Lawmakers need to address the nation’s mass-shooting problem for the right reasons.
With events as horrible as the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the natural instinct of concerned people is to do something, anything, whatever it takes to solve a problem, even if the action taken doesn’t.
So it is unsurprising that those events and the mass attention they have drawn are dominating the national conversation about mass shootings, their causes and, more importantly, their prevention.
The public concern also is driving political concerns, and members of state legislatures and Congress are responding, some with concern and some to exploit circumstances for personal gain.
For an example of the latter, consider U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, who immediately sent out letters expressing outrage over what occurred and asking for contributions to her presidential campaign.
More common is the response of members of the U.S. House of Representatives like Rodney Davis.
The Illinois Republican said he is urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call lawmakers back to Washington, D.C., to talk about passing a national “red flag” law.
“That’s something that needs to happen, that’s something that could’ve affected Dayton, it could’ve affected Parkland, too,” Davis said.
Red flag laws allow courts to temporarily confiscate firearms of anyone deemed to be a risk to themselves or others. Aimed at preventing tragedies like the ones in El Paso and Dayton, red flag laws permit police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from those who may present a danger to others or themselves.
Interestingly, that’s the same legal test — a danger to self or others — that provides legal grounds for an involuntary civil commitment of a disturbed person to a mental health facility.
As anyone can tell from observing disturbed people walking around in public, the law establishes a high legal standard. Many people are disturbed. But who can say with certainty what they will do or not do and to whom?
What’s obvious in hindsight isn’t so clear in advance, as the FBI noted in its examination of mass shootings that occurred between 2000 and 2013. People see things that, in retrospect, they consider to be red flags, but routinely take no action to alert authorities.
So, despite all the rhetoric about red flags, no one should get too excited about a red flag law’s impact on this problem.
Then there’s the problem with predictions. They are routinely wrong.
As Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz reported, a 2006 study of predictions about future violent behavior “contain many more who won’t be violent” than will.
“We don’t have the predictive tools necessary to raise the number of true positives, while at the same time reducing false positives,” he wrote.
Those who would prefer to abolish a person’s right to own a firearm, of course, would not be bothered by false positives. In their minds, the fewer guns there are in anyone’s hands, the better.
But those concerned about individual rights are rightly troubled by the notion of relying on predictions of future behavior as grounds for sanctions. Further, how far do sanctions go based on predictions of future violent behavior?
As Dershowitz noted, the relatives of 100,000 Japanese-Americans held in internment camps during World War II might have some opinions on that question.
Given the political atmosphere, it seems certain that federal and state legislators will move swiftly to address this issue.
But they’ll be doing it in the wrong atmosphere — a fever pitch driven, in part, by political gamesmanship — and for the wrong reason — to calm the national storm. Whether their proposals are effective is a different matter.
There is considerable room under the Second Amendment to establish reasonable rules regarding gun ownership. But it requires a delicate balance and a thoughtful approach not usually on display as emotions and tempers are running wild.