Drunk Driving vs. Mass Shooting

The very first comment to my post about assault weapons bans struck me as worth responding to on-blog, because I think it illustrates a particular kind of mistake that is common in these debates:

You make the analogy to banning a certain kind of drink at the end, which I find somewhat entertaining given that drunk driving deaths have declined dramatically in recent years. Textbook example of a case where a concerted effort by the government and public activists to crack down on an undesirable behavior produced tangible positive results. Doesn’t speak well for the nonsensical “we can’t do anything” implications running throughout these posts.

Obviously some laws are effective, and some are not. Drunk driving laws, and heightened enforcement, seem to have been effective. Prohibition was widely concluded to have been counterproductive. One can’t just deal with these questions through broad generalities, whether “we can’t do anything” or “we must do something.” One has to look at the concrete details of the problem, and the feasible proposed regulations.

And if one looks concrete at drunk driving vs. mass shooting, I think one sees precisely what I described in my post on why it’s hard to prevent mass shootings. Consider someone who is deciding whether to drink and drive. This person will often be a generally law-abiding person, who will follow the law both because he normally follows the law and because he has a lot to lose from an arrest and prosecution. He will also often not be strongly motivated to drink and drive; if threatened with punishment for drunk driving, he might drink less, or he might take a cab home or get a ride home.

Moreover, even though a single incident of drunk driving is unlikely to lead to an arrest, people who make a habit of driving drunk know that it’s fairly likely that they’ll got stopped at some point (especially since their drunken driving may make them fairly conspicuous on the road). And even if that’s not enough to deter them, an arrest will at least take them off the road of the evening, and might well lead to a suspended license that keeps them from driving for a longer time (again, both because many such people are generally law-abiding, have a lot to lose from driving with a license suspended because of a DUI, and expect that there’s a decent chance that they’ll at some time be stopped and be caught driving with the suspended license). Obviously, this isn’t true for all drunk drivers, which is why there is still plenty of drunk driving: Many drunk drivers are addicts who find it hard to cut down on their drinking, or aren’t thinking clearly when deciding whether to drive, or will drive even with a suspended license because they feel they have to do so. But there is a substantial chunk of the population who are quite sensitive to changes in the laws or in the enforcement rate.

Mass shooters are in many respects the opposite. They obviously have no respect for the law as such. They are willing to face a near certainty of either death or life in prison, so presumably they wouldn’t be that worried about a very small risk of being caught in an illegal gun transaction. They are very strongly motivated to get a gun, since it’s needed for something that they so value that they’re willing to throw away their lives for it.

Because they will only need the illegal gun for a short time, it’s very unlikely that the police will have an opportunity to catch them and arrest them. Unlike the drunk driver, whose drunk driving often advertises his presence, they can conceal the guns in a bag or some such with little difficulty. So there’s neither a meaningful deterrent effect from the law, nor a substantial possibility of using the law to incapacitate them.

As I said in my initial post, this doesn’t mean that all gun control laws are pointless generally. I’m skeptical about most such laws, but the arguments relating to them are necessarily much more complex, precisely because this question about the likely effectiveness of a law can’t be resolved by appeal to broad generalities such as “we can’t do anything.” But looking at this particular problem — the problem of mass shooters — as opposed to the problem of drunk drivers, felons who have only a modest interest in getting guns, or what have you, it seems to me that the policy solutions that might work in some other situations won’t work well here.