December 20th, 2012

In Which People Try to Attack Megan McArdle, Only to Make Themselves Look Ridiculous

In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, Megan McArdle wrote a column in which she advocated the following:

… I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.  Would it work?  Would people do it?  I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.

This prompted hoots of derision from Jonathan Chait, which set off a generalized port-side mockumentary of McArdle’s idea. For good measure, Chait sarcastically allowed that McArdle’s column might be “a very subtle parody of libertarianism.” Andrew Sullivan, being the blogospheric cheap shot artist that he is, actually awarded McArdle a Malkin Award nomination. For those of you who are blessedly unaware of Sullivan’s various silly awards, the Malkin Award is for shrill, hyperbolic, divisive and intemperate right-wing rhetoric.” I have absolutely no earthly clue how encouraging targets of a gunman to gang rush the gunman in order to perhaps give those targets a fighting chance at living through the ordeal qualifies as “shrill, hyperbolic, divisive and intemperate right-wing rhetoric,” but I’m not Andrew Sullivan. (Speaking of which, barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, shelo asani Andrew Sullivan.)

But hey, guess what! Turns out that going after McArdle for this is more than a little bizarre. Let’s turn the microphone over to Jeffrey Goldberg:

McArdle’s suggestion is crazy, right? In many ways, yes, but it should be noted that this is not actually her idea — it is a recommendation disseminated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The federal government’s “active shooter” policy suggests that, as a last resort, a person facing an armed killer should “attempt to incapacitate the shooter” and “act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter.” 

Mocking McArdle for her notion seems quite uncharitable, when you have an entire federal bureaucracy to mock. The truth is, of course, that attacking someone who is trying to shoot you (the old, “run from a knife, run to a gun” idea of self-defense) beats dying without a fight, but it’s still fairly ineffective. The heroic school principal and school psychologist in Newtown charged Adam Lanza, but were shot before they could “incapacitate” him. (DHS doesn’t say anything about small children swamping a shooter, but McArdle is ambiguous in her post on the question of whether she means small children or not. Obviously, first graders aren’t going to be attacking shooters.)  

In my recent article advocating for concealed-carry (and for stricter gun laws, as well), I provided several examples of idiotic-sounding recommendations that universities (which are usually self-declared “gun-free” zones) pass on to students, staff and faculty in the event of an “active shooter” attack. These recommendations motivated me to rethink the issue of concealed-carry. From the article:

Wichita State University counsels students in the following manner: “If the person(s) is causing death or serious physical injury to others and you are unable to run or hide you may choose to be compliant, play dead, or fight for your life.”

The University of Miami guidelines suggest that when all else fails, students should act “as aggressively as possible” against a shooter. The guidelines, taken from a Department of Homeland Security directive, also recommend “throwing items and improvising weapons,” as well as “yelling.”

Otterbein University, in Ohio, tells students to “breathe to manage your fear” and informs them, “You may have to take the offensive if the shooter(s) enter your area. Gather weapons (pens, pencils, books, chairs, etc.) and mentally prepare your attack.”

West Virginia University advises students that if the situation is dire, they should “act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter.” These items could include “student desks, keys, shoes, belts, books, cell phones, iPods, book bags, laptops, pens, pencils, etc.”

The University of Colorado at Boulder’s guidelines state, “You and classmates or friends may find yourselves in a situation where the shooter will accost you. If such an event occurs, quickly develop a plan to attack the shooter … Consider a plan to tackle the shooter, take away his weapon, and hold him until police arrive.”

So McArdle’s idea is in line with that of the Department of Homeland Security and a host of educational institutions. It is also the plan that was adopted in Sandy Hook. We call the people who tried to take down Adam Lanza heroes—and rightly so—but when McArdle says that more people ought to try to implement these tactics, she is the subject of ridicule? The mind boggles. I mean, it’s one thing to politely but firmly hold that McArdle’s idea may not work—or at least, may not work cleanly. I’ll readily point out that if you tell people to gang rush a shooter and explain why it might work, the reaction you are going to get is “okay, you first.” And it’s not irrational to think that; everyone wants to live and most people are willing to be free-riders on the backs of those who do the dangerous work of leading the charge against a gunman. But it’s another thing altogether to get the vapors, clutch your pearls and look around frantically for the fainting couch simply because McArdle decided to advocate an idea that is already advocated by DHS and a number of universities, and was implemented at Sandy Hook. 

And of course, it’s all especially hilarious given the attempts by Chait and others to shoehorn attacks on libertarianism in their replies. If Megan McArdle so much as orders red wine with fish, people like Jonathan Chait will blog about it and will try to convince you that this gastronomic faux pas is all the evidence you need to know for a certainty that Frédéric Bastiat, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick were all full of it.

December 19th, 2012

Are Mass Shootings on the Rise?

Jesse Walker says no, and makes the following very good point at the end of his post:

… While there’s a lot to object to in the media coverage of the last few days — the inaccuracies reported on the day of the massacre, the exploitative intrusions on grieving people’s privacy — this feeling that the crime took place in our backyard isn’t a bad thing in itself. It represents empathy, and when the press amplifies our empathy, it’s doing good. But it’s also important for the press to give us a context for that empathy, lest those natural feelings for the victims and the people who loved them turn into an irrational fear that the next victims will be our own children or ourselves. Look at the ways so many schools locked down after Columbine: the increase in inflexible zero-tolerance policies, the speed-up in the school-to-prison pipeline. Those changes made a lot of students less secure, not more. And they were driven by contextless, free-floating fear. Empathy , paranoia no.

If we are smart, we will bear this in mind as we make policy post-Newtown.

December 17th, 2012

Nick Kristof Says the Thing that Isn’t

Writing about the shootings at Sandy Hook, Kristof tells us the following:

… don’t bother with the argument that if more people carried guns, they would deter shooters or interrupt them. Mass shooters typically kill themselves or are promptly caught, so it’s hard to see what deterrence would be added by having more people pack heat. There have been few if any cases in the United States in which an ordinary citizen with a gun stopped a mass shooting.

See bullet point number 3 here for why that isn’t true and why allowing people to defend themselves instead of cowering and hoping that a gunman doesn’t find them would actually be a better idea. And you know, even if neither I nor anyone else wrote a blog post about this, it shouldn’t be hard to think that even if mass shooters typically kill themselves or are caught, they are able to do a lot of damage beforehand in large part because the people being attacked may not have the means with which to defend themselves.

December 15th, 2012


There is little that I can write about the mass shooting yesterday at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut that hasn’t been written by others. The story is shocking, horrifying, disgusting, and endlessly sad. The carnage is appalling to behold, and the emotional damage in its wake will be awful beyond belief.

Naturally, in the aftermath of the massacre, we are all searching for answers and ways to lessen the likelihood that this kind of horror will be visited on any community ever again. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, or even most of them. I do think, however, that there are some things that we have to bear in mind as we think about what to do next:

  • For one thing, as Patrick Egan notes, violence has significantly decreased over the past forty years, and our societal unease has decreased along with it.
  • As Egan also notes in the same blog post, “ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows.” He informs us that in the 1970s, half of those surveyed by the General Social Survey reported that they had guns at home. Now, only a third report that they do. This has been caused by “a dramatic drop in ownership of pistols and shotguns, the very weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes.” Egan points out that Gallup’s findings are similar.
  • The easy answer to the shooting in Newtown is to demand that guns be banned, or that their possession be severely curtailed. Obviously, those making this kind of argument are unaware of Egan’s findings (if they are aware of them and are still arguing that we need further gun bans, I wonder whether they are truly devoted to finding an actual solution to the problem of gun violence). But as Eugene Volokh writes, there is reason to believe that armed civilians are able to stop or deter (at least to some extent) perpetrators of violence. We ought to factor that into our decision-making in the crafting of any post-Newtown policy regarding the possession of guns. Jeffrey Goldberg makes this point as well:

People should have the ability to defend themselves. Mass shootings take many lives in part because no one is firing back at the shooters. The shooters in recent massacres have had many minutes to complete their evil work, while their victims cower under desks or in closets. One response to the tragic reality that we are a gun-saturated country is to understand that law-abiding, well-trained, non-criminal, wholly sane citizens who are screened by the government have a role to play in their own self-defense, and in the defense of others (read The Atlantic article to see how one armed school administrator stopped a mass shooting in Pearl Mississippi). I don’t know anything more than anyone else about the shooting in Connecticut at the moment, but it seems fairly obvious that there was no one at or near the school who could have tried to fight back.

  • Relatedly, if we want to craft and implement new policies regarding the possession of guns, we kinda sorta need to make sure that we have our facts straight regarding gun possession in the United States. But as Nick Gillespie makes clear, a lot of the reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings have been factually challenged. Glenn Reynolds makes this point as well. Get ready for a lot of influential people—some of them elected officials, others people who can easily bend the ears of elected officials—to spout some remarkably inaccurate commentary post-Newtown. If you are not worried that this remarkably inaccurate commentary can or will somehow find its way into post-Newtown legislation or regulations concerning the possession of firearms, I am going to have to wonder just what it is that you are smoking.
  • There is evil in this world. We have to face that fact. I know this seems obvious—especially post-Newtown—but lots of times, we simply choose to ignore the presence of evil because evil seems permanent and ineradicable, and that is unsettling to us. John Podhoretz puts things rather starkly:

The idea that civilization is dedicated to the protection and preservation the weak and the innocent, and not about fulfilling evil impulses to defile and destroy innocence, is the root and core of the West. One cannot conceive of anything more monstrous than a person or persons who could look small children in the eye and systematically shoot them dead. Which is why this crime, among the worst crimes in American history, is not just an assault on the children, or their families, or the town of Newtown—though it is all those things.

What the killer(s) did today was nothing less than a contemporary sacrifice to Moloch, in whatever form Moloch manifests himself today—the appeasement of a voice in the head, most likely. Evil, even if it is loosed due to mental illness, is an effort to destroy the common good by making good appear powerless, ineffectual, weak. Today saw a horrifically effective effort to give evil a victory. It has opened a portal and brought Hell to earth.

  • The presence of evil notwithstanding, however, it is an unarguable fact that mental health facilities in this country are woefully lacking. They do a poor job of helping many of the mentally ill, and they actively serve to endanger many of us thanks to their inability to render proper treatment in many individual cases. Read this post (via Brian Faughnan). I dare you not to be shocked and horrified. Now, imagine how many more Michaels there are out there failing to get the treatment they so desperately need. And what will happen to them when they become adults? What will happen to the people around them?

Obviously, this is an incomplete contribution to the discussion we are having in the post-Newtown world we are forced to live in. But it contains, I believe, issues and questions that we must seriously consider as we go forward. I can only hope that as others add their voices to the debate, we will be able to find a smart and workable solution that will make us safer without curbing on our constitutional liberties.

In the meantime, if it is in any way within your power, help the people of Newtown however you can. No matter how small you think the scope of your assistance might be, those on the receiving end will be grateful to have it.


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