To Prevent Mass Shootings, Forget Laws and Look to Airplane Security


There's probably no mystery in why politicians habitually propose new, ever-more restrictive laws in response to horrific crimes like the Newtown massacre. If there's any truth to the saying, "if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail," then everything looks to member of Congress like a target for legislation — especially in the panicked aftermath of a tragedy, when people are screaming for a response. But, historically, laws have proven useful for setting out the penalties people can expect to suffer if they are caught going beyond the limits of behavior considered acceptable within a society (or, sometimes, just by lawmakers); for actually changing people's behavior beyond the margins, they're impotent. They're also easily evaded by people who intend harm.

In his book, Ceremonial Chemistry: The Ritual Persecution of Drugs, Addicts, and Pushers, Thomas Szasz documented how the 17th century Ottoman Empire tried to deter tobacco use by its subjects by "beheading, hanging, quartering or crushing their hands and feet." Despite vigorous application of such penalties, tobacco use became increasingly popular. If torture and execution couldn't stop people from puffing on prohibited tobacco, is it any surprise that even lengthy prison time has proven unequal to the challenge of dissuading modern Americans from from buying and selling a host of forbidden goods and services, from gambling to drugs to commercial sex?

Matters become further complicated if  targets of restrictions are politically and culturally loaded. Firearms in American society are icons, to millions of people, of individualism and personal freedom. They also have become associated with political conservatives and opposition to them with political progressives, so that the passage of restrictions on firearms are treated as Team Blue victories, and loosened laws as Team Red victories. That some of the biggest proponents of tighter restriction apparently exempt themselves (Sen. Dianne Feinstein has or had a permit to carry a pistol) just emphasizes the partisan-duel nature of such legislative battles. Defiance of such restrictions is certainly seen by many as a principled stand for liberty — and a flipped bird to political opponents.

Worse, though, new restrictions wouldn't just exacerbate political and cultural divisions; they'd be ineffective in stopping another massacre. That's because restrictions are predictable obstacles that can be worked into the plans of a would-be mass-murderer. Anders Breivik did exactly that over a period of several years, bypassing Norway's relatively restrictive laws to acquire guns, explosives and a phony police uniform and identification on his way to killing 77 people and injuring many more. In a debate over airport security hosted by The Economist, former TSA administrator, Kip Hawley, made some points relevant to current concerns:

Publication of system rules and enforcing literal compliance is an approach better served to address safety issues where the enemy is gravity tugging predictably on wing assemblies, etc. A terrorist, even a dumb terrorist, does not behave according to peer-reviewed, scientifically certified patterns. In fact, terrorists adapt their attacks to evade security defenses. Predictable, overly rule-based security measures play right into their hands and are also dangerously ineffective if used alone.

The Adam Lanzas of the world have all too much in common with the terrorists Hawley described. They can plan around any knowable, predictable obstacles put in their way.That makes a knee-jerk legal response ineffective — and maybe worse, if it lures people into a false sense of security.

So, what can be done? Hawley and his frequent critic, Bruce Schneier, agree that just two responses to hijacking attempts have been effective: hardening airplane cockpits and psychologically preparing passengers and air crew to actively resist attackers. Forget the theater at the airports, which is the equivalent of the gun/video game/legal-whatever bloviating in Congress; it's those two changes that have mattered.

If hardening targets and preparing people at the scene to intervene if necessary works against terrorist attacks on airplanes, it just may work at schools and elsewhere. What does that mean in real terms? Well, that's where the real discussion should begin. Debates over new legal restrictions on people who didn't commit the crime are a pointless distraction.