« More on the Hearth | Main | Gonzales v. Carhart & 2008 Politics »

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The VT Massacre, Gun Control & Terrorism

Gun control is an obvious topic of discussion in the wake of this week's horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech. Predictably, it's easy to find supporters of gun control arguing that the shootings show that more gun control laws are needed (see yesterday's NYT editorial, for instance). Just as predictably, gun control opponents have argued that more laws would make no difference. For instance, Eugene Volokh writes

Note that I'm not asking what controls would have prohibited him from doing something. Murder law, and for that matter the gun control law that banned firearms from campus, already prohibited him from committing mass murder. That didn't seem to help. I'm curious what "stronger controls" would likely have stopped a would-be mass murderer from killing, or at least killing as many.

Some have suggested that more guns would have mitigated this incident--e.g., Josh C. Manheimer, President of the Handgun Club of America, wrote in a letter to the NYT that

My first reaction was, “I wish there were more kids in that school who had a concealed carry license and a firearm to protect themselves.”

I used to be a very strong believer in gun control. These days, I am more circumspect, on the grounds that there are 280 million or so people in the US and 280 million or so (if memory serves) privately owned guns out there. It seems to me that a lot of the horses therefore are out of their barns.

I don't know all the facts (not even all the facts that currently are known) about the shooter, his guns, his ammos, and so on. But it seems to me that the right question to Volokh's question, if there is one, is that there might have been some controls that would have prevented someone from so easily supplying Cho with the guns and ammunition needed to cause this much carnage. As I said at the beginning of this graf, I don't know enough to know whether there was such a way, but I'm guessing that there might have been. For instance, suppose that the assault weapons ban would have either prevented easy acquisition of the semiautomatic gun he used or reduced clip size. If so, it's certainly possible that this event would have been less horrible--fewer shots fired, fewer deaths and injuries. Maybe not--but it certainly seems to me that it would have been possible. The key question is whether Cho would easily have been able to find similar or close-substitute weapons and ammunition on the black market. Maybe. But maybe not. It seems to me that cases like this--as rare as they are--are different from cases in which only one or two acquaintances are shot. To effect this sort of massacre, a single person needs some serious firepower--a bunch of knives wouldn't be enough (I believe Cho was carrying knives but didn't wind up actually using them), and maybe a run-of-the-mill handgun wouldn't have been either. Again, I'm speculating rather than concluding, but these propositions seem plausible to me.

Which brings me to two other issues.

First, I want to address Mr. Manheimer's suggestion that a bunch of concealed-weapon carrying coeds would have mitigated this disaster. Maybe they would have. But that's where discussion of his subsequent contention that "Making firearms accessible to lawful citizens actually decreases violence" starts, not ends. I say that because, as anyone with the most basic of economic understanding can tell you, what matters isn't the gross benefits of a policy, but rather its net benefits--benefits less costs. I can think of few less compelling ideas than arming a bunch of college kids with guns. I've taught thousands of undergraduates over the years, and while I'll spare you the platitudes, by and large I've really enjoyed it. But college campuses are full of people trying to find their way as adults in the world in a largely undisciplined social environment (which is a key distinction from, say, the military), and the college experience brings with it all sorts of emotional challenges, resentments, and anger-causing events. Not to mention drugs and alcohol, of course. So while Mr. Manheimer may well be right that fewer people would have died at Cho's hands Monday at VT, I have little doubt that many, many more people--students, staff and faculty--would die if we turned college campuses into shall-issue zones.

Second, I want to discuss the issue of efficacy that Volokh raises in the context of the Bush administration's post-9/11 policies. The administration has trampled all over all sorts of civil liberties at home, campaigned for the dictatorial power to jail people indefinitely with no evidence, kidnapped foreigners alleged to be members of or otherwise associated with al Qaeda, set up secret prisons, and, it seems quite clear, tortured people in US custody as a matter of policy.

What does all this have to do with Monday? Well, gun control opponents often argue at times like these that one shouldn't enact policies limiting the liberties of law-abiding citizens in the vain hope of stopping undeterrable people with psychological problems or criminal intent. They have a point.

Which makes me wonder why more conservatives--many of whom are anti-gun control--are so shockingly unquestioning of this administration's post-9/11 anti-terror policies. The costs of these policies in terms of civil liberties have been well documented in many places. How is it consistent to tell people that massacres by people like Cho are unstoppable--the threat to gun liberties is just too great--but that terrorist attacks can be ended if only we are willing to realize that 9/11 changed everything? If you doubt the connection, just recall then-AG John Ashcroft's insistence, contrary to both existing practice and his own staff's legal opinions, that the National Instant Check System couldn't be used in investigations of terrorism suspects (according to this article, DOJ even threatened criminal prosecution of California state officials who used a federal database of illegal gun users to implement California's gun laws).

Balance isn't the only issue--efficacy matters, too. Volokh may be right that it's not possible to stop crazy killers like Cho with government policies. And that should be a factor in drawing policy conclusions. But does anyone who has followed the news seriously think this administration's war and civil liberties policies have had net benefits? By all accounts, al Qaeda has metastasized and is at least as big a threat as it was pre-9/11. Millions of people in Iraq appear to support killing American soldiers, even as at best limited real progress has occurred in democratizing that country. And we seem to have blown our chance to put the Taliban out of business in Afghanistan? Yes, the administration claims all sorts of secret successes resulting from its draconia, but on this one I won't be trusting without some verification.

I would like to hear more outspokenness about these issues from gun control opponents trumpeting balance and efficacy.

Posted by Jonah Gelbach on April 18, 2007 at 12:40 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The VT Massacre, Gun Control & Terrorism:


clip size really doesn't matter ... you cant limit the amount of clips a person can own and clips can be changed in single rapid motions taking only fractions of a second

Posted by: Bob | Apr 30, 2007 5:27:56 PM


A friend mentioned to me today that the gun would have been legal, but not the clip size (which I believe is what I heard the other day). I don't have a primary source tho


Posted by: jonah gelbach | Apr 19, 2007 10:45:54 PM

I should've added I have no particular expertise here, I'm just judging what's a "semiautomatic assault weapon" from the text of the statute:


Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Apr 19, 2007 9:56:28 PM

Pogo the Possum 1957 said it best-
"We have met the enemy and he is US."
Its simply a matter of numbers, that is,
As long as you have 6,000,000,000+ people
there's going to be a few KOOKS out there.

Solution- Human Rights of Reproduction
Put a limit BirthRates, or we continue repetative use of traditional
FINAL SOLUTION, that is an increase in DeathRates that occurs over &
over, AGAIN & AGAIN, every 3 generations when global economic crunch
occurs as mid generations have to support aged and newborns. Its all
written in Modern History for anyone with a brane to simply observe.
read more

Posted by: Roger E. Carmichael | Apr 19, 2007 7:23:55 PM

Government stastics reveal that 99.9% of the legal guns held by citizens are not used in crime.

Find a way to get illegal guns off the street and the problem in minimized. You can't! So why take guns away that are used as protection against the bad guys and crazies?


Posted by: Norm | Apr 19, 2007 3:20:00 PM


I wasn't sure about the assault weapon ban (I did hear secondhand that there might have been some coverage but didn't know one way or the other).

More generally, thanks for your comment.

Posted by: jonah gelbach | Apr 19, 2007 9:20:17 AM

Great post Jonah. This case makes for difficult arguments all around, I think. News reports state that he had a 9mm Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol and a .22 Walther P22. I don't think either of those is an "assault weapon" as previously defined, but this case illustrates that they're still pretty lethal (or at least the 9mm pistol is). I believe both are "run-of-the-mill" handguns. In terms of the argument sometimes made that magazine size (e.g. 10 vs. 19 bullets) might give victims more of an opportunity to fight back, he must have reloaded lots of times during his rampage, and at least one witness says he did so so quickly no one had time to react.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Apr 18, 2007 5:08:34 PM


Let's assume that the min age stays 21 (although it's not hard for me to imagine the next argument being, hey, if you're old enough to die for your country, why aren't you old enough to protect yourself in Chemistry--there's nothing in, say, this post to suggest a reason to doubt that logic).

With that proviso, now all we have to worry about is the Juniors, Seniors, and other students who take more than 4 years to finish or start later than so-called traditional students. Great. And I'm not sure why grad students should be left out of the equation: yes, they're older, but no, in my experience, many of them are not done "trying
to find their way as adults in the world".

Moreover, I can't say I'm persuaded by your argument concerning the monetary cost of carrying. I don't know about your experience at Boulder, but in College Park and Tallahassee, I see plenty of undergrads with the money to buy iPods, expensive phones, designer clothes, video game players, and so on. In fact, I knew lots of undergrads with more discretionary purchasing power than plenty of the grad students I've known. More generally, any economist will tell you that prices matter more than income.

So in the end, I don't think your argument is very persuasive here.

Posted by: jonah gelbach | Apr 18, 2007 4:01:29 PM

Note that in most states the minimum ccw age is 21. Also, ccw permits, guns, holsters, and ammunition are all relatively expensive for college students to obtain. Therefore those disarmed by gun-free zones are likely not undergrads “trying to find their way as adults in the world.” Rather, faculty, staff, and—to a lesser extent—grad students would be more likely to carry, both because of ccw age restrictions and the monetary cost of carrying.

Posted by: Jim | Apr 18, 2007 3:43:30 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.