The NRA’s Panic Attack

A few days ago, I made the mordant observation that the wake of the Newtown elementary school massacre would usher in “a brief period in which conservatives rue legislative panics in pursuit of perfect safety,” but come the next terrorist attack, everyone would switch sides.

Apparently, I spoke too soon. In an extraordinary statement to the press Friday, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, breathlessly demanded that we ACT NOW: “Before Congress reconvenes, before we engage in any lengthy debate over legislation, regulation or anything else, as soon as our kids return to school after the holiday break, we need to have every single school in America immediately deploy a protection program proven to work — and by that I mean armed security.” (Transcript here .pdf).

If the phrase “our kids” sticks in your craw, if you tend to think the claim that a policy is “for the children” signals a lousy argument and that promiscuous italicization overeggs the pudding, LaPierre’s speech won’t give you much cause to reconsider.    

LaPierre begins by reeling off a list of the various places in American life where you can find armed guards: “American airports, office buildings, power plants, courthouses — even sports stadiums—are all protected by armed security,” LaPierre marveled;  Congress has the Capitol Police, the President his Secret Service:

Yet when it comes to the most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family—our children—we as a society leave them utterly defenseless, and the monsters and predators of this world know it and exploit it. That must change now!

The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters—people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment? 

How many more copycats are waiting in the wings?…. A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? 

Er, probably not, Wayne. “Multiple-victim homicides at schools, however, occur very rarely. Of the last 109 incidents of school-associated student homicides studied, 101 involved one victim only.” That’s from a 2010 Education Researcher report, “What Can Be Done About School Shootings? A Review of the Evidence.” (.pdf). In it, the authors put the problem in perspective with a rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation:

In the 10-year period from 1996–1997 to 2005–2006, 207 student homicides occurred in U.S. schools, an average of 21 deaths per year. Dividing the nation’s approximately 125,000 elementary and secondary schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2008) by 21, any given school can expect to experience a student homicide about once every 6,000 years.

Yet LaPierre insists the monsters are all around us! They could be anywhere!  Without “an active national database of the mentally ill,” LaPierre exclaims, how can we know who they are? And without “a police officer in every school,” “a properly trained—armed—good guy” anywhere the monsters might strike, “our kids” will remain vulnerable: “There’ll be time for talk and debate later. This is the time, this is the day for decisive action.” Hysteria in defense of gun rights is no vice, apparently.

This is an appallingly silly way to think about risk.

And appallingly common: click over to the Lawfare blog, where the Brookings Institution’s Ben Wittes highlights what he deems some “provocative thoughts on the Newtown shootings and layered physical security in counterterrorism” from Carrie Cordero, who writes:

I want to see police officers posted out front at every school in America.

Yes, every school. ….

We protect ourselves. Why aren’t we protecting our kids? Our babies.

Ms. Cordero, it turns out, is Georgetown Law School’s director of national security studies, who previously “served in national security related policy and operational positions with the Department of Justice from 2000-2010.” If this is how national security professionals handle risk assessment, then it’s little wonder America’s becoming the land of surveillance cameras, paramilitary policing, and stop-and-grope travel. And if this is how major figures on the right handle horrible—but vanishingly rare—tragedies, the Second Amendment is hardly the only part of the Bill of Rights that will be at risk.