Mass Shootings: A Game Theoretic Solution to End an American Epidemic
It’s been a month now since the violence at Parkland. The news media has been reporting about gun violence and potential solutions: the problem of mass shootings in America can be solved, and the time for action is now.
America leads the world in mass shootings: though the US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, it holds 31% of global mass shooters. Each new incident invites gun control advocates to call for tighter regulations on gun sales, driving discussion of firearms and their place in contemporary society to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness for yet another media cycle. Our people grow tired of hearing the same story in a different day, while the rest of the world wonders what’s keeping the great American experiment from solving this problem.
We’re all tired of the violence. We must seek to reduce the incidence and severity of mass shootings. We must do something to stop those who would seek to harm us before they can even act.
Playing the lead role in a mass killing has become an easy way for anyone to step into the global spotlight, making our country look bad in the process.
How do you keep folks from perpetrating mass shootings in order to earn their fifteen minutes of fame?
Deny perpetrators the right to be named
We should demand that the mainstream media strip perpetrators of their face and name. We should always seek to understand their motive, but at all costs, we should avoid giving them the glory of media coverage for their despicable actions. By refusing them the limelight, they can no longer become cult heroes, and we will effectively end any spawning of copycats.
Clearly this is not an easy issue to solve, else we would have come up with actionable solutions and implemented them by this point in the game. 38 mass shooting events were recorded in 2018 before the Parkland incident (Mass Shootings, Gun Violence Archive). This is not a one-liner debate.
…but a vocal minority keeps trying to hamfist an issue they know nothing about
I want to move the conversation away from one talking strictly about gun control — I find this to be a red herring, one that soaks up countless hours, but we can’t ignore it.
Before we can talk about guns, we’ve got to get on the same playing field. I’m encouraged by the mainstream media’s push to bring in better-informed speakers: I remember once I nearly put down a book covering Columbine because the author included an interview with an individual who thought that semi-automatic firearms unleashed a hail of bullets with a single pull of the trigger.
Regardless what you consume, I encourage skepticism in general.
Reading the gun violence messaging guide doesn’t make you qualified to become a pundit on the subject.
Liberal ought not be conflated with “anti-gun” or “pro-gun control.” The second amendment allows for regulation, which already exists. The trick is honing in on what degree of gun control is sensible. Take the state of Texas, for instance, and look at the license to carry a handgun laws (http://www.txdps.state.tx.us/InternetForms/Forms/CHL-16.pdf). This goes beyond what is required for mere purchase of a firearm.
I have good news: there is a solution to ending the problem of mass shootings once and for all, and it can be found through game theory.
Stopping mass shootings is the objective. Ways to skin this cat:
- Increase the cost of perpetrating a mass shooting event
- Take away all the guns
They’re not going to take our guns away
We would do better to ignore the vocal minority that refuses to educate themselves on the realities of American gun violence, and focus instead on engaging in longer-form discussion. Remember: democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s irresponsible for knowledgeable citizens to stay on the sidelines while the vocal minority tows the party line.
Taking away all the guns is not likely to happen. The whys are numerous, but besides the Second Amendment, our representative democracy is characterized by lobbying groups that line the campaign warchests of our politicians.
The silver lining in this cloud is we’re now able to learn just who’s in the corporate pockets better than ever before: transparency is increasing, and this is good news for we, the people. (OpenSecrets.org)
A Pew Research study found that 33% of individuals surveyed stated that they could never see themselves owning a gun — 30% currently own a gun, and 36% could see themselves owning a gun in the future.
No matter how much you wish America would follow in Australia’s footsteps, it’s not going to happen. Gun ownership in America is on a completely different level. The government doesn’t know how many guns are in circulation in America, and with the advent of machines like the Ghost Gunner, more untraceable firearms are being produced with each passing day.
Remember Gordon Gecko: greed is good… but one man’s greed may result in massive costs to society. Remember, additionally, that successful mass shootings and domestic terror events are actually a boon to GDP (a reminder: GDP is the market value of all final goods and services produced within the national borders of a country for a given period of time): maintaining the status quo on restrictions of firearm sales drives consumption, increases hospital visits, and provides a population control mechanism, thereby reducing unemployment. With our government barely able to keep itself solvent, is there any surprise that so little manages to get done?
If you want to have an honest conversation on gun violence, though, we need more clarity in the numbers. Not all gun-related homicides arise from murder: some gun-related homicides arise from self-defense. Some, like George Zimmerman’s case, out of vigilantism. We need to separate “justifiable homicide” from the total, because firearms do perform some good in our society, be they in the hands of private citizens or LEO.
Hold off on sawing your AR-15
Guns, alone, are not the problem. Who are you really helping by choosing to destroy your firearm?
Guns are an effective means of self-defense. Take Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor in Chief of The Atlantic, in his article “The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control)”
“But I am sympathetic to the idea of armed self-defense, because it does often work, because encouraging learned helplessness is morally corrupt, and because, however much I might wish it, the United States is not going to become Canada. Guns are with us, whether we like it or not. Maybe this is tragic, but it is also reality. So Americans who are qualified to possess firearms shouldn’t be denied the right to participate in their own defense. And it is empirically true that the great majority of America’s tens of millions of law-abiding gun owners have not created chaos in society.”
We can’t legislate mass killings out of existence: those determine to do us harm will always find a way. McVeigh didn’t need permission to construct a fertilizer bomb.
If not legislation, then what?
Given that the guns are here to stay, we’re left with increasing the cost of perpetrating a mass shooting event. How can we do this?
The Mass Shooting Game
The economics of perpetrating an act of domestic terror
We begin by looking at a potential mass shooting event through the game theoretic lens from the perspective of a potential mass shooter.
In the first decision node, the mass shooter chooses whether or not to attempt a mass shooting.
The payoffs to the perpetrator in a successful mass shooting are to have inflicted mass casualties, incited fear, and gained a sudden showering of media attention, as well as death either during the event, or after due process and a stint on death row. There is also the possibility of an unsuccessful mass shooting, whose payoffs are zero or limited casualties, little to no media attention, and death, either by armed interlopers, or through the legal system.
If the shooter decides to attempt a mass shooting, potential victims (the direct opponents of the perpetrator during the mass shooting event) can choose between fight or flight. Outside of the psychological impacts of either option, the payoffs for fighting include potentially stopping the shooter, and facing injuries up to and including death. There is also a potential for media attention. The payoffs for choosing flight are potentially getting shot, and facing either hospitalization or death, or a successful escape.
To put an end to mass shootings, you simply have to stack the deck: make the cost of perpetrating a mass shooting high enough, or reduce the positive payoffs, and you remove the would-be mass shooter’s incentive to act. If money were no object, we could increase the cost of instigating a mass shooting until it was economically infeasible for all but the most determined mass shooters to act.
As potential victims in the game, our best move is to put our opponent at a point of indecision. The estimated value of the payoffs from each of our mass shooter’s options is set equal to one another. From here, we examine the variables that play into the EV.
The probability of a mass shooter’s success is tied to our ability to fight back, one solution to the game is to take up arms. One way to accomplish this is to increase gun ownership and carry rates to the point where would-be perpetrators live with the awareness that they will be gunned down within seconds of firing a shot. Our mass shooter, upon seeing that would-be victims are alarmingly well-armed, faces a different set of payoffs. With rising rates of armament, the mass shooter’s probability for claiming multiple lives in a single event falls off rapidly, and the probability of capture or death increases as the proportion of would-be victims who can choose fight over flight increases.
Your various active shooter drills need more emphasis on attacking the shooter depending on the situation presented if possible. The greatest weapon is your brain. Improvised weapons are everywhere. There won’t be ballistic blankets/doors and other such measures everywhere so shooters will get in and kill some people.
In the context of schools, then, we can win the game by allowing educators and other school personnel to carry on campus.
This same analysis applies to other domestic terror events.
Does this really work in practice?
In the interests of meeting my self-imposed publishing deadline, I can only provide you with threads for further exploration. Real world data corroborates our game theoretic solution to ending mass shootings.
- “More Guns, Less Crime” by John R. Lott, Jr.
- “Disarming Realities: As Gun Sales Soar, Gun Crimes Plummet”
- Investigate the statistics in states that allow “constitutional carry”
- The crime rate in Borden County, Texas, which boasts the highest rate of concealed carry permits
- The town of Kennesaw, Georgia, where every head of household residing in the city limits is required to maintain a firearm
- Idaho high gun ownership rate
I speculate that, all else held equal, a plot of violent crime rate vs. gun ownership rate would assume the shape of an inverted-U.
Given we can not mandate compulsory firearm ownership in our free country, we must seek additional measures to put an end to mass shootings.
- Expanding consequences
- Setting smart limits on gun ownership based on buyer age
- Revisiting gun free zones
The truth is that the issues are far more nuanced than most can give it credit for
Gun ownership is an important right: one that more people, especially minorities, should exercise. They provide us with a last defense against one another: if you have a lynch mob beating a path to your door, you had better hope you have your guns at the ready.
The NRA (that evil octopus, if you ask an anti-gun person) provides significant value to gun owners. For example: it preaches shooter safety, which is fundamental to responsible gun ownership.
Arming our teachers is a tough sell, but it’s one that some teachers support. We should allow those teachers who wish to carry on campus to do so. We recognize that teachers occupy authority roles, and that abuses of power happen. There’s also the issue of providing training for an already overburdened group, lest they be incapable of utilizing their firearms effectively in the face of a violent confrontation, even if they were required to carry them. This will require additional expenditure.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to find the time and money to support our teachers. Research shows that instead of hiring more teachers to decrease our class sizes, it would be more effective to better compensate our most effective teachers. (Read Chapter 2 of Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath if you’re curious: I link to the studies that he referenced) Additionally, we should provide the good teachers that we already have with a secretary, so that they can focus on providing their highest quality of instruction along with the time to pursue force-on-force training and other, higher value activities.
At worst, the cost of training can be covered easily by securing a small contribution from families with students. $1 per student would be sufficient.
Abuse of power can be solved by installing cameras in classrooms. Whether a teacher chooses to carry or not should be left up to them: we should not mandate that all teachers must carry, as this would cause needless pushback from teachers, and turn away some of the best teachers from the profession.
America’s veterans returning from active combat roles may be an excellent fit to protect the schools. These brave service personnel are better prepared to deal with force-on-force scenarios than the average police officer, and can work with teachers to provide training. Additionally, there is a problem of homelessness and joblessness among our veterans.
Finally, our people need to be better prepared for the realities of living in America. First aid training is a must-have: immediate first aid saves lives. Anyone who is potentially on the frontlines needs to know how to apply a tourniquet at the very least. Beyond this, the application of quick clot, pressure dressings, and clearing airways should be taught to everyone.
Bad actors should be taken back to the stone ages
Impose barriers to action, and you will turn away all but the most steadfast individuals.
Known bad actors should be barred from using social media platforms like the rest of us. We need to take those seeking to harm us back to the stone ages, technologically speaking. Social media companies have a burden of responsibility to society: this is becoming clear in light of our last election. Companies can not afford to assume a laissez-faire attitude, laughing all the way to the bank, while users generate the value.
Those seeking to do harm against their countrymen should be made to feel as if they will not be able to act effectively, shy of expending massive personal time or banding together with like-minded individuals. Forcing would-be perpetrators to interact with others accomplishes two things: 1) it may help their mental state by bringing them into contact with good-natured members of society, and 2) it increases the likelihood that their movements will attract the attention of LEO. Because individuals make mistakes, the probability that a mistake will be made increases for each individual you add to a group.
Crime and Punishment
Expand the net when it comes to especially heinous crimes
Our justice system makes it too attractive for the loonies to operate. Especially heinous crimes deserve separate treatment. I believe it is relatively easy for us to agree on what defines heinous crime: mass murder, serial murder, serial rape. Our justice system needs to have severe punishments for these that bring to light all the contributing factors, and each individual involved in the chain must be held accountable for their actions. Consequences must expand beyond the perpetrator: no man is an island to himself.
While we’re talking about crime and punishment, we would do well to revisit our country’s prisons, both private and public.
In case you needed a reminder, US incarceration rate is outlandishly high compared to other developed nations, even those that have a similar stance on drugs.
Wardens should be ensuring safety of their charges, never turning the other way. There is a problem of LEO protecting their own, tribalism amongst those sworn to protect and serve. We, the people, should demand greater transparency and accountability across the board.
Prison life in America, at least in the eyes of the general public, is filled with sexual assault and competing gangs. Is this in keeping with the 8th amendment? While prison should not be comfortable, it should not be a place to torture prisoners. I believe that prisoners should be kept at near-starvation rations to better control them. For those serving life sentences, humanity is allowing them to live and to spend the rest of their lives in quiet reflection. Access to outside world through news media and the computer should be earned privileges. Zero privacy is par for any beginner to the course.
Beyond this, we should reprogram inmates with the intention of turning them into effective communicators. The ones that comply can then either be taken across the country to give talks under the supervision of a security detail, so that their messages may help the youth of the nation from making the same mistakes, or have their messages recorded, professionally edited, and broadcasted to reach across America.
Solving home-grown extremism: interventions
LEO needs to eliminate holes in their processes that allow potential perpetrators to slip through the cracks. The Miami FBI field office should have been aware of Cruz long before February 14, 2018. Plug up the holes and fix the process so that good information doesn’t get lost in the noise.
When LEO has actionable information, they can intervene to prevent would-be perpetrators from continuing on unabated. Police, especially, have a responsibility to increase their communication and negotiation skills instead of relying on the badge and the gun as default tools of dealing with the public.
Most recently, we’ve been dealing with “homegrown extremism.” We can reduce extremism at home by addressing cultural stereotypes and anxieties about matters such as race/ethnicity, social class, and politics first (“Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms”). Seeking equality in these areas is more in keeping with the spirit of liberalism than a brief fixation on gun control following yet another mass shooting.
We must take mental health seriously
I am grateful that incidents like this bring mental health to the forefront of our nation’s consciousness. I’m grateful to see mental health issues coming into the nation’s consciousness, as Benjamin Sledge explored in his Medium article, “Honest Thoughts from a Veteran About Gun Control and Mental Health.”
Minor changes to current gun purchase flow
In order for legislation to be enforced, we need to make it easier for government entities to communicate with each other. Reducing friction in Information sharing should be a priority item, with the possibility of unifying bases and providing protected read and write access to the organizations that need them. Patient confidentiality means that it’s impossible to know exactly what happened at a doctor’s office, but it should be possible to know if an individual entered into the database has been institutionalized at a mental hospital for any period of time.
This is where effective controls on firearm sales can be introduced: if someone has been institutionalized, the system should return a flag, and that individual would have to submit to a videotaped interview at the sheriff’s office. The process for previously institutionalized individuals would be similar to the process that would-be suppressor owners currently undergo — LEO would be required to sign off in order for the purchase to clear. Otherwise, it’s denied.
Bear it in mind that the rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so. (“Understanding the Teen Brain,” University of Rochester Medical Center Encyclopedia)
Mandating age requirements for owning weapons with specific characteristics makes sense. In most states, the minimum age to purchase a long gun is 18, and the minimum age to purchase a handgun is 21. We know that semi-automatic firearms have increased lethality over their counterparts: these should be reserved for later. We should push back the age at which individuals can purchase semi-automatic firearms above these thresholds: individuals would still be allowed to purchase long guns at 18, and handguns at 21, but the firearms sold wouldn’t be semi-automatic.
I have great hope for those of us still here. We must continue learning, educating ourselves, and questioning. It is my sincerest hope that this piece can play a small role in moving us towards a better rounded, just, and verdant society. After the dust settles, and the debate dies down for a while, may we be one step closer to eradicating the problem of mass shootings and domestic terror events.
Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath
“Some Findings from an Independent Investigation of the Tennessee STAR Experiment and from Other Investigations of Class Size Effects,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 21, no. 2 (summer 1999): 143–63.
Caroline Hoxby, “The Effects of Class Size on Student Achievement: New Evidence from Population Variation,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 115, no. 4 (November 2000): 1239–85.
Eric Hanushek, The Evidence on Class Size (University of Rochester Press, 1998).
Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth, Schoolhouses, Courthouses and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools (Princeton University Press, 2009), 272.
Ludger W(o)ssmann and Martin R. West, “Class-Size Effects in School Systems Around the World: Evidence from Between-Grade Variation in TIMSS,” European Economic Review (March 26, 2002).
“Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318286/
“Preventing Gun Violence by Changing Social Norms” http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1710104