First, both sides are confronting a very difficult issue while emotions are running high. It is hardly surprising that a considerably body of research has shown that emotions impact decision-making in a variety of ways. While there may be some benefit to a heightened emotional state in this case -- it pushes us to take up a contentious issue when we might otherwise be tempted to "kick the can down the road" -- there is also the danger that we let those emotions trump reason. In particular, listening to one's "gut" is considerably easier than dealing with a complex, multidimensional analysis.
Reliance on Anecdotes
There is a rational analysis of the issue on Randy Cassingham's blog, along with a considerable discussion in the comments section. It illustrates the flaws I'm discussing here, including in particular the reliance on anecdotes as opposed to statistics and decision models. Some parties in favor of tighter control over guns and ammunition will argue that, had those tighter controls been in effect, this particular incident would have/might have been averted, or at least produced a lower body count. Some parties opposed to tighter controls (or opposed to tighter controls merely in reaction to this incident) will argue that other crimes of a similar nature were conducted without the use of firearms, citing in particular the 1927 Bath Township school bombings. (It happens that I live approximate four miles from Bath Township.) Both sides are relying on historical anecdotes.
Mr. Cassingham mentions closures of mental hospitals, and some commenters echo the theme that we need to address mental illness, rather than gun control. It's not clear what prompted those comments, other than what I suspect is a common assumption that you have to be nuts to murder children, but it is possible that some people are recalling previous incidents in which they believe a shooter was mentally deranged (in the clinical sense) and either was denied treatment or should have been (but was not) involuntarily committed to treatment. For what it's worth, the shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (which, to the best of my knowledge, is not a know precursor to violence) but had been receiving treatment. Eric Harris, one of the two Columbine shooters, also suffered some emotional issues but was receiving treatment. The gunman in the 2006 Amish school shooting seems to have been (in unscientific terms) a whack-job, but an undiagnosed one.
In any case, making decisions based on anecdotal evidence is unsound. Anyone in operations research (or statistics) knows that a sample of size 1 is not a useful sample. Reliance on anecdotes also makes us more susceptible to confirmation bias, since (a) we better remember the anecdotes that support our beliefs and (b) we may unconsciously warp those memories if they would otherwise not provide confirmation.
There's a parallel here to the climate control debate. Elements in favor of climate control legislation will argue that a particular weather event (the North American drought in 2012, "Superstorm" Sandy) was the direct result of global warming, even when climatologists are scrupulous in pointing out that there is no direct causal link to a single event. Global warming naysayers will focus on specific events (recent drops in recorded temperatures, record floods from a century or more ago) as evidence that global warming is not occurring, is not a recent phenomenon, or is not exacerbated by man-made emissions.
Optimizing vs. Satisficing
Not that I really believe "satisficing" is a word, but I'll bite the bullet and use it here. Even when a problem has an optimal solution, it is sometimes the case that the time and effort to find it are not adequately rewarded when an alternative solution provides an adequate degree of satisfaction in a more timely or economical manner. Besides the anecdotal aspect, Mr. Cassingham's emphasis on the Bath bombings and the wave of school stabbings and bludgeonings in China (echoed by some of the commenters) implicitly uses the line of argument that if we cannot prevent every mass shooting by enhanced gun control (optimality), it is not worth pursuing. Many (including, I'm willing to bet, Mr. Cassingham) would consider a reduction in mass shootings, or even a reduction in the body counts, as a significant improvement (satisficing). Gun control advocates are not immune from this focus on optimality; they sometimes appear to adopt the position that any level of regulation that would fail to prevent a particular incident is insufficient.
Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis
Okay, you knew this post eventually had to tie back to operations research in some meaningful way (didn't you?). The issue of how to mitigate violence at schools seems to me to be a rather messy example of multi-criteria decision analysis. This is by far not my area of expertise, so I'll keep things rather general here. As I understand MCDA, the discussion we should be having should be framed approximately as follows:
- What are our criteria for success? This includes a variety of objectives: keeping children safe; preserving individual rights; making schools conducive places for learning; maintaining a populace capable of defending itself in times of war (I personally do not subscribe to the theory that gun owners necessarily make more effective soldiers, but it should be considered); and likely other objectives I'm not seeing at the moment.
- How do we quantify/measure attainment of those objectives? For instance, it's fine to say we want no more children to die at school (or perhaps no more deaths specifically from gun violence), but does that mean that a 99% reduction in such deaths has no value? What about a 1% reduction?
- What are our options? We cannot have a meaningful argument about choices without knowing what those choices are.
- What are the costs and consequences of each alternative? These will need to be considered in a probabilistic manner. To take a specific, if rather vague, example, suppose that one of the options bans the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips. That would not stop a shooter from wreaking havoc with one or more standard clips, nor could we be positive that no shooter ever would manage to gain access to a high-capacity clip. For that matter, we have no idea when another school shooting might take place (although, sadly, the "if" does not seem to be in doubt -- see the Wikipedia compilation of school-related attacks for some severely depressing historical evidence.). Someone will need to attempt a quantitative assessment of the frequency and severity of violent incidents under each alternative being considered. "Minority Report" being a work of fiction, we cannot claim that a particular decision will prevent or mitigate a specific future attack; we can only talk about expected benefits (and costs).
- If we consider multiple alternatives in combination, how do they interact? There is no reason to assume that, in our quest to make life safer for our children, we are limited to a single course of action. It would, however, be a mistake to evaluate each course of action independently and then assume that the results of a combination of them would be additive.
- How will we reconcile trade-offs? As one can see in the Wikipedia article on MCDA, there are quite a few methods for solving a multi-criteria decision problem. They differ in large part in how they address the issue of trade-offs. For instance, charitably assuming we can even measure these things, how much freedom are you willing to give up, and/or how much more are you willing to pay in taxes, to eliminate one "expected" future fatality or injury?
Shivaram Subramanian wrote a really interesting and well-researched "Collection of Notes on Gun Control", which I commend to anyone interested in the debate. (You won't often see Louis L'Amour, Isaac Asimov and King Asoka of India name-checked in the same blog post.) He cites a Washington Post column from July, in the aftermath of the Aurora (Colorado) shooting, titled "Six facts about guns, violence and gun control" which is also very much worth reading (or, sadly, rereading).