Friday, April 27, 2007

Surprise! OR Libertarians Augur for More Guns on Campus

The "honeymoon of discretion" where you're not supposed to make any political hay out of a tragedy now apparently over, the rationalizations about causes and cures for the Virginia Tech shootings have begun to roll in. Jumping at the chance to frame the events into their own picture of how society should work, Richard Burke and the Oregon Libertarian Party have released a missive calling for the elimination of "gun-free campuses":
Virginia Tech is one of many educational institutions declared to be so-called “gun-free” zones. In a “gun-free” environment, no student, teacher, administrator, or even security personnel may carry any firearm, even if he or she has legally purchased the firearm and complies with all federal, state, and local laws.

The events at Virginia Tech, Columbine and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (the shooting of ten Amish schoolgirls) suggest that "gun-free" zones don't work. In these cases, violence might never have occurred, or could have been significantly reduced, if properly trained security guards, teachers, and administrators had been permitted to carry sidearms. Every potential shooter would be aware of the fact that anyone in any part of the school might have the ability to stop him cold. In fact, the knowledge that potential victims have already been disarmed _increases_ the likelihood of violence!

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, some Oregon legislators are calling for tighter gun controls throughout Oregon and on Oregon’s school campuses. LPO members reject this view. Gun control has virtually no effect on crime, but disarms law-abiding citizens who wish to protect themselves. Connecticut, whose population is approximately equal to Oregon’s, has a rate of gun crime similar to that of Oregon,
although Connecticut’s gun-control laws are far more restrictive.

In the interest of our children’s safety, the Libertarian Party of Oregon urges all citizens – and especially parents – to _reject_ legislative proposals for “gun-free” campuses. As the late author Robert Heinlein noted, “An armed society is a polite society.”
Not being afraid to step into the hornet's nest that is 2nd Amendment politics, let me take a moment to critique their contentions:
  • While accurately depicting which kinds of people can't carry guns in most Virginia schools (there is no state law against it; only rules set by the schools themselves), Burke leaves out two fairly major categories of people who can carry them: municipal, county, state and federally sworn officers; and campus police. Referring to "security personnel" is a bit of a dodge; I think he's trying to get people to believe that not even police can carry them.

  • I will endeavor to confirm this concretely with a friend who is campus police at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA, but unless something has changed in Virginia campus cops are not "security guards;" they are fully deputized police with the equivalent powers of, say, a Williamsburg city cop. So let's not get the idea that the only people who can have a gun on campus are the madmen--they let the police (those that are fully trained under state law to protect people) have them too. (That some colleges may scrimp on budget and hire non-officers to protect their campus instead, is a different issue.)

  • Saying the events of Tech et al suggest that gun-free zones don't "work" is to accept first of all that the testable aim of gun free zones is to protect against mass murders, and secondly that a tragedy such as this can substantively be shown to indicate anything about the efficacy of the policy at all. What if, absent the policy, Va Tech might have had TWO shootings like this in recent history? They hadn't had any murders and only about 25 robberies and aggravated assaults in three years prior to the shootings; who's to say there wouldn't have been more without the policy?

  • Well, clearly that's what LPO is trying to say when they note that "in these cases, violence might never have occurred, or could have been significantly reduced, if properly trained security guards, teachers, and administrators had been permitted to carry sidearms." To which I respond, says who? Concealed-carry advocates are fond of making the claim that states with such laws have experienced drops in violent crime (while admitting an increase in property crimes, a curious outcome), and many cite the work of John Lott's book More Guns, Less Crime, among others. That would be all well and good if it were the last word on the subject, but it's not.

  • In a review of methodology and assumptions writer Robert Ehrlich objects to Lott's conclusions, based on their having been intentionally fit to match the hypothesis. Ehrlich points out the exclusion of figures that show no pattern of reduced violent crime, the lack of full accounting for other variables that affect violent crime, and his manipulation of the rules of scientific significance to project a provable result. (Ehrlich also rebuts Lott's response to his critique, here.)

    In an updated look at the issue post-Tech, Steven Chapman--who favors concealed-carry laws in general--explains where laxity advocates may go wrong:
    I put the question to Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, who is revered by gun rights supporters for his work on the defensive value of guns. He agrees that an armed student or professor could well have succeeded in stopping the slaughter, but doubts one would have been present.

    "Most people wouldn't carry a gun to a classroom in daytime, because college campuses are very safe," he says. "It's a hassle to carry a gun. It's heavy, it's dangerous, it scares other people, and it puts weird bulges in your clothing."

    Nor is there any assurance that someone with a handgun would have been able to act effectively -- something far easier in theory than in practice. Even police often miss their targets. And it's hard to deter a killer who is seeking his own death, as Cho was.

    All this says nothing about the effect on learning from lots of people sitting in classrooms with lethal ordnance at hand. You don't have to be a gun control fanatic to recognize that putting firearms into a seminar room might cramp the discussion. To think guns belong in every setting is to make a sensible insight -- that they can be useful for self-defense -- into a fetish.

    It may seem obvious that when an atrocity is committed with a gun, we should respond by revising our gun laws. In fact, what we know suggests that if there is a way to prevent mass killings, it will have to be found someplace else.
  • Finally, to Burke's last paragraph, about "protecting the children." The intent here is the same as whenever someone--right or left--invokes the "what about the children?" gambit: to provoke feelings of paternalism that any parent recognizes...wanting to keep one's children safe.

    But there's an interesting conundrum involved in that ploy here. First of all, most people think of "children" as those under 18, which doesn't describe who is hanging out on college campuses (unless you went to school with Steve Novick, I guess). For the "what about the children" angle to make sense, we have to be doing something on behalf of our children they can't do themselves, and yet what LPO is advocating is to allow "our children" to pack heat.

    Obviously, Burke knows that the vast majority of campus denizens are over 18, and in these days of people returning to school or beginning late, more are over 21 as well. I'd agree that certainly 21 year olds can be allowed to conceal-carry if the law permits, but that's precisely because we no longer consider them "children"--and thus it's a pretty cheap ploy to get us all misty-eyed about our grown offspring, who can actually handle themselves without our help, not least by heading to the polls like everybody else and voting. And if Burke wants to argue that they're still developing as adults and aren't truly mature in their parents' eyes, then what the hell is he doing advocating that they start carrying weapons??

    Lastly, it's ironic that Burke chooses to quote Heinlein as the final flying buttress in his canon for the Church of the Armed. Heinlein, as you may know, was a science fiction writer--and given the LPO's rather fanciful and fact-bereft analysis of the situation, maybe it was an apt choice after all.