A fear tolerant equilibrium

Like everyone else, it has taken me some days to even begin to process the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. There is a part of me that wonders if we ever will but then again, evil things have happened before and somehow life goes on.

In thinking about this, I kept coming back to the strangeness of what Americans find acceptable and how different the experience is for those who come from many other countries, like me, from Australia. Let me provide a story that illustrates this.

From 2010 to 2011, we lived in Brookline MA. This is a fairly prosperous community with a very strong public school system. The strength of that system attracted residents who cared about the education of their children and that, in turn, fostered a community around those schools. One of the aspects of that community were regular meetings between parents to discuss issues. We hosted one of these meetings, which is why I was at it, amongst Grade 7 parents. The attendees discussed many things but one topic for conversation was “rules for where your children can have playdates.” As it turned out, this is not something we had thought enough about to really have rules but I guess we implicitly had them. And I can’t remember what rules emerged in the discussion except for one; the very first one mentioned. “Well, I don’t allow my kids to go over to a house that has a gun.” There were nods all around in broad agreement but to my partner and I, our jaws dropped.

This was a level of experience that had never occurred to us. We had simply not thought that there might be a gun in people’s homes anywhere, let alone Brookline. But as it turned out there were. And I guess our initial reaction was that that sounded like a pretty good rule and we should probably adopt it.

It didn’t take us long to start to wonder more about this. First of all, how do you know? Do you like ask the parents if they have a gun and then implement your rule accordingly? How does that discussion work?

Second, what precisely was the issue with the gun in the house? The first thing that I thought about was that it wasn’t safe. The kids might play with it and it is safe to say that is a bad idea. But actually it wasn’t clear that was the issue the other parents were worried about. The guns were usually locked away because, after all, the house had kids too. What the other parents seemed to be worried about was the type of person who would have a gun in the house. But I didn’t know what to think about there either. I mean there are so many things that I might not like about other parents and having a gun is not necessarily at the top of the list. What would I be worried about? Were they violent? Were they too scared? Did they have a strong protective streak? Or was this a sign of mental instability? Something did not sit right about screening on guns. After all, some of the weird views parents express at these parent meetings gives me much more pause!

In the end, we left the US and moved to Canada where there is no need to have a ‘gun in the house’ policy so it became a moot point. But the whole experience was a wake up call as to how different it is in the US.

At some level, the US seems more tolerant of living in a fearful equilibrium. It seems obvious to so many outside the US, that it is better to keep guns tightly controlled, if only to keep them out of the hands of the mentally unstable that time and time again, the reaction to events where guns have been in the hands of the mentally unstable and done harm has led to more gun control rather than less. For instance, when 35 people died at the hands a single assailant in the town of Port Arthur Tasmania, the conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, instituted strong controls (although not a prohibition) on semi-automatic and automatic weapons. Moreover, realising that stopping future sales wasn’t enough, engaged in a buy-back scheme  to remove 600,000 existing weapons from the public hands. Think about it, this was expensive costing half a billion dollars and requiring a 1 percent tax on all income. (The scheme actually had a statistically significant effect on both gun related homicides and suicides). Here is Howard’s response to the Newtown tragedy.

But what remains true is that there is no 100 percent protection. Someone determined and calculating can do terrible things as the Norwegian 2011 massacre demonstrated. That led to serious policing reorganisation but gun control was already tight. Interestingly, it did not lead to a weakening of gun controls.

Why do I say that is interesting? Well, it is worth considering the baseline argument in the US underpinning the right to bear arms. It comes from a belief that guns and gun proliferation actually deters gun crime. The quintessential case would be a mentally unstable person opening fire in a public place only to be cut short by gun carrying citizens. Better still, and this applies less to the mentally unstable, a would be murder would be deterred entirely. The point here is that the fear of armed crimes fuels a baseline argument for more gun ownership. In that respect, it is as much a symptom as a cause of that fear.

But how does this relate to the particular problem of protecting school children? One thing that gun control advocates and detractors appear to share is that school children should be protected from gun crime. The gun control method is to remove the guns. This won’t prevent calculated criminals from getting guns but it may well prevent the mentally unstable ones from so doing. One of the things that came with the Australian gun laws was very strong monitoring of gun ownership.

What is the alternative view? The idea is that if there were more guns at hand, a gun criminal entering a school could be either deterred or stopped in their tracks. Now, for the mentally unstable, it does not seem plausible that deterrence is the issue. What about a gun-led response?

This is tricky on a number of levels. First of all, it is not necessarily an issue related to gun control at all. For instance, regardless of whether there is a right to bear arms, you could permit certain forms of security in schools. You could have guards or even arm teachers in some way. The point is that whether you choose to do that is unrelated as to whether you control guns elsewhere; although the need would be related.

Second, can it work? What would the plan be to defend a school? Should all schools in the US receive some combat training plus drills and contingency plans? That sounds expensive but what is interesting is that those who fear gun crime and believe counter-force is a response do not appear to be advocating this.

More likely is that trained security professionals are installed in the schools. Now I have had a taste of this. In Australia, my kids attended a Jewish day school. These schools received bomb threats and so there was always some security concern. There were security guards but they were not armed. The basic idea was that if there was some agitator, they could be dealt with. Perhaps if a bomb were being delivered there may be a little more warning. That was the idea.

One day some parents became concerned that that wasn’t enough. So they moved to train more parent volunteers in hand-to-hand combat. As it was put to me, the logic was two fold. In both cases the logic was flawed. First, we were told that the security guards were low paid and so we couldn’t expect them to really risk their lives for the children. Better to have parents there. Well, that was already wrong. If you believe the incentive issue for the security guard, it was even worse for the parents. They were parents of other kids. Did people really think that was better protection for their own kids? If I was the parent out there, I can tell you that it wouldn’t be. In any case, as we have seen recently, teachers — also low paid for what they were asked to do — did have the motivation to protect the children.

The second argument was that with clearly visible parent volunteers (they would wear jackets) a would be criminal would see this and, if they are intent on doing damage, go to another school. While this argument was one that worked for one school it seemed to me to be morally abhorrent. You want to train parents in protection to get the crime to move to harm kids in other schools? That didn’t work for me.

I wasn’t alone amongst parents though of thinking that visible security was not what we were after. Yes, there were risks but living in a way that reacted to and acknowledged very low probability fears was not going to work.

The point, however, is a stronger one. When there is a non-zero probability of a gun related attack on schools, there is no way of countering that perfectly. You could put security into the schools but there is actually an incentive issue there, there is certainly an economics issue and there is an issue of the allocation of security strength. The last thing an education system needs is an arms race on protection. After all, the goal would be to be the most protected school in an area. That is a race to the bottom.

The alternative to all this is more guns in the community to prevent crime where-ever it might spring up. But the same issue — you cannot eliminate fear — remains. Israel which comes as close that situation as anywhere has not been able to stop terrorist attacks within its borders.

In any case, this is a digression. To the rest of the world, gun control is natural and obvious. Many in the US, were surprised when Rupert Murdoch tweeted as such two days ago. I wasn’t surprised. He is an Australian and to non-US people, gun control seems obvious.

The question is why isn’t it so obvious within the US. It could be a bad equilibrium. There are so many guns that it is (a) impossible to do anything about it and (b) that level of gun ownership leads to others wanting to have guns.

But I think there is also a tolerance for living in fear that exists in the US that doesn’t exist elsewhere. To gun control opponents, they would rather live with the fear of another person with a gun potentially harming them and have that fear be acknowledged by a delegation of control to deal with that person themselves. This is the idea of putting safety in their own hands. They fear other people and also fear no other person can protect them.

To gun control advocates, they fear those with guns. This was the reaction of the Brookline parents. They fear that gun owners cannot be relied upon to be responsible. The vast majority are. So they often favour outright bans rather than the more intrusive licensing and regulations that other countries have put in place. In other words, they shy away from a nuanced response to gun control in favour of blanket bans. But those bans only last so long as someone invents around them.

The US is tolerant of fear. In this case, it manifests itself in lax gun control laws. But it also appears to lie at the root of other policies where the US differs from the rest of the world. Not having universal health care, comes with the notion that there it is alright for people to live in fear of a personal health crisis. And airport security perpetuates the fear of terrorism. In each case, the argument that something might be doing just because there will be less fear in the population does not win in the political process.

For the rest of us, last Friday was one of those days that reaffirmed our choices not to live in the US. We just can’t understand it.

6 thoughts on “A fear tolerant equilibrium”

  1. Josh, this is one of the best analyses I’ve seen in the last couple of days, because it gets the basic model right: more guns means bad guys or sick people can get a gun more easily, which increases crime, but also makes it easier for civilians to use guns defensively to stop crimes. The vast majority of the discussion, particularly from strong gun-control proponents, simply assumes this latter effect is zero, and that the only benefit of gun ownership is some kind of redneck pride (“America’s love affair with guns”) or an irrational fear of big government or whatever. Once you have the basic model right, the rest is an empirical question — which effect outweighs the other. The problem is that we have good data on crimes committed with guns, but poor data on crimes deterred with guns (“the potential victim brandished a gun, and the robber fled” is rarely in the police report, if the event is reported at all). And note that the relevant dependent variable is not simply homicides (or homicides + suicides), but some measure of crime more generally.


  2. Something did not sit right about screening on guns.
    Maybe a more useful screening criterion would be presence of books in the house.


  3. If the US is so tolerant of fear why is it so reactive in its defense policy. I didn’t see any equilibrium of fear in relation to reaction to September 11. Or the extent of crackdown on drug use. It seems to be a culture quite intolerant of many fear inducing things at the expense of freedoms not explicitly mentioned in the Bill of Rights which appears to be imbued with a sense of mysticism that only a religious person can understand. I think the attachment to guns is a mixture of historical/cultural attachment, and a belief that every social problem can be tackled with reactive aggression. Be it drugs (war on drugs), crime (death penalty and long sentences) or terrorism (fear of all muslims and a series of adventurist wars overseas). Just because a paranoid person stands up for their right to react doesn’t mean they are comfortable with fear.


  4. Also we don’t have any data on crimes that would have ended in fatality had the criminal or the victim had a gun.


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