Monday, December 17, 2012

The Real Lesson of the Newtown Shooting

The law of large numbers means that horrific, improbable events will happen from time to time in a country of >310MM people.

There are actually two mortality risks Americans face that I find shockingly low.  One is the risk of dying in a commercial plane crash.  It is absolutely remarkable that a plane carrying thousands of gallons of jet fuel, with engines the size of automobiles, can travel at 150mph on the ground, rise tens of thousands of feet into the air at speeds reaching 600mph, travel thousands of miles, and then land on a narrow strip of asphalt less than two miles long, all while being controlled by a human being, and still have less than a 1 in 10MM chance of crashing.

The other risk I find to be surprisingly low is the risk of dying in a random mass shooting.  There are over 200MM privately owned firerms in the US, and over 50MM households have at least one firearm.  And yet random mass shootings occur at the rate of fewer than 5 per year, and those involving children are much, much less frequent.  If we define an opportunity for a mass shooting as one year of access to a firearm in the home, then the probability of one such opportunity turning into a mass shooting is comparable to the probability of a plane crash.  That is, if you lived next to a gun owner, and you somehow managed to convince him that if he were to go on a random murderous rampage with his gun during the next year, that he should shoot you dead first, just as a courtesy, then your increased risk of dying over the next year would be equivalent to the risk of taking a one-way trip on a commercial plane.

I think it almost goes without saying that the risk of dying in a random mass shooting (or any shooting actually, as long as you’re not a criminal or suicidal) is so small as to be negligible compared to other risks in life, and we should waste no more time or resources on the problem unless evidence arises that the risk is increasing by orders of magnitude.  In fact, the statistics show that the risk is actually decreasing.  Despite the increase in US population, the frequency of mass shootings has stayed relatively constant, and the rate of shootings at schools has actually declined.

The real lesson of the Newtown massacre is that we should not let statistically insignificant events be blown out of proportion by the media and by our own emotions.  The coming push to enact new laws to restrict our liberties, whether they involve the right to own and carry a gun, the right to have a weird personality, or the right to produce and consume media with violent content, should be opposed vigorously.  If media focus on exceedingly rare (but statistically inevitable) tragedies allows the ratchet of liberty-reducing law-making to progress with each event, then we will become less free over time.  At times like this, it is worth recalling Benjamin Franklin’s famous maxim, usually paraphrased for dramatic effect as:  “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.


Nihat said...


On 9/11/2001, a colleague of mine had this insight: "We're gonna bomb the hell out of somebody, someplace. It doesn't matter who or where." That's kind of what I felt after Newtown: brace yourself... Arguments grow old and tired, you know.

Anyway, re: the Biden proposals, I didn't like the must-report imposition on the mental health professionals. Terrible idea. Why can't they just say, if you report and if your report is found to be non-frivolous, justified, you'll be granted immunity from breach of confidentiality charges? Or something?

Anyway, I also had some MMT questions to bounce off of you. Are you open for business on that front?

ESM said...

Hi Nihat,

I agree. This "we have to do something" mentality is very harmful. An amusing example of this is NY state, where Governor Cuomo jammed through more restrictive gun control laws in record time. In their haste, NY's lawmakers forgot to put in an exemption for police officers. So until they amend the law, police officers in NY are in violation of the law if they carry their standard issue magazines.

Biden's commission was a crock of course. It was all for show. Even worse than the haste, though, is the cynicism behind the haste. It's one thing to do something panicky and make mistakes because you're panicked. It's quite another to create a false sense of urgency to push a policy agenda that would otherwise not be politically feasible. There are mistakes made after 9/11 from both categories. I think all of the mistakes being made in response to the Newtown massacre fall into the latter category, however.

As to your other question, yes, now that Mosler is shutting down comments on his blog, which from my perspective is equivalent to shutting down his blog, I will try to revive this one for MMT stuff (and anything else that strikes my fancy), so fire away (no pun intended). There are a few lurkers from Mosler's blog who may respond here as well (I hope).

Nihat said...

ESM, okay, good. I'll take it slow and easy.

At the end of "Fiat money, part 3" post below, you are credited for an explanation of a "minor point" about how the Tsy gets cash from the Fed in exchange for bonds, and how the Fed sometimes "disappears" these bonds. I was wondering if there is any formal recognition or record of these "disappearing" acts.

As far as I can tell, the platinum coin thing for example, if tried and stuck, would amount to a formal prescription of such an act (assuming the Fed would hold it forever as historical record or some such article of curiosity, especially if it was a high-value denomination like $60T).

Generally speaking, I am trying to understand the Fed-Tsy arrangement (dichotomy?) better. There are some anti-Fed fellas out there, and sometimes, they manage to confuse me. Although I don't know-know (cf. Rumsfeld) this arrangement, my gut feeling is, it may be quite virtuous in certain respects. That is subject to further study on my part of course.

Anonymous said...

Great too see that you're blogging again, ESM.

-Coupon Clipper

Anonymous said...

So are we finally going to get into a juicy discussion about Fed accounting?

I have mixed feelings about Mosler shutting down.


Anonymous said...

Very well reasoned piece. Unfortunately, no one in Congress will read it. Good to see you posting again.