How Much Are We Willing to Spend on Being Well Regulated?

by Neil H. Buchanan

My new Verdict column discusses the economic consequences of reacting foolishly to fear and panic, focusing on the extraordinary suspension of rational thought that the Republicans have displayed in response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris (and Beirut).  I quote from Professor Dorf's post here earlier this week, in which he pointed out that the Republicans' overreaction to the 9/11 attacks led to the creation of the ISIS monster, to make the point that we have spent trillions of dollars in the pursuit of policies since 9/11 that have made matters worse, not better.  Rather than measuring benefits against costs, we are left with the sad realization that we have paid dearly, only to discover that we have made matters much worse.

It is true, of course, that Democrats jumped on that bandwagon, too.  Hillary Clinton might well have won the presidency in 2008 if she had not decided to show that she was "tough" by voting to authorize the 2003 Iraq invasion.  Being afraid of looking weak on military issues has led Democrats to do far too many stupid things over recent decades.

In that regard, however, I have to take a moment to say how glad I am that Barack Obama is the President of the United States right now.  Watching clips of his press conference in Turkey recently, I could not help but be thankful that we have an intelligent, informed, humane man with good judgment in charge of our national security apparatus, rather than someone who would rush headlong into another stupid foreign quagmire.  I am hardly in the tank for Obama, having spent countless hours over the last few years criticizing his economic policies.  More generally, I had come to believe that he is not actually a well-motivated liberal who is too timid, but rather that he is a center-right guy on many big issues (for example, his track record on deportations, notwithstanding his support for immigration reform) who is actually doing roughly what he wants to do, rather than being dragged to the right by political circumstances.

With all of that said, however, he is once again showing that people were not wrong to think that there is something special about the man.  His predecessor handed off a terrible economy and a huge mess in the Middle East, and Obama's policy druthers have not been inspired, but he is an adult living in a world populated by adolescent boys.  He understands that it is not possible simply to "win" this conflict by suddenly indulging in an orgy of violence.

The most ridiculous aspect of the Republicans' reactions to the Paris attacks, after all, is their implicit assumption that we could have taken care of this already, but we just were not yet mad enough to do something about it.  What kind of amnesia is this, where we forget about the years of continuing outrages, the beheadings and kidnappings and bombings, where we said each time that this was the last straw?  The simple fact is that, if it were actually easy to solve this problem, we have had more than enough reason well before now to pull out all the stops and do it.

The former football coach Mike Ditka used to say that he never took seriously the importance of "bulletin board material" -- trash talk from the other team that he supposedly could use to inspire his players -- because if his players were not already inspired enough to do everything in their power to win, there was really something wrong.  Can any sane person really think that there was some sensible and effective strategy that we have been keeping on the shelf, just in case we really get pissed off someday?

Having alluded to the existence of sensible and effective strategies, I will now devote the rest of this post to discussing the opposite.  The usual suspects -- Trump, Gingrich, and surely many others -- quickly responded to the Paris attacks by saying that everything would have been fine if Parisians were allowed to carry guns.  In the clip of the speech by Trump that I watched, the audience enthusiastically cheered at this claim.  Although I have frequently noted the dangers of arguendo reasoning -- where saying, "I'll accept your completely incorrect and morally dubious premise for the sake of argument, to show how you are wrong even on your own terms," merely ends up reinforcing the idea that the completely incorrect and morally dubious premise deserves to be taken seriously -- I cannot help but try to walk through the logic of many Republicans' claim that Americans (and now the French) should respond to the possibility of public violence by having everyone carry guns.

The chief concern of those of us who oppose relying on the populace to protect itself by carrying firearms is essentially that "a good guy" carrying a gun might not always succeed in killing the bad guy (or only the bad guy).  Picturing the scene in a university lecture hall (a venue with which I am quite familiar) where a gunman bursts in, for example, what we are supposed to believe is that one or more people in the room would quickly figure out what was happening, pull out their weapons and kill the perpetrator.  What I find much easier to picture is chaotic crossfire, where people are being killed from every direction.

That is not to say that it is impossible to imagine that an incident in which a killer who faces no opposition would kill everyone in a room, whereas a room with chaotic crossfire might end up with a lower body count.  However, I can also imagine increased incidents of violence when the people in a room are all armed, even if no bad guy walks in the room with a premeditated plan for mass murder.  The bottom line is that, even if one can describe a situation in which the right person with a gun in the right place at the right time saves the day, the other ways in which people could kill each other seem much more likely to be the norm.

Even if I am right about that, however, it is at least possible to try to have it both ways, significantly increasing the carrying of weapons by the public while making the public less likely to use their guns unwisely.  What would that require?  The title of this post, "How Much Are We Willing to Spend on Being Well Regulated?" is obviously a play on the language of the Second Amendment regarding a "well regulated militia."  And the Trump view of the world really does amount to turning the population at large into a militia, relying on them to do the jobs that we have traditionally asked police and soldiers to perform.

The thing is, we extensively train police and soldiers to use their weapons.  We put recruits through simulations in which they are presented with split-second decisions about whether there is a threat, and how to deal with it.  We expect these recruits not to simply fire round after round in the general direction of a possible threat.  Police who fire their weapons are expected to be able to explain why "it was a good shoot," meaning that the violence was justified and measured to the situation.

In the extreme, we could imagine a world in which all people have learned to use weapons only when needed, to be expert marksmen, and to store their weapons safely otherwise.  There is no perfection, but when we give law enforcement officers and soldiers the authority to carry weapons, we quite reasonably have expectations of their ability to meet a high standard on all of these measures.

How much are we willing to pay to make this the norm?  Opening "citizens' police academies" everywhere is possible, I suppose, and it might even be possible to set standards by which some people would be deemed something along the lines of "militia 4-F," that is, legally prohibited from carrying guns because they cannot perform up to the standards.  The point is, however, that even a society that actually prohibits gun ownership by the public at large (like the UK, for example) already effectively does this.  If you want to carry a gun to protect yourself and your neighbors, there is a way to do so.  You must join the equivalent of the militia, and be trained to do what police officers do.

And, in Trump World, if we were not willing to pay as a society and as individuals to regulate our new quasi-militia at least that well, then we really would be penny wise and pound foolish.