Saving Lives Doesn’t Always Carry the Debate

A couple of Muslims recently perpetrated a mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, that looks to have been inspired by Islamic State.  14 people were killed and many more injured.  The first thing one must realize is that this was a “media event” — it is not something that is happening on a wide scale, mass shootings of all kinds are so rare that it is exceedingly unlikely to die from one.  Note that homicide is the 27th most likely cause of death in the United States, with about 0.6% of total deaths, and mass shootings are a very tiny fraction of homicides.

But there were several responses as to how we are to deal with this “threat”:

  1. Enact gun control.
  2. Reduce or block Muslim immigration.
  3. Increase government surveillance of civilians.

1 and 3 both have constitutional problems — the 2nd amendment of the Bill of Rights, as currently interpreted by the courts, entitles citizens to own guns, and the 4th amendment forbids excessive searches without a warrant.  It should be noted that both of these rights are among the most weakly enforced rights in the constitution.  There is no constitutional problem with 2, as someone who wants to immigrate has no rights under the constitution and can legally be refused entry for any reason or no reason.

I will posit here that all 3 of these measures could save lives.  But there are people, myself included, who are vehemently opposed to at least one of them, regardless of how many lives would be saved.

Gun Control

Michael Shermer, a public intellectual who has frequently debated in favor of gun control, says he observes that the gun enthusiasts debating against him, when cornered and confronted with the reality that gun control would save lives, don’t care.  They feel that the right of citizens to arm themselves is a sacred, fundamental, and important right that should not be abridged, regardless of the cost in lives.

Gun enthusiasts often argue that had there not been gun control in Nazi Germany, the Jews could have resisted violently rather than passively being rounded up and marched into the gas chambers.  They also argue that mass shootings would be less deadly had there been more “good guys” carrying concealed guns on the scene, but this is a fairly ridiculous argument and I don’t believe it’s their prime motivation.  Most of their ideology is bound in the idea that an armed populace is an important check on government tyranny.

Reducing Muslim Immigration

We have had about 3,000 deaths from Islamic terrorism in the US over the last 20 years.  With about 4 million Muslims in the country, that boils down to about one American civilian death, per year, for every 25,000 Muslims in the country.  Most of those deaths were in 9/11, but there is no reason to believe that an attack on that scale could not happen again.  It’s harder to hijack a plane than it was before 9/11, but there are many ways to kill large numbers of people, all that is required is a bit of imagination.  If anything, the threat is elevated since before 9/11, since ISIS is more adept than Al-Qaeda was at radicalizing westerners on the Internet.

But again, the people who advocate for immigration don’t care about the loss of life.  Many people object to the idea of a religious litmus test on immigration, because it is inconsistent with our desire to be a secular, diverse society with freedom of religion.  Many people also, for reasons I don’t understand, believe that it is somehow vital to just take large numbers of immigrants, as an end in itself.

Increased Government Surveillance

Whistle blower Edward Snowden revealed that the extent to which the American government is spying on its citizens goes far beyond the level that most people perceived to be going on.  There have been some half-hearted efforts by politicians to reign this in.  Some Internet companies have responded by encrypting their customers’ email in such a way that it is technically impossible for the Internet company to decrypt the email, even if they are faced with a court order.  Some politicians have been trying to make this practice illegal.

It is clear that giving the government the right to read all of everybody’s email will help them thwart terrorists and save lives.  But those who object to such spying don’t care about the lives saved.  The potential for abuse here is huge, and inevitable.  Possibly the government can misuse it to spy on political enemies, rogue employees of the government could track people they know for their own purposes that have nothing to do with thwarting terrorism, and people could be blackmailed by the government or by rogue government employees.  Those who object to surveillance believe that privacy is a sacred, fundamental human right that should be respected.