The Tragedy In Colorado and Policy Failure

July 25th, 2012 at 9:34 am

I’ve not written about the tragedy in Aurora, CO.  It is, at first blush, out of my lane here at OTE, and it is such a viscerally wrenching event that it seems out of place among posts on price movements and Spanish bond yields.

But I’m having trouble getting it out of my head, and one of the reasons has a lot to do with two central themes of this blog: market failure and government failure.

I have, for example, consistently stressed the role of government policy to offset market failures, or “externalities,” such as the safety net or jobs programs in recesssions, or investments in R&D that are beyond the scope of private firms (e.g., the internet or advanced battery technology).

These are externalities that affect our economic lives but what about those that affect our personal lives, such as public safety?  If we cannot safety visit public venues, like movie theaters…if we, as parents, have to worry about the real, even if rare, possibility that our kids could be fatally attacked by a murderous, pathological person who’s armed to the teeth, is this not too a societal failure?

And if politicians are unwilling to address this existential threat, is that not a government failure?  More assuredly, it is.

So, where does that leave us?  The gun lobby argues that the answer is to take matters into our own hands and arm ourselves against such events, as their rep did on the Diane Rehm Show yesterday (I didn’t hear the whole show, but this sounded like a good debate worth listening to).

But for most of us, that doesn’t solve the problem of public safety.  In my terminology, it’s a YOYO solution (you’re-on-your-own) to a systemic problem.  And when you’re dealing with a systems problem, YOYO solutions are unreliable: basically, if you choose not to carry, and many of us will make that choice, you have to hope that a well-trained marksperson is there when you need him or her.  In matters of life and death, that is foolish public policy.

So what are the systems solutions given the second amendment?  Perhaps they are the kinds of ideas in this oped, like:

…restrictions on the purchase of large volumes of ammunition. Who, besides a soldier in battle or a policeman in a siege, needs 6,300 rounds, or a 100-round “drum” magazine like the one in Mr. Holmes’s AR-15 — a modified semiautomatic version of the military full-automatic M-16 — that allowed it to fire as fast as his finger could squeeze the trigger?

(The online ads for drum magazines make one’s skin crawl. On a site called Woot! a 100-round magazine was advertised for $99.95: “Just the ticket, should things really heat up and the lead needs to fly. Of course, this means less time spent reloading, and more time for shooting as fast as you can pull the trigger.”)

When such purchases are made online, software could easily trigger an electronic tripwire signaling that a private individual is stockpiling an army’s worth of ordnance.  Yes, that invokes privacy issues but it’s a tradeoff that most of us would probably be willing to make.

In this spirit, one of the first things I read after the tragedy that made sense to me was from Mayor Bloomberg, who said this on the morning after the attack:

Soothing words are nice.  But maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they’re gonna do about it.

Given that their goal is to get elected, I understand the resistance to a full-on challenge of the gun lobby, though even as I write that I have a sickening feeling that I’ve sacrificed sanity for some freakish version of contemporary reality.  But to fail to address any dimensions of the policy failures and stop with sympathy and flags at half-mast is unacceptable.

And as long as we’re talking about existential policy failures, feel free to swap out “climate change” in place of “public safety” above.  There too, the anti-environment lobby has smothered the opposition such that even as record heat waves, wildfires, drought, spiking crop prices, and “derechos,” wreak havoc, we largely get “nothing to see here folks…move along” from the policy process.

So look, all’s I’m saying here is that you don’t have to get wound up in constitutional debates* or social justice or even common sense (God forbid!) to make the case for some action here.  You just have to believe that there is a role for public policy to insure the safety of its citizens from unreasonable threats as we go about our lives.  Maybe I’m nuts, but that sounds like a very low bar that even the least courageous policy maker should be able to get over.

OK, back to bond yields…


*Though, if we must debate the framers’ intentions re the 2nd amendment, why not be strict constitutionalists?  It’s not their fault that they couldn’t envision the evolution of weaponry…if they could have, they might well have seen this differently (a guy on the D Rehm show was excellent on the 2nd amendment debate).  Thus, if you want to “bear arms,” as is your right, you can bear a musket — that’s it.

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4 comments in reply to "The Tragedy In Colorado and Policy Failure"

  1. Karen Sumpter says:

    I voted in my first election in 1972. Nixon had already been reelected long before I got to the polls – but I voted anyway. I’ve been voting regularly since, though the candidates I support rarely win, because I regard it a duty of citizenship.

    However I’ve recently begun to question whether there is any point. No matter who I vote for or who wins – nothing will be done about anything of importance. The world will continue on the path to 6 degrees and a major extinction event. The US will continue as the most violent society in the developed world and more innocents will be sacrificed to a twisted interpretation of the 2nd amendment. Banks, corporations, and the 1% will continue their program to destroy the middle class and return us to a type of feudalism.

    Fortunately, I won’t live long enough to see the worst of it. But I despair for my child and my nieces and nephews and their children. How did humanity lose out to the forces of greed and banality?

    At least some people keep trying to get the word out. Keep up the good fight!

  2. Sherman Dorn says:


    I’m in favor of reasonable regulations in areas such as assault-weapon and large magazines. But the tragedy in Aurora is the wrong lever for that, for several reasons. The typical gun death we should worry about from a policy stance is the type Chicago citizens are seeing increasingly. Far more people have been murdered in Chicago this year than were murdered last week in Aurora.

  3. davesnyd says:

    I’m not disagreeing with the primary thrust. But your strict constitutionalist interpretation of the 2nd amendment opens up the question, then, of does the 1st cover speech over telephones? Television? The Internet?

    The more relevant question about the 2nd is how the militia clause should be interpreted. The amendment can be viewed as primarily saying that everyone has the right to join the military, as opposed to then-common practices in European countries of excluding minorities from the opportunity to do so.

  4. Jill SH says:

    Well, yes. Let’s talk about the 2nd amendment. Specifically the first 18 words:
    “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people…”

    Well regulated, necessary, security, free State, people. Nowhere does it say individual or even person (singular).

    Seems to strongly imply a social contract of duty and responsibility to the security of the free State (omg, the government?).

    How about anyone who wants to own a gun be automatically enrolled in the National Guard of their state, where they can be trained in the proper use of their weapon of choice, and the sense of responsibility for that weapon can be instilled?

    Another thing often left unacknowledged is the need for more, better, and assertive mental health treatment in this country. Apart from the mental states of the Aurora shooter, or Gabby Giffords’ attacker, the speaker on Diane Rehm the other morning said the largest single number of deaths due to guns is suicides.