Newtown CT school..crazy,  never institutionalized, criminal act
Nidal Hasan........Ft. Hood...................seduced by extremist religion

Of the seven,  there was one (Lanza) widely-known to have serious mental problems,  who was denied owning guns by his mother,  but still encouraged to use them for sport under his mother’s supervision.  This didn’t “work” either,  since he killed his mother to get her guns and go shoot up that school.  Guns (even locked up) in the same house with a crazy person just isn’t a good idea.

The other two in the list were seduced by extremist politics or religion into committing their crimes.  This is the same phenomena that creates home-grown terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston,  and most recently a Florida resident who became a suicide bomber in Syria.  It is a significant enough effect to worry about. 

Dealing with the Mental Health Leak

What this tells me is that the way we do background checks is very flawed with respect to mental health problems.  It is currently an “either-or” choice based on a court judgement of insanity.  What we need is more gradual and less legally-formalized. 

The sense that a potential gun customer “isn’t quite right” should trigger a deeper look than the simple records search background check for a court judgement.  It should trigger the local police doing interviews of associates and health providers as to their perceptions of mental fitness. 

The idea is increasing impediments with increasing evidence of mental problems,  not just an “on-off switch set too high”,  as it is now.  Had that been in place,  it is likely that 4 of the 7 incidents listed would not have taken place.  But,  doing it effectively but fairly will require thought,  debate,  and compromise. 

Dealing with Seduction by Extremism

This applies to explosives as well as guns.  In addition to the two mass shooter cases listed,  plus the Tsarnaev brothers,  and the recent Florida suicide bomber,  there was also the Oklahoma City bomber.  All of these were known to be believers in either extremist politics or extremist religion before committing their acts. 

The same sort of idea should be used:  increasing impediments to gun (or potentially-explosive materials) purchases with increasing evidence of extremist belief.  Exactly how to do that fairly will require thought,  debate,  and compromise. 

Other Observations

The two main gun control schemes popular in politics are magazine size limits,  and a ban on semi-automatic rifles that cosmetically-resemble military machine guns.  Neither would be effective,  as some simple calculations demonstrate. 

                Clip Size Limits

For an out in-the-open scenario,  shots must be aimed to hit people.  That takes about two seconds per shot for a well-trained shooter,  with recent practice.  It also takes about 5 seconds to change a clip. 

To get off 100 shots with 30-round clips will take about 60 seconds per full clip,  three full clips,  with three clip changes (15 more seconds),  plus 10 more rounds out of the fourth clip (20 more seconds).  That’s 100 shots in 215 seconds.

Using instead 8-round clips (16 seconds to empty),  the same 100 shots requires 12 full clips (12 changes for 60 seconds) and 4 shots out of a thirteenth (8 more seconds).  That totals to 260 seconds.  The difference is only 45 seconds in almost 4 minutes time.  Limiting clip size will not have a significant effect.

For an enclosed-space scenario,  shots need not be aimed,  because people are tightly-packed together in the worst case,  such as a classroom.  It takes about a half-second between trigger pulls.  It still takes 5 seconds to change clips.

100 shots with 30-round clips:  3 full clips (45 seconds plus 15 seconds changing 3 clips) plus 10 shots from the 4th clip (5 more seconds).  That’s 65 seconds for 100 shots.

100 shots with 8-round clips: 12 full clips at 4 seconds each plus 60 seconds changing clips 12 times) plus 4 rounds (2 seconds) from the thirteenth clip.  That’s 100 shots in 110 seconds. 

The difference is still only 45 seconds.  Having to change more clips doubles the time,  but both times are still quite short.  The smaller clip is just not that much of an impediment to kill lots of people.    

                Ban on Semi-Automatic Weapons that Look Like Machine Guns

It’s a semi-automatic rifle with a firing rate of 1 aimed shot every 2 seconds,  or 2 non-aimed shots every second,  no matter what it looks like.  Same firing rate.  No difference in how fast one can kill with it.  So,  what’s the point of banning cosmetic appearance? 

                Response Times

There’s perfectly-good reasons to declare gun free zones today,  just as in the Old West.  But you have to defend them,  or the people therein are sitting-duck targets.  Towns being small in the Old West,  an armed deputy could be anywhere in town in 60 seconds at a dogtrot.  That actually worked quite well.

The shooting scenario times calculated above range from 1 minute to just over 4 minutes.  That’s why the Old West 1 minute response worked as well as it did,  and it is why the same standard applies today. 


Fix the mental health leak in the background check process.  It’s the most effective thing we could do,  by far. 

Forget the rest of the popular gun control proposals.  They’re demonstrably ineffective. 

Cut police emergency response times nearer to 1 minute.  If this takes armed guards on site,  then so be it.  Just make sure they are trained as peace officers,  they’ll need to be.  

Start thinking about how to impede gun (and explosive materials) purchases by those known to hold extremist beliefs.

Update 6-7-14:

The latest shooter incident at Pacific College actually proves my points about gun-free zones.  The local law enforcement confirms that if the student with the pepper spray had not acted to take-on the shooter,  the death toll would have been worse.  That proves my first point about the required response time to defend a gun free zone.

The fact that the student with the pepper spray was successful,  being an almost-unarmed civilian,  was due to the shooter's poor choice of weapon.  He was using a shotgun,  not a clip-fed weapon.   The extended time to reload gave the student his chance to take the shooter down.

In a reverse way,  this proves my second point,  because this would not have worked,  had the shooter been using a clip-fed weapon.  That would have required the student to have been armed equally or better,  and to have been trained to do this kind of dangerous work.

My second point is: defenders of gun free zones need to be real peace officers with real training and proper weapons.   Civilians (including school teachers) with concealed-carry permits,  do not qualify.  Just "bite the bullet" and hire qualified guards.  That's the right decision.

Update 6-8-14:

A version of this article appeared as a guest column in the Waco Tribune-Herald newspaper today (Sunday).