More Auroras?

July 21, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Will Wilkinson blogs (here) “Why Aren’t There More Auroras?”  Why don’t we see mass killings every week?  The Aurora slaughter, he says,  was not “senseless.” Just the opposite.
It is so easy to imagine from the perspective both of the murdered and the murderer . . . that I cannot quite fathom why it doesn't happen all the time. It is our safety that’s mysterious.
His answer is basically human nature.  His view is comfortingly anti-Hobbesian:
We are more thoroughly controlled by our society's norms than we tend to imagine. In a setting of peace, outside the context of war, to perpetrate an act like the Aurora massacre requires an almost superhuman feat of volition. There aren't more Aurora's because we are sociable robots, programmed for peace. To override that programming and act really monstrously requires both an uncommon estrangement and an implausibly free will.
My first reaction when I read Wilkinson’s question was that his starting assumption was wrong:  in fact there are more Auroras – disgruntled or unstable people who walk into an office or public space and start shooting.  There are so many in fact – twenty a year on average (USA Today) – that to be national news, the incident has to be unusual in some way.  Just three days before Aurora, a man in Tuscaloosa who had recently been sacked from his job got his AK-47, stood outside a crowded bar, and opened fire.  Nobody was killed, so the story didn’t get much coverage. 

My second reaction is that the question, stated that way, doesn’t easily direct us towards empirical data.  It does not imply variables – things that can be different in a way that allows comparison.  Instead, the question should be, “Why are there more Auroras at some times and places than at others?”  Why, for instance, does the US have many more Auroras than do other countries?  I doubt that human nature in the UK or Poland or Japan is any different than in the US.  I doubt that we have more people of “uncommon estrangement” and “implausibly free will.”  

But what we do have is guns – lots of them.  And really good ones too.  As in other countries, the uncommonly estranged here are very rare, as Wilkinson says.  But in the US, an uncommonly estranged nutjob can walk into a friendly gun shop and walk out with an 100-round AR-15. 

It’s much easier to be a mass murderer if you can get weapons of mass killing, much harder if you can’t.

In many countries, that AR-15 would be considered an unusual weapon and subject to greater restrictions than other guns.  But here in the US, it’s as normal as blueberry pie.  The Times (here) quotes Eugene Volokh, who is most definitely not a nutjob; he’s a law professor at UCLA, an expert on Constitutional law:
The guy basically had normal guns.
Maybe the Times quoted Volokh out of context.  I hope so, but I fear not.  I would like to think that a military assault rifle with a 100-round clip is not a normal weapon.  But apparently I am out of touch with the realities of American life. 

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(Note to commenters: please keep your remarks civil and relevant.  This post is not about freedom or self-defense or the Constitution.  However, actual evidence on mass shootings, access to weaponry, uncommon estrangement, etc., in the US and elsewhere would be welcome.)


Jay Livingston said...

Bob, Actually, I don’t disagree with you as much as you think, and I may get around to posting something along those lines. But for the moment, I’ll just respond to a couple of things in your comment that I do take issue with.

1. In every country using every weapon. The question is not whether mass killings ever happen elsewhere or if mass killers ever use other weapons. Lung cancer can happen to anyone and for many reasons. But that doesn’t mean that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. The rate is higher among smokers. Similarly, the rate of this kind of killing is greater in the US, and the rate by gun is much higher than the rate by other methods.

Go to the Wikipedia pages and look at the W (weapons) column, and since we’re talking about the US, let’s look at only US cases. Let’s make a deal: I’ll give you $2 for every non-firearm weapon, you give me only $1 for every firearm. To make it more accurate, we’ll multiply that by the number dead. Deal or no deal?

2. The car crash. Intent is important. People do things that increase their risk of harm – joining the military for example - but they do not do so with the intent of getting killed or maimed. The intent of James Holmes is very clear.

3. Normal guns. Yes, lots of people by these things. That’s what I said. In many states in the US, it’s real easy for just about anyone to buy a weapon that can fire 60-100 bullets in a minute. You don’t even have to deal with shady and potentially untrustworthy criminals – unlike buying, say, marijuana. For the relatively few (20 a year) people who want to be a mass killer, US gun laws provide a welcoming environment.

4. Perhaps the AR-15 does not fit the precise definition of an assault rifle – that “AR” can fool the uninformed. Do we know yet whether Holmes had converted his to fully automatic. Even if not, regardless of what category it falls into, it was sufficient to kill 12 people and would another 58 in a matter of a couple of minutes. (I don’t think we know yet how many bullets did not hit anyone, nor how many of the victims were hit after he switched to his Glock.)

Jay Livingston said...


1. Do you have a source for numbers of “multiple person public shootings per capita” – especially if it’s broken down by country and by numbers of victims per incident (especially if “multiple” is anything from 2 on up). If there are no differences in the rates of mass shootings, that doesn’t change the basic point that it’s easier to kill a lot more people with guns than you can with other weapons. It just means that people in places with stricter gun laws can also get guns. (BTW, does that include mass shootings by members of terrorist groups? It’s one thing to get your weapon of mass killing through an organized underground group or gang you are a member of. It’s quite another to get it as an individual.)

2. You say gun ownership has been going down. Bob S., who seems to know something about guns, says, “Ownership of firearms is increasing.” Can you both be right?

3. I didn’t see Will’s post as particularly libertarian. I said that it was about the universal (human nature) rather than the variable because he offered no comparisons. His point was that socialization and social control are powerful. Fine. No argument. But it’s not very interesting until you can make comparisons. Even his “why aren’t there more” doesn’t mean much without a comparison. Is the number of mass killings a lot or a little? Compared to what? (Is a height of 6'4" tall and an income of $200,000 a lot? Not in the NBA.)

The other side to “why aren’t there more” is “one is too many.” Neither gets at questions as to what makes for more or fewer of these incidents. I didn’t mean to imply that culture was not a variable (I don’t think I did imply it, but apparently I did).

Bob S. said...


#1 is simply wrong. The homicide rate in America isn't highest then other countries than in America

Second part -- firearm related homicides aren't highest in America then other countries.

So how about this deal. I'll give you 5 dollars for every firearm homicide but you give me a dollar for every non-criminal use of a firearm?

Just because some people choose to do a criminal act with a tool doesn't mean we should accept restrictions on that tool.

People have used computers -- like the one you own and use -- to peddle chlid pron (deliberate misspelling to keep searches away).

Do you accept that we should require a background check, finger prints, licensing fees, limits on purchases, etc to limit that crime?

2. Intent is non-transferrable. The firearm didn't walk into the theater and start shooting everyone did it?

Likewise the car didn't load all those people on to it and then crash into a tree. More people die in automobile related incidents then they do in firearm related incidents. Yet fatalities are treated completely different - so are 'accidents'.
Had that been a firearm involved that injured 12 and killed 11 then there would be outrage. Yet what do you hear? Nothing.

Here in Texas we have a major problem with people driving the wrong way on highways -- an intentional act - should be ban cars, punish all car owners or just deal with the law breakers?

#3 -n many states in the US, it’s real easy for just about anyone to buy a weapon that can fire 60-100 bullets in a minute.

BUNK! What do you consider easy? Can you mail order one like you can household chemicals? Nope.
Can you walk up to a machine outside a store and purchase one like gasoline? Nope.
Can you purchase one in at hardware store like ammonium nitrate fertilizer without a background check? Nope.

So it is not 'easy' to purchase a firearm. The killer complied with every applicable law. How can you stop a person from misusing a tool?

#4 - If it isn't an assault rifle - don't use the term.

You aren't a psychologist, are you? why call a common semi-automatic weapon something that denotes it being capable of fully automatic fire. YOU should know words and meanings matter.

The pickup truck I mentioned was sufficient to kill 12 people in less time then it took in the theater. We still don't know WHY that collision took place...maybe someone deliberately did it.

Does it matter to your rights? Should you be denied the vehicle of your choice or mine because of the actions of an another?

That is what you are arguing here isn't it?

Josh said...

The multiple victim public shooting per capita comes from John Lott's work. I think his definition only includes 4+ victims and excludes Northern Ireland for reasons relating to the unique terrorism there.

The gun ownership data comes from the GSS and Gallup. They just had a post about it over at The Monkey Cage.

Bob S. said...


I agree that as a nation America is homicidal in its violence more than other countries.

The question becomes are firearms the cause of that or not?

I would posit that there is a correlation (weak) but there is not a causation relationship.

Finland and Switzerland have high firearm ownership rates but aren't as homicidal; so there must be other factors in play.

Let's address those issues. Solve those problems.