Tag: Newtown

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.

Newtown: A “9/11 for Schools”?

…That’s what a security consultant told Fox News’s Megyn Kelly last week on the day of the Newtown elementary school massacre. We’ll need armed guards, “perimeter security, CCTV, preventative issues with the school psychiatrist [and] police department…” and the whole panoply of items his firm recommends. Newtown, he summed up, “is going to be for schools what 9/11 was for airports.”
In my Washington Examiner column this week, I warn that “If the reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School is anything like the reaction to September 11, we’re in for a decade or more of frantic overreaction and wasteful, destructive policies based on the false promise of perfect safety.” The fact is, as I point out in the column, school is one of the safest places your child can be. In terms of child fatalities, both the backyard pool and the family car are far more dangerous than the classroom. The federal government’s annual report on school violence, Indicators of School Crime and Safety notes that ”over all available survey years, the percentage of youth homicides occurring at school remained at less than 2 percent of the total number of youth homicides.”  As Daniel Gardner puts it in his 2008 book The Science of Fear, year upon year, ”a student’s risk of being murdered in school was de minimis – so tiny it was effectively zero.”   Granted, it certainly doesn’t feel de minimis, after last week’s sickening events.  It even feels callous to put the risk in perspective.  But parents shouldn’t be told their children aren’t safe, and legislators shouldn’t rush to pass laws based on that fear.  In The Science of Fear, Gardner explains that “One of the most consistent findings of risk-perception research is that we overestimate the likelihood of being killed by the things that make the evening news and underestimate those that don’t.” The “rare, vivid, and catastrophic killers” we see on 24-hour-cable news engage our primate “fight or flight” hardwiring, override our rational faculty, and tend to make us “probability blind.” But, Gardner argues, “probability blindness is itself dangerous. It can easily lead people to overreact to risks and do something stupid like abandoning air travel because terrorists hijacked four planes.” And it often, as David Boaz suggests below, spurs legislative panics that leave us no safer, but poorer and less free.