Thoughts on the Tragedies of December 14th

I started this post on December 14th, and couldn’t finish it. I’m going to leave the opening as I wrote it then: By now, everyone has heard of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. My heart goes out to everyone touched by the events. But this isn’t the first school shooting on a December 14th. I went to a tiny school, Simon’s Rock, and on December 14, 1992, Wayne Lo murdered my friend Galen Gibson and Professor Ñacuñán Sáez. He also shot my friend Tom McElderry. I can still remember the phone call from my friend Chi, telling me that Tommy had been shot and was in the hospital. I remember being up all night, spreading what little information we had by phone, and wondering what the hell was going on. I remember that weeks later, I’d get emails from co-workers whose local papers in places like Japan finally carried the story. For years after, I took December 14th as a day off, because it was hard to handle life with that weighing on you.

It’s a sad reality that we now have enough school shootings that one of them was going to fall on an anniversary of another. (Statisticians call this the birthday problem.) It’s also a sad reality that we have enough of them that schools, police and emergency responders have plans for them.

What a fucking world.

Some people like to say things like “time heals all wounds,” but you know? Greg Gibson isn’t going to get his son back. Ñacuñán’s family isn’t going to get him back. And twenty or more families in Sandy Hook will never again be the same. I’m having trouble editing this more than a month later because of how the memories flood back.

All that to say that I have some understanding of these events, and I think I can talk about them differently than a random observer.

A lot of people are using this tragedy to say we need gun control. I understand where they’re coming from, and I disagree. We’ve had a lifetime of marijuana control, and it didn’t work. We suffered under crypto controls, and they didn’t work. Assholes who want a gun will likely to be able to get a gun whatever regime we put in place. There’s some truth to the claim that if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Maybe we’d gain some ability to catch these nuts early, but maybe not. Those who say that easy availability of guns drives murder rates must do better than simply cherry picking data. What makes the US worse than Switzerland or Israel?

Yesterday, the President outlined a set of proposals including expanded background checks, and signed executive actions including one to “encourage federal agencies and state governments to share more information.” And now I find it hard to speak, and hard to remain silent.

Infringing privacy would not have stopped the events at Sandy Hook, and I worry that reducing privacy around mental health care is going to deter people who need health care from getting it. That may mean that more people will end up hurt or dead. I’m confident that no one wants that, and we need to rationally consider the tradeoff.

I also see a lot of people who are worried about gun control being so strident that they’re undercutting their own case. I agree that gun control is a poor response, and I think the NRA are coming off like a bunch of idiots. I’m trying not to be strident, just add a voice to say that even from a position of grief, it’s possible to see that what’s proposed probably will not meet the goals.

I don’t know what we should do. I do think that taking the entire TSA budget and moving it to mental health care would be a fine start.

Another fine way to proceed would be to threat model and try to judge the efficacy of the mitigation techniques. (For those who don’t know me, I spent a few years designing threat modeling tools and techniques which you can read about here.) Perhaps that starts from data on how people who use guns to hurt themselves or others get them. There’s an easy trope of “buys a gun and shoots someone.” Is that because it’s common, or because the stories are highly “available” and spring to mind? I don’t know, and in that vein, more studies of gun ownership and gun violence are probably going to help. Whatever approach to threat modeling we take should also include the hundreds of millions of guns owned by hundreds of millions of people and not misused.

We can and should do better than bringing back ideas that didn’t pass muster in calmer times. We should be cautious about trading a little liberty for a little safety. And whatever we do, we should do so respectful of the victims.

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