Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Nobody's going to win with Virginia Tech

It's time to apply some math to the Virginia Tech shootings.

Gun-rights advocates point to it and say, "If one of those students in Norris Hall had had a gun, this might have been prevented."

Gun-control advocates point to it and say, "If guns weren't so easy to get, Cho wouldn't have been able to kill so many people."

But both arguments miss the point. Because such massacres are extraordinary events, and not particularly relevant to the debate.

I have no doubt that armed citizenry have, on various occasions, stopped or prevented crime. But a school shooting is less than a once-in-a-lifetime event for any given town or location. The odds of any of us being in one are vanishingly remote; the odds of being in more than one are so astronomical as to be zero.

Wait, you say: I know of at least a dozen school shootings in recent memory. What do you mean, "they're rare"?

This is where the math comes in.

There are 94,000 public elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Add in the 28,384 private schools, and then arrange the 4,100 colleges, community colleges and universities as a garnish. That gives us a total of 126,000 schools.

There have been 36 school shootings in the United States in the past 11 years, for an average of about three per year.

If my math is correct, that works out to a 0.002 percent chance in any given year that your school will be attacked.

Over the course of an 80-year lifetime, the odds increase to 0.2 percent.

Over 1,000 years, the odds of any given school being attacked reach a whopping 2.4 percent.

Thus by any rational measure, a shooting at your neighborhood school isn't something to worry about except in the context of developing contingency plans as you would for any other highly-unlikely-but-very-bad-if-it-happens event -- like an asteroid strike.

So the question is not "can a gun (or gun control) stop a shooting rampage." We all can envision scenarios where both do just that.

For gun-rights folks, the question is, "Given that such rampages are vanishingly rare, how much carnage are we willing to put up with in the meantime in order to ensure that there's an armed citizen on the scene if and when such a rampage occurs?" The carnage is not small: Each year, firearms are used in about 10,000 homicides, 17,000 suicides and 800 or so accidental deaths. Another 75,000 are injured but not killed.

For gun-control advocates, conversely, the question is, "Given that such rampages are vanishingly rare, how many restrictions on gun ownership are we willing to impose on the population at large in order to keep a potential mass murderer from carrying out such an attack?"

And at base, the question for all sides is: "Does gun control (or armed citizenry) actually reduce violence (or crime) overall?" That's a far more complex question, of course. It's quite possible, for instance, that increased gun ownership reduces crime overall, but at the price of increased violence or accidental deaths. It's possible that gun control reduces deaths but at the price of increased crime. It's also possible that neither is actually a major factor in crime or violence.

I won't pretend to have the answer, but in my next post I discuss some reasonable gun laws that I think most people would support.

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