Adam Lanza, the Perfect Cypher upon Whom We Can Project Our Agendas

"Tough cases make bad law," it is often said. I suggest a corollary: extreme events make bad legislation.

Adam Lanza seems to offer us a mystery (since no one seems to have any idea what drove him to this massacre) onto which everyone can project their already-arrived-at conclusions:

He used a gun to commit his crimes. We need stricter gun control!

He committed his crimes in a state with strict (by American standards) gun-control laws, in a place that was designed to be "gun free": so right-to-carry laws are the solution!

He was home schooled (for a time): home schooling should be forbidden!

He was home schooled because he had been in public schools and had had difficulties there: public schools are the problem!

He played violent video games: ban violent video games!

His parents were divorced: we need to promote stronger family values!

This is why I reject using the immediate aftermath of such events to promote one's pre-existing agenda: even if you get your way, it is likely to be in a sloppy, emotion-driven fashion. Some people have read my rejection of this use of violent events to drive legislation as an anti-gun control stance: not at all! There are certain measures, such as requiring background checks at gun shows, that strike me, at first glance, as extremely sensible. (I am no expert on the topic, so that's why I add "at first glance.") But I would like whatever legislation we arrive at in response to these sort of events to be based on reasoned consideration on, say, careful statistical studies of how much right-to-carry laws help prevent crime versus how much widespread gun ownership spurs on crime. I have no idea how such studies will turn out, but I think relying on them will be a lot better than passing legislation based on "Oh the humanity!"


  1. Okay, but with over ten thousand gun deaths per year in the United States--which averages out to about 30 per day, or more than one Sandy Hook every single day of the year--when will there be a time that we're not emotionally charged?

    I'd prefer bad legislation which can be adjusted and improved over time to the head-in-the-sand response these tragedies promote lately. The memory of those helpless kids and their teachers requires it of us to at least try to prevent the next one.

    Of course I'm using an emotional argument. It's effective and my cause is noble. What I want is less guns. Guns kill and that's their only purpose. It boils my blood to hear people trot out the "self-defense" justification.

    There are 88 guns per hundred people in America. In the past 30 years there have been some 62 incidents of mass murder in the news (4 or more dead). With all those guns in private ownership, not once did the shooter die because some random civilian was packing heat and returned fire. So where's the self-defense argument?

    (Here's a good summary I found:

    After Gabby Giffords was shot, I was told "now's not the time", so I waited politely. Then came the Dark Knight Rises shooting and, again, I was told to wait and I did. Then a Sikh temple, then the shootings at the food court in Oregon. And now Sandy Hook.

    I, for one, am done waiting. And I'm making darn sure my elected representatives know it.


    1. "which averages out to about 30 per day, or more than one Sandy Hook every single day of the year--when will there be a time that we're not emotionally charged?"

      Right, Mike. Every day is just as emotionally charged as the day of Sandy Hook. Which flat out contradicts your previous comments of a week or so ago, when you said we had to use the high emotion of mass shootings to pass your agenda.

      "(4 or more dead). With all those guns in private ownership, not once did the shooter die because some random civilian was packing heat and returned fire"

      Sure. Because when someone is present with a gun, the total doesn't reach four! (Usually the person is stopped two or three in. Look it up Mike: it is easy to fin these cases.)

      "After Gabby Giffords was shot, I was told "now's not the time", so I waited politely."

      Bullshit. You were going around making these same posts then. I guarantee it.

      "my cause is noble"

      And here we have it: lies and manipulation of others is fine, because you have a good cause. This is the same thinking that drives every fanatic. And it makes you the problem in this debate. When gun owners who might agree to sensible gun control see comments like yours, they say, "Oh my! Sensible gun control is just a smokescreen for fanatics who want to make gun ownership totally illegal."

      So, good work, Mike.

      "I, for one, am done waiting. And I'm making darn sure my elected representatives know it."

      Good luck: the percentage of people supporting the right to own guns in the US has risen steadily for 50 years. Your extreme position has lost, totally.

    2. Gene, impressive response to Mike.

      I want to add something, specifically when Mike said this: "Guns kill and that's their only purpose."

      If Mike knew anything about firearms ownership in this country then he'd know this is flat out false. Incredibly false. I don't hunt anything, and I own tons of guns. I reload and target shoot, weekly. It is a sporting hobby, and one that is a cultural cornerstone in this country, along with many other countries around the world. I do have a couple of arms for protective purposes, but I never intend to use them except for the purpose, and God forbid, where I may have to protect myself or others from another individual posing a threat to life or property.

      Also, the "guns kill" argument is a very poor one. Just as the "guns save lives" one is for pro-gun ownership, which I saw plenty of this weekend it at an absolutely jam packed gun show. So there are bad arguments throughout what seems to be increased talks of gun ownership.

      Ultimately Chuck Schumer, who I tend to disagree with on a constant basis, summed up this weekend what pretty much, at least it seems to me, most Americans want with regards to gun ownership, and I'm paraphrasing: "We want to be able to respect the 2nd amendment rights of lawful gun owners in this country, and we want to get guns out of the hands of people who want to harm others with these weapons". So ultimately Schumer wants law-abiding citizens to be able to own firearms and protect themselves if need be, and for criminals to not be able to have them. Well, here is some news, we already have systems in place to do just that. So the question isn't "should there be less guns?", although Mike wants that, it's "how do we get guns out of the hands of criminals while also allowing good people to be able to protect themselves with the same weapons the bad guys might use against them?".

    3. Hi, lots of responses to me today while I was trapped at work and unable to post. This will, I hope, be my last post on this topic.

      The statement I made was:
      Guns kill and that's their only purpose

      That holds true even after you invoked the "american tradition" argument. An assault rifle is made for the purpose of killing. It's made for the purpose of killing humans. Lots of them. You might use them for target practice, but sometimes if I can't find a flathead screwdriver, I go into the kitchen and get a dull knife. That doesn't transform my flatware into a hobbyist's carpentry set.

      And shooting targets is probably fun. I've never done it before. But you know what else is fun? Driving fast. There are lots of common sense rules against driving fast. Even more about driving drunk and fast. Watch any Dean Martin movie or, for that matter, James Dean and you'll find evidence that there's an american tradition for driving fast--and drunk. But it's still wrong.

      As for the "self-defense" argument, why do so many gun enthusiasts think their gun turns them into Sgt Martin Riggs from the Lethal Weapon franchise? (Able to kill a man with a rifle from a thousand yards away in high wind.) Trust me, most of them are a lot closer to Sgt Al Powell of the first "Die Hard" movie (look it up). At best, that guy was one for two.

      None of the respondents dealt with the first argument I made, however. When can we actually have this conversation? I guess I get my answer from the relative civility of Gene's blog and his responders. Thanks Gene! Thanks everyone! And I also get the answer from the news at large. It's sounding at least remotely possible that a common sense first step will be to seek a reinstatement of the Assault Weapons Ban that was allowed to expire in 2004. And possibly even a limit on the number of rounds that can be loaded in a gun at a time. Add to that a dollop of investment in a quality mental health infrastructure in America and we could be well on our way to "just" 9,000 gun deaths by 2014. Perhaps we might even see that number go lower as time goes by.

      Of course, I'm realistic. Probably none of this will happen. But at least the conversation is started, opportunity bias notwithstanding.


    4. "And shooting targets is probably fun. I've never done it before. But you know what else is fun? Driving fast. There are lots of common sense rules against driving fast. Even more about driving drunk and fast. Watch any Dean Martin movie or, for that matter, James Dean and you'll find evidence that there's an american tradition for driving fast--and drunk. But it's still wrong."

      Yeah, but unlike driving fast, shooting at skeets or bullseyes has never killed anyone. If you say that at some other time those guns killed someone, well, that is like saying driving really cautiously kills people, because the very same cars can be driven fast at other times.

      Mike, I am, as I repeatedly said, very willing to consider commonsense gun control laws: background checks: yes! Reducing rounds fired per minute: yes!

      But I don't want to bullied into laws because if I don't approve of them then I don't care about dead children.

    5. Mike, a couple of replies here. You are aware that Connecticut has an assault weapons ban, right? Supposedly it was very similar to the federal law that expired in 2004. Also, that federal ban that expired in '04, along with Connecticut's current ban, would not have been applicable to Lanza's murderous spree, as he used a Bushmaster M4 carbine .223, which his mother supposedly legally purchased. I reviewed the criteria for semi-automatic weapons that they must meet in order to be legally sold in CT, and to be honest, the list is pathetic in terms of whether or not the firearm is significantly more lethal or not. There is a grenade launcher attachment provision, which if you had one would obviously be potentially catastrophic, but the other criteria is essentially worthless in terms of the firearm being a tool to inflict more damage than if it did not meet the criteria. Pistol grips, telescoping stocks, flash suppressors. These things are tactical accessories, that while from an ergonomics perspective are useful, aren't needed. A regular target or hunting semi-auto shotgun would have none of these features and I would argue in close quarters it could probably be more lethal than the bushmaster AR-15 Lanza had.

      To address your initial argument, about a Sandy Hook once a day, I researched the current homicide statistics, which have dropped over the years to about 8700ish per year, so roughly 24 deaths per day. I agree, this is very bad, but I do not invest the emotion you do because I look at the firearm for what it is, an inanimate object. What people do with that object is up to them. If they use it to murder someone I don't get upset about the object they used, I hold the person responsible for applying brain functions for a specific physical outcome. They loaded the firearm, aimed the firearm with the purpose to kill their intended target, and then pulled the trigger. Every course of action is solely accountable to the murderer.

      I would like to see greater education, perhaps even optional firearms training courses in high schools, although perhaps off campus. Start from the beginning. What is a firearm? What is a cartridge? How does it operate? What are the components for different types of arms? You'll learn physics, mathematics, engineering, and of course, the most important thing, safety, and how to properly use the firearm in a manner consistent with that of a law-abiding adult.

  2. I think the way people handle these instances fits like a glove the "Denial of tragedy" model of ideology that I recall you mentioning. It's so painful to imagine that given whatever policy, we may not be able to stop these things from happening.

    With that said, here's a new low excerpted from Adam Gopnik's New Yorker piece, approvingly linked by Brian Leiter:

    "...and all the other perverted lies that people who can only be called knowing accessories to murder continue to repeat, people who are in their own way every bit as twisted and crazy as the killers whom they defend."

    1. Glenn Reynolds: "When you say you hope that this event will finally change the debate, do you really mean that you hope you can use emotionalism and blood-libel-bullying to get your way on political issues that were losers in the past?"


    2. Hey, Ken, this is a nice succinct answer to Mike above!

    3. Succinct, c'est moi.

  3. Because I'm a nerd, one of the things I did with my horror Friday night was put together a time-series comparing household gun ownership with the rate of mass-shooting incidents (note: not casualties). It's hard for me to draw from it the conclusion that we need to re-proliferate guns throughout the populace, which is what liberalized concealed-carry and teacher/shoe-clerk/usher-arming proposals aim at.

    1. Jim, that is strange, because I saw on Sullivan today that the rate of these incidents is soaring!

      Also, if someone is making the "an armed citizen could have stopped this" argument, a gun at someone's house will stop a school shooting!

    2. "a gun at someone's house will hardly stop a school shooting!"

      These damned students keep interrupting me while I am trying to write comments!

    3. (They're doing their final, but the keep coming up to my desk with "questions.")

  4. Hi Gene: I didn't read the Sullivan piece. (Sullivan generates too much content for me to try to keep up with.) But a few possible explanations for any apparent variance:

    * my data stops at 2010
    * is population-adjusted
    * is anyway pretty noisy
    * tracks incidents rather than casualties

    2011 may have been a high year, and certainly 2012 appears to be. Past performance does not guarantee future results!

    Also, MoJo's casualty graph from the weekend shows a clear, striking drop during the 10 years the assault-weapons ban was in effect. This really surprised me. (I actually don't have a longstanding preexisting agenda re gun control. I've only begun to move off that particular "libertarian" position very recently. This is either a commendable openness to new data or simple ideological flattening. Take your pick.)

    1. And I am no gun control absolutist: like I said, background checks at gun shows sounds excellent. Probably reducing the rounds per minute on legal guns would be good to. Maybe much more.

      I'd just like time to consider it, rather than being "Don't you care about the children?"ed into it.

  5. In terms of anecdotage, BTW, in this case "a gun at someone's house" demonstrably started a school shooting rather than stopped it. Nancy Lanza had "guns in the home, available for self-defense." Those guns were used to murder 27 people.

  6. In cases like this opponents of gun control ask iof the proposewd laws could have stopped the tragedy. A good question, and the answer is almost always no. This time not so clear. He couldn't get guns himself -- he tried and failed. But his mother seems to have had them legally in the house where he lived. (Seems, still don't trsut reporting.) In this case tighter controls might well have averted the tragedy.

  7. Excellent blog, Mr. Callahan. You're one of the few bloggers I've come across with an actual perspective and opinion on this issue that isn't copy and pasted from Democrat or Republican talking points.

    What are your favorite books on economics by the way? Just asking.

    1. Thanks, Roberto.

      This list is off the top of my head!

      Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
      Principles of Economics, Carl Menger
      The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber
      The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen
      Socialism, Ludwig von Mises
      The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi
      Human Action, Ludwig von Mises
      Economics and Knowledge, FA Hayek
      The Structure of Capital, Ludwig Lachmann
      The Firm, the Market, and the Law, Ronald Coase
      Competition and Entrepreneurship, Israel Kirzner
      Stabilizing an Unstable Economy, Hyman Minsky

      This list certainly reflects the limits of my own reading far more than it does what is really best out there in economics!

    2. Oy!

      Say's Law, Thomas Sowell
      Marxism, Thomas Sowell

    3. Thank you so much! I've been asking this question to various economists on YouTube, Twitter and the blogosphere, and I've gotten pretty varied, interesting responses. I am no way an economist, but a cartoonist and a college student who is absolutely fascinated by economics and has done a lot of self studying of the subject on my own. Definitely learned 100x more than I ever did in high school.

      I also have no specific political label for myself, even though I've really started to identify with a lot of consequentialist libertarianism and highly oppose radical left policies, the welfare state, socialism and support anyone who has this goal in mind. I will have to add those books to my reading list, especially Mises' Socialism. Yes, I grew up being a left winger myself, although I've always had individualistic tendencies.

    4. Anonymous10:51 PM


      Seriously, those are some pretty good books that I'd definitely put my stamp of approval on (if that means anything). This is not to say that I agree with everything said, but that I have found some really great thinking contained in them. Enough to clearly see that these guys were all thinking on a different level, and were kind enough to share their thoughts.

      There are at least three (but probably four) on your list that I have not read, and one of those (Kirzner's book) is in my stack. It hasn't moved in the stack in some time and I meant to read it over a year ago, but Amazon can be a hell of a drug.

      Time can often be viewed as the paramount limitation to all endeavors, but it doesn't hold a candle to my laziness. And to think that I've fancied the thought of rereading some of the books that I've already read in order to get a deeper or new understanding ... well, eventually anyway.

  8. Oh my, I just found out Mike is MY "Canadian Mike." I am in shock. For those of you who are not from my neighborhood, you can't believe the impact this has had on me. I may fall silent for months.

    1. You are blessed then, with so many Canadians. On most topics you should treasure us. But I should warn you, on gun control there is little but knee-jerkery here. When I talk to Canadians about this they generally don't even *care* if the evidence shows gun control makes things worse. (I think the jury is out but the evidence suggests that is true). Guns are *sin* and must be abolished. Most people I talk too would ban thenm even if I we knew it would lead to more crime and violence.
      There's also some reflexive anti-Americanism going on here. If you abn guns and it doesn't work it will be because you didn't ban flags.

  9. "Rhode Island Mike" exists as well


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