A few thoughts on dealing with mass murder

As I don’t have to tell you, the first and last days of October saw multiple people murdered in attacks in Las Vegas and New York. The one in New York was carried out by a fanatic radicalized over the Internet by the self-declared “Islamic State.” ISIL/ISIS/IS/Daesh or whatever you want to call the group at one point controlled a fair amount of territory in Iraq and Syria but today is near total defeat on the ground. Encouraging individual terrorist attacks suggests its own capabilities are limited.

The motive of the shooter in Las Vegas remains a mystery, though there’s no evidence it was political. It might have been a deranged quest for fame. For that matter, terrorists in general are after fame for themselves or their causes.

It’s very difficult to prevent these sorts of attacks. The one in New York made use of a truck, and there have been other cases of vehicles employed to run down innocent people in Nice France, Charlottesville Virginia, and Chapel Hill North Carolina among other places.

We can perhaps do something to reduce deaths in mass shootings by limiting magazine capacity and restricting the sale of devices that turn semiautomatic weapons into something closer to a machine gun. There are more of these gizmos on the market than you might imagine, including bump stocks, hellfire triggers, and rotating trigger actuators, with prices as low as $40. The New Yorker website has a good article with animated illustrations, though some might quibble with a few of the technical details. (For example, Gatling guns are characterized more by a rotating assembly of multiple barrels than by a crank-operated firing mechanism.)

However, it’s also worth noting that only a tiny fraction of deaths from firearms (about 2 percent) or vehicles (probably an even smaller percentage) involve mass killings or terrorist acts. There’s an October 23 article by Ben Hallman on the Columbia Journalism Review website about press coverage of firearms-related news that’s worth reading. Mistakes are common, from the technically trivial (such as referring to magazines as “clips”) to the seriously substantive (for example, claiming that fully automatic firearms are banned in the U.S. when in reality tens of thousands are legally in private hands; try Googling for “how to buy a machine gun” — you basically need a background check, approval from your local sheriff, and a pretty good amount of money).

Finally, it’s hard to ignore Donald Trump’s very different responses to the Las Vegas and New York attacks. In the 48 hours after the attack in Las Vegas President Trump produced only two tweets, both of them the sort of thing you’d expect from a president. (The first was “My warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families of the terrible Las Vegas shooting. God bless you!”) The New York attack, which killed far fewer people, provoked a barrage of tweets, many of them overheated and poorly thought out, including ridiculing the American justice system. Yesterday The Washington Post published a very good summary of Trump’s very different reactions to the two incidents. (See also CNN’s timeline of his responses to both incidents and GQ‘s piece about Trump’s inconsistent calls for the death penalty.) Trump suggested he might send the murdered to Guantanamo for a military trial, but apparently someone pointed out to him what should be a well-known fact, namely that prosecutions of terrorism suspects in civilian courts have in practice produced surer, quicker, and often more severe punishment, because the next day he reversed himself.

(As USA Today noted, one or more of Trump’s tweets about the New York attack might even end up helping the accused in court.)

At the conservative National Review David French wrote an article October 12 titled “Trump’s Tweets Are Damaging the Republican Character,” and this was before the latest examples.

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