There's a natural desire to "make sure this never happens again" after some evil bastard or twisted loon goes on a killing spree. In the age of the regulatory state, such an effort is too-often assumed to require the passage of laws that will restrict and monitor us as we stagger our hobbled way down a carpet of red tape into the warm embrace of a safer tomorrow. But security can't be legislated. If horrific recent events, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook shooting, and even the Texas fertilizer plant explosion, demonstrate anything, it's that surrendering to more "control' is no guarantee of safety, even as it costs us liberty. In fact, in the absence of any of the controls that strike some people as oh-so-necessary, we're less likely than anybody in decades, at least, to be killed by some murderous son (or daughter) of a bitch.
Sandy Hook brought us calls for ever-more gun control — restrictions on firearms — even though none of the proposed federal laws (or the ones passed at the state level) would have prevented the crime. Both Adam Lanza and his mother had clean records, so they would have passed expanded background checks. The guns and magazines he used would have been grandfathered under proposed federal laws and even under the restrictive laws Connecticut passed. Even if banned and surrendered, those guns could have been swapped for still-legal firearms.
But even if you magically disappeared Lanza's firearms, the Tsarnaev brothers demonstrated with the Boston Marathon bombing that people can be killed, maimed and terrorized without guns, In their case, a pressure cooker, a bit of hardware and some explosives — apparently gunpowder — were all it took to kill, maim, and utterly disrupt a major metropolitan area.
The Boston bombing immediately led to more calls for control, in particular a demand by Sen. Frank Lautenberg that background checks be required to purchase gunpowder. Again, there's no reason to believe that the Tsarnaevs would have been inconvenienced by background checks. Tamerlan was arrested for domestic violence in 2009, but it's not clear he had a criminal conviction on his record to be detected by a background check, and his brother had a clean record.
In any event, the Texas fertilizer plant explosion reminded us quickly that explosives don't just come purpose-made in small containers. They exist in gardening supply shops, hardware stores and under the kitchen sink. It doesn't take very much to make common ingredients go bang — even to the point of bringing down the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.
In Norway, a society with more "control" than our own, Anders Behring Breivik used both a fertilizer bomb and firearms to kill 77 people and injure many more. Breivik did so by studying the restrictive laws of his country, complying with them (until the day of his crime) and working around them.
Remember that retrictive laws are fixed and knowable things. The Breiviks of the world can work with them, criminals will ignore them and turn to black markets — and principled people offended by creeping legal constraints and intrusive governments will defy them and so be criminalized, for no gain in safety.
In fact, despite headline-grabbing events like Sandy Hook and the Boston bombing, we're safer by far from the threat of violence than were our parents or grandparents. Violent crime has been steadily declining for decades. According to the FBI, "[w]hen considering 5- and 10-year trends, the 2011 estimated violent crime total was 15.4 percent below the 2007 level and 15.5 percent below the 2002 level." Specifically, "[c]ompared with the 2007 rate, the murder rate declined 17.4 percent, and compared with the 2002 rate, the murder rate decreased 16.8 percent."
If you want a safer world, you already have it. But it comes along with occasional acts of mass violence that don't seem easily preventable.
And there's a cost to those proposed controls. There's a loss of liberty, of course. That's a huge and unacceptable trade-off for many of us. Along with that loss of liberty, comes greater power for those to whom we lose our liberty: police officers, politicians, bureaucrats and security-state officials. Do we really need to contemplate the myriad ways in which they abuse their power? Well ... Let's do so for a moment. There are the school security officers who beat the crap out of kids, the cops and bureaucrats who browse databases for fun and profit, the intelligence officers who, with approval from above, kidnap people and send them off to be tortured in foreign dungeons, the politicians who claim special privilege to act without scrutiny ...
Without making us safer, more control over society always seems to end up in handing people who shouldn't necessarily be trusted lots of control over us.