Santa Barbara “Shootings”

The first thing to remember about any of these mass killings is: it’s really all about him. Their chosen target group is more or less random, and their victims are seldom actually from the target group. Many of those who are hurt and die have nothing to do with the ostensible obsession of the killer.

These young men — and it is almost always a relatively young man[1] — demonstrate self-loathing, but are at the same time narcissistic. Instead of admitting that they hate themselves, they seek to externalize their pain. They pick a group: blacks, Jews, rich people, poor people, mentally disabled, women — someone they can safely “other”, someone who represents something they fear, or someone who possesses something they covet — and make that group a target for all of their failings, problems (whether real or imagined) and extreme emotions. Then they make grandiose plans.

Mark Sappenfield for the Christian Science Monitor:

… The young men who are overwhelmingly responsible for these shooting sprees fit a very clear portrait: self-obsessed yet marginalized in some way. Their rampages are not fits of senseless rage, but cold, calculating attempts to level the score with society.

In the attempt to become an antihero – to lay bare how they think they have been wronged by others – these men need an audience, and shooting sprees are the ultimate way to get one.

This incident is being framed as a gun control issue, and as a feminist issue, but his first victims were 3 men he stabbed to death. Men, not women. A knife, not a gun.

He attacked those closest to him first; intimates, roommates. This is very common when someone commits violence of any kind. You are most at risk from someone you know well.

According to the timeline of his spree, he was only able to focus himself on his chosen scapegoat group for a very short time, and he was completely unsuccessful in finding a target at the sorority house he visited. He shot three women at random, who just happened to be in the area. He shot another man (who he might have known), and then randomly attacked several more groups of people, both men and women, as he drove around.

Despite the mindshare that mass shootings get in the news, they are a vanishingly small part of the overall landscape of violent crime. Even among firearm murders they comprise “less than one percent of gun murder victims recorded by the FBI in 2010”.[2] Which correlates well with the information in a Pew Research article, “According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics review, homicides that claimed at least three lives accounted for less than 1% of all homicide deaths from 1980 to 2008.”[3]

While #YesAllWomen has shone light on issues that had been ignored or marginalized by too many, and the greater attention paid to those issues is probably a net positive, framing this story as a consequence of misogyny is twisting the facts to fit an ideology. It might be useful for publicity, but it’s not reflective of what actually happened.

The more sad and frightening truth is that women are not in any particular danger from men like Elliot Rodger. Women are most likely to be killed by a current boyfriend or husband, a man who was previously in an intimate relationship with her, or another man she knows well. Serious violence from strangers is relatively uncommon for women.

The reality is that men have the most to fear from men they don’t know well.[4] Women should be most wary of men they have current or prior relationships with.[5]

The violence in Santa Barbara was the product of one disturbed young man’s ideation. It may be reflective of the society itself, but only insomuch as American society glorifies violence in general and dotes on spectacle. Viewed dispassionately, Rodger’s spree has little to do with misogyny; it was a symptom of his pathology, not an underlying cause. His use of a firearm in the commission of some of his crimes may provide an excuse for people to discuss gun control again, but it adds nothing meaningful to the debate. The issues people have chosen to impose on the narrative are mostly spurious.

How do we prevent spree killings? My answer: ignore them. They feed on publicity. But, this hasn’t worked for “celebrity”, so what do I know?


  1. “The average age of the shooters in the incidents identified by CRS was 33.5 years.” Congressional Research Service report, Public Mass Shootings in the United States: Selected Implications for Federal Public Health and Safety Policy
    (PDF)  ↩

  2. Analysis of Recent Mass Shootings (PDF) from the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, pg. 3. (Source via: Journalist’s Resource)  ↩

  3. Gun Homicide Rate Down 49% Since 1993 Peak; Public Unaware The downward trend has started to reverse since 2007, but is still generally declining.  ↩

  4. “Males represented 77% of homicide victims and nearly 90% of offenders. The victimization rate for males (11.6 per 100,000) was 3 times higher than the rate for females (3.4 per 100,000). The offending rate for males (15.1 per 100,000) was almost 9 times higher than the rate for females (1.7 per 100,000).” And later, “Males were nearly 4 times more likely than females to be murdered in 2008”, which was the most recent year compiled in the report, Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980–2008 (PDF)  ↩

  5. NISVS 2010 Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey  ↩

US Gun Homicides at 20 Year Low

Gun homicides in the United States have fallen sharply since peaking in 1993, two studies have found.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics said firearms-related homicides had dropped to 11,101 in 2011 from 18,253 - a reduction of 39%.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found gun homicides fell to 3.6 per 100,000 people in 2010 from 7 in 1993.

You wouldn't think this was true from the amount of news coverage of anything even tangentially related to guns, including headliner stories about accidental shootings by kids screwing around with guns that they shouldn't have had access to if they had more responsible parents. It might be the case that there are more spree shootings, but overall gun violence is way down.

Boston Bombings

The Boston bombings provide a clear example of what I wrote about earlier when I said that legislative band-aids like firearms bans don't prevent mass killings. Someone who is determined enough will find a way to harm people. These two men didn't need guns to carry out their attack, though they used them later trying to escape. I doubt that registration and background checks would have prevented them from obtaining those guns either.

If anyone was actually interested in logical consistency, Americans would now start pushing for a ban on pressure cookers. After all, the only people who really need one are those who live at altitude. Maybe we should run background checks and require certification of residency at an altitude greater than 2,500 feet for pressure cooker purchases.

How about attempting to regulate black powder? Even if you track fireworks and model rocketry purchases (among other readily available sources of potentially explosive materials) you wouldn't be able to stop someone armed with fairly low-level knowledge and skill from making their own. Historical reenactment enthusiasts have even made black powder by hand, using historical techniques and raw materials like livestock urine, potash, wood charcoal, and sulfur. It's considerably easier to get the necessary ingredients now, in a modern industrial society, than it was when black powder was a military-grade material. There's even been some talk of taggants in commercial preparations, though that wouldn't matter until after the fact, when trying to track down where the materials for the bomb came from, and wouldn't help at all with homemade preparations.

Instead of focusing on the specific tools used in an attack, attention should always be directed toward intelligence gathering. This is the information age; information is paramount. Anyone with a knowledge of basic chemistry can make several different explosive materials in their garage easier than someone can cook up a batch of meth, and look how many tweekers seem to be able to manage that.

Granted, this particular kind of attack is one of the most difficult to detect. Lone nutjobs or small partnerships with no larger group affiliation or outside funding are brutally hard to find before they do something irrevocable.

Law enforcement maintains a tradition of secrecy regarding terrorism that is usually counterproductive. Help from the public has time and time again proven crucial for finding those responsible for attacks like these, before they can commit another attack. There should be more transparency and better information sharing from government agencies. Citizen training programs could also help in getting good-quality, timely information for investigating before and after attacks; providing more wheat and less chaff in citizen reports.

Panicking doesn't help. Legislation drafted while panicking certainly doesn't help. The most effective parts of the PATRIOT Act, for example, have been in interdepartmental information sharing, not the draconian provisions circumventing the Bill of Rights that allow actions like warrantless wiretaps, secret searches of property and the installation of spyware and keylogging software, or indefinite imprisonment without trial.

How do Americans win against terrorism?

By sharing information as openly as possible. The identification of the Boston bombers was made by the public, not through the gathering of secret surveillance or the use of high-tech facial recognition software.

By defying terrorists and not letting them manipulate us into the responses they desire. Every erosion of rights and freedoms makes our society less democratic and more authoritarian.

By not being scared. Fear was the motivating factor behind two major wars, huge changes for the worse in the American law and justice system, and hysterical counter-reactions of such ignorance that Sikhs worry that they're going to be the target of hate crimes when an attack by "possible Muslims" occurs.

Bans of X and Wars on Y do not work. They do not make us safer. They do not make us more free. They do not even allow us to more quickly apprehend the offenders after an attack. They do not improve our lives in any way.

Connecticut Shootings and Japanese Firearm Law

I’m going to express what is likely to be a very unpopular opinion: legislation-based gun control in the US will not work. The reasons other countries have lower crime rates have far more to do with differences in their societies and culture than any laws against firearms that are in place. The most wrong-headed “comparison” I’ve yet seen in the wake of the Connecticut shooting is looking to Japan as a positive example of a complete firearm ban that works. The first problem I have is in pointing to Japan’s minuscule double-digit firearm death figure as if it means something. Japan’s overall violent crime rate is about one tenth of that of the US’s, so even if you were just counting fistfights, Japan would look like a Sunday bingo game in a Florida rest home compared to complementary beer-and-crank night at a biker bar. It doesn’t mean anything in this context.

Is gun crime nearly non-existent in Japan? Yes. Is overall violent crime and murder lower in Japan? Dramatically yes. Does Japan still have shootings? Yes. Does Japan still have murders? Yes. Do they have some particularly grisly murders? You betcha.

If you really wanted Japan-style gun control to work, first you’d have to go back in time and subject Americans to a couple of hundred years under a repressive military regime that forcibly disarmed the entire populace, and kept everyone in line through brutal collective capital punishment if even one person in an area showed signs of resistance. Then you’d have to be willing to substantially change Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendment rights, along with completely repealing the Second Amendment.

You’d also have to be willing to live in a police state. Lefties, if you thought the Patriot Act was an affront to civil rights, you haven’t really seen anything. Righties … well, better hope God helps you, because you would really not like Japan-style centralized and standardized homogeneity. Japan is a police state — an ostensibly friendly and community-oriented police state, but don’t fool yourself, the police are centrally organized, they have broad powers, and they explicitly function as a tool of the central government.

The social cost would be high, probably higher than any American would be willing to pay. One of trade offs the Japanese made for a peaceful society was a stifling level of social control on top of the strong, centrally organized police force. One side-effect of these social pressures is an adult suicide rate higher than virtually any other industrial country, usually at least double that of the US annual rate in any given year.

Associative guilt is part of the cultural landscape. If someone is accused of doing something wrong, everyone they know is automatically suspect of wrongdoing. It’s normal for parents to apologize publicly for crimes their children may be accused of, prior to any conviction. In fact, sufficiently abject apologies and expressions of remorse can lead to lenient sentences if convicted, or even dismissal of charges in some cases.

Friends and acquaintances will disassociate themselves from the accused. Just being accused of a crime — even without being convicted — can be grounds for dismissal from your job, and unlike the US, you will have few grounds for disputing it or collecting any civil damages. In some cases (like mine) your contract explicitly stipulates that an arrest will result in termination without recourse.

You don’t need to be guilty of anything to be arrested. This is why most people in Japanese society don’t even want to appear to be doing anything wrong. You don’t have to be convicted to destroy your life, you just have to look guilty enough to be arrested. You don’t bear the burden of an actual crime on your own, you affect your family, friends, and anyone who was known to be associated with you.

Youth crime is very low partly due to the school system, which has tiers of institutions. This means that almost everyone in their teens attends some kind of school, and they’re heavily supervised and controlled at school. Semi-mandatory involvement in club activities mean that school hours extend well into the evening. The universal use of school uniforms means that trouble-makers can often be quickly identified in the scant time the kids might have between school and home. Police involvement in the community is high, which also has a curbing effect on crime of any sort.

Conviction rates for prosecutions are disturbingly high. So, if you are actually prosecuted for a crime, you are going to prison. If you receive the death penalty, you will be hanged at some undetermined point in the future, and your family will be informed after the fact.

According to Article 38 of the post-War constitution, a criminal prosecution should not have a confession as its primary or only evidence. In practice, confessions are still key, and the lengths that police will go to in the extraction of a confession can be abusive, in contravention of international law, and bordering on actual torture in some cases. People have been deprived of food, beaten, deprived of sleep, questioned for hours or even days by shifts of interrogators, and forced to assume stress positions, just as a few examples. There were a couple of publicly embarrassing cases that may lead to reforms that will finally end these kinds of abuses. Eventually.

Even in the absence of actual abuse, you have very few rights if you’re being held by the police. In the most benign of circumstances, you will at least be isolated and subjected to prolonged and repeated interrogation without any advocate to support you. You probably will not be allowed to contact anyone at all to inform them of your whereabouts. You do have a right to counsel, but don’t have a right to have a lawyer present during questioning. Foreigners have complained of incompetent or inadequate translation from third-party translators — or of the complete absence of a neutral translator, having only one of the police officers serving as a translator — among other treatment that is frankly shocking to most Westerners.

You will be heavily pressured to sign a confession and will probably be told that signing a confession of guilt can expedite your release, even if you maintain that you are innocent. You can be held for up to two days without being charged with anything at all. Charges must be offered after this time, and this is usually when the person under arrest actually finds out what he or she was arrested for, and also when they are informed of the right to counsel. An optional petition to a judge for an extra 10 to 20 days is nearly always granted. The justice system is not an adversarial one like the US.

You are not presumed innocent.

The nitty-gritty of the actual steps you need to take to obtain a firearm seem almost lenient when you think about it in the background of the justice system. Dave Kopel did a full report on the rules in the 90s that is still probably the best English resource. First, you have to provide a reason for wanting a gun. Some of the things you must do to own a gun in Japan are: fill out volumes of paperwork, pass repeated interviews with police, provide proof positive that you’re not crazy, give a detailed map of where you store the guns, a key to the mandatory safe, and carte blanche to police to enter your home and search to confirm the presence of the guns and even count the ammunition at any time the police feel like it. In effect, you waive what Americans would consider your Fourth Amendment rights.

Gun violence is very low in Japan because no one but the government ever really had access to guns in the first place — a tradition that has continued for centuries. In theory, the Japanese Constitution provides protection of most of the same rights Americans are used to thinking of as the Bill of Rights. But because there is no tradition at all of personal rights, the Japanese people accept laws and customs that effectively contravene their constitutional rights, and that place restrictions on personal freedoms and privacy that Americans would never willingly live under.

And they still have shootings.

They also have incidents like:

  • A 12 year old girl who cut up another girl with a utility knife.
  • A teenager who cut off his mother’s head and carried it around with him until he was arrested at an internet cafe.
  • Various other stabbings and bludgeonings, including the infamous case of a 14 year old who cut off his 11 year old victim’s head and stuck it on the school gates.
  • A knife attack at a school in Osaka that left 8 children dead and 13 children and teachers wounded.
  • A combination truck and knife attack in Akihabara that killed 7 and injured 10.

No matter what you do, you’re not going to stop any and all massacres. Nothing, not even universal disarmament, broad police powers, and oppressive social control does. Not even in Japan. Would you be willing to make the necessary changes to American society and the legal system in addition to the feel-good band-aid of “banning” certain classes of firearms in order to actually make it work?

Personally, I think that if enough public sentiment pushes legislation through the system, we’ll end up with either severely curtailed rights — not just gun rights — or a level of civil disobedience and an associated crime boom the likes of which we haven’t seen since Prohibition.

Further reading on the police and justice system in Japan:

U.S. Police Walk Different Beat in Japan (PDF)

The Enigma of Japanese Power (Book)

Comparative Criminology: Japan

A couple of relatively recent articles on Japanese confessions, connected to the cases that led to calls for reforms, which have still largely not been implemented:

BBC News: ‘Forced Confessions’ in Japan

Japan Times: Court acquits man but kept lid on forced confession