Why New Laws Are an Ineffective Response to Tragedies

To be effective, laws must be targeted at violations that are easily detected. And even then, you'll only deter those who care about the consequences.


Electric chair
David From Washington, DC

When horrific crimes hit the headlines, many people quickly demand that government "do something." Blunt instruments that they are, politicians act in really only one way: by writing and rewriting laws. "That'll be the end of that," they say, as the ink dries on their latest legislative brainstorm.

In the case of the Isla Vista murders, we've seen calls for tighter gun control (even though California already has more restrictive laws than most states), mental health screening, and implications that misogynistic websites should somehow be reined-in. And something about Seth Rogen movies. Maybe a waiting period?

But the truth is that law is a pretty ineffective way to prevent people from doing what you don't want them to do. While laws allow government officials to signal what they consider to be the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and to define the penalties for crossing the boundaries, they aren't very effective at preventing people from stepping over the line.

The idea of laws as deterrents to behavior is an old one; but the escalation in the United States of penalties (now running up against staggering human and monetary cost) for a host of crimes is ample evidence that the laws themselves aren't having the intended deterrent effect. So politicians try to up the ante.

But as Valerie Wright, a research analyst with the Sentencing Project, put it in a 2010 paper, "Research to date generally indicates that increases in the certainty of punishment, as opposed to the severity of punishment, are more likely to produce deterrent benefits."

It's harder to get more severe than killing an offender, but even capital punishment is an uncertain deterrent at best, according to Jeffrey A. Fagan of Columbia Law School. In crunching the numbers, he found "estimates of the deterrent effect of execution that are no different from chance." Given that each execution cost between $2.5 million and $5 million (in 2006), that's an expensive way to not prevent crime.

Actual incarceration seems to lower crime rates, if only by scooping up offenders and keeping them away from opportunities to do things the state doesn't want them to do. But that gets back to that whole "certainty of punishment" issue. That is, you have to catch lawbreakers to incarcerate them, and others then have to see that breaking the law carries a high risk of being caught.

And they have to care about being caught.

This can turn politicians' efforts weirdly futile. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) took the opportunity of the Isla Vista murders to push for background checks (which the murderer, Elliot Rodger, passed), bans on "assault weapons" (which Elliot Rodger didn't use), and limits on magazine capacity (which already exist in California, so Rodger used legal 10-round magazines) in order to deter spree kiilers who, like Rodger, generally don't intend to survive their crimes.

Blumenthal and company would probably argue that laws more tightly restricting guns would deter others from providing firearms to the likes of Elliot Rodger. But Blumenthal's own state of Connecticut is currently enjoying mass defiance of its new restrictions on so-called assault weapons, with tens of thousands of people refusing to comply.

Which shouldn't be a revelation to anybody who has followed the history of gun laws, drug laws, and prohibitions of various sorts on things that many people want to do, despite the preferences of the powers that be. Instead of deterring violations, such laws create opportunities for black market profit and mass scofflawry. That's because there is minimal chance of any individual violator being caught since those individuals are engaged in violations in private, or with other willing participants. And if there's damned little chance of being caught, there's absolutely no certainty of punishment to act as a deterrent.

Which is to say, if you want laws to be effective at preventing crime, keep them targeted at violations that are generally agreed upon as wrong, easily understood, and easily detected. And even then, you'll only deter those who care about the consequences.

Politicians like to propose ever-tighter laws, because that's really all they have to offer. But much of life is just beyond the reach of the law.

NEXT: Obama Announces $5 Billion Anti-Terror Fund, Chicago Wants To Film You Buying Guns, Majority of Kids Are Unfit: P.M. Links

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  1. This can turn politicians’ efforts weirdly futile. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) took the opportunity of the Isla Vista murders to push for background checks (which the murderer, Elliot Rodger, passed), bans on “assault weapons” (which Elliot Rodger didn’t use), and limits on magazine capacity (which already exist in California, so Rodger used legal 10-round magazines)

    Yes, politicians are that dumb.

  2. J.D. Too Chilly
    once is never good enough
    when squirrels rule reason

  3. The largest deterrent to mass scofflawry is the armed citizen, not the law:

    “Fifty-six percent of the felons surveyed agreed that “A criminal is not going to mess around with a victim he knows is armed with a gun;” 74% agreed that “One reason burglars avoid houses when people are at home is that they fear being shot.””

    “A 57% majority agreed that “Most criminals are more worried about meeting an armed victim than they are about running into the police.” ”

    “And 34% of the sample admitted to having been “scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured by an armed victim.””…..-a-victim/

  4. Shorter version, after a tragedy, people are thinking emotionally, not rationally. In that context they’ll buy into any piece of shit legislation that comes down the pike promising to “fix” whatever it was that was tragic. And the time and consideration it takes for reason and good sense to properly evaluate the issue gets thrown out the window.

    1. Let’s all take lessons on cold rationality from people who fetishize inanimate objects.

      1. Thanks for your input, Tony. Nevertheless, you’re the last person anyone should be taking lessons from.

      2. Who, exactly is “fetishiz[ing] inanimate objects”?

        1. Tony often refers to himself in the third person plural. Chances are good he’s just bragging about his “Pol Pot action figure” doll collection again.

        2. Tony is like Jimmy from Sienfeld. “Tony is upset”, said Tony.

      3. Tony the master projectionist.

      4. The same way we should listen to those who wet their pants at the mere mention of the same inanimate object?

      5. Many people who are pro gun rights care more about the ability to defend oneself that it represents, than about firearms per se. If phasers existed, those people would happily buy them. What they won’t do is outsource their own defense.

        Also, one who is part of a cohort who animistically imbues firearms with the mystical evil power to make otherwise perfectly sane people rampage, should not talk about “fetishizing inanimate objects”.

        1. This ^

      6. Dildo’s

      7. Care to offer any support for the claim I “fetishize inanimate objects”, or can you just not help resorting to straw men in your ad hominem?

  5. Shorter version, after a tragedy, most of the time, most people are thinking emotionally, not rationally.


    1. As time passes more and more people choose emotionalism over rationality all of the time.

  6. Yes, we can’t do anything about gun violence because we’re going to need them when the socialist minions come to take our guns so they can implement the Holomodor on us. Trust me, we Leftsts have been cooking this up for a long time.

    Should we take a look at what the peer reviewed literature says on violent crime and gun control laws? Or should we just skip it and call each other names again? I ‘m good — either way.

    1. I’ll bite. Link me up. I’m curious what it is you consider peer reviewed literature. For the record, I believe anyone can cherry pick stats amoung cities and states to support the narrative they agree with. The old correlation isn’t causation argument applies to this issue.

      1. Here’s five from cherry-picking scientists who work at this for a living…

        Children living in states with strict firearm legislation are safer. Efforts to improve and standardize national firearm control laws are warranted.”

        A higher number of firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state, overall and for suicides and homicides individually.:


          Poor research design. Arbitrarily making a distinction between strict firearm laws and non-strict firearm laws reeks of cooking the data. “Gosh, this doesn’t support our hypothesis at all. How can we manipulate our definition of strict firearms laws in order to get more funding?”

          The mere number of laws correlates with all firearms deaths? How convenient. Gosh, why is it all firearms deaths? You realize they are counting suicides (what law will stop that?) and justifiable homicide (3254, according to the FBI’s UCR for that time period), right? Of course you didn’t, it’s not like you actually read the studies you posted. Also, do you agree that all firearms laws are the same? No? Silly to use them as a unit of measure then, wouldn’t you agree?

          1. Forgot to add the rest of the Conclusion and Relevance that somehow didn’t make it into your quote (an error, not willful, I’m quite sure): “As our study could not determine cause-and-effect relationships, further studies are necessary to define the nature of this association.”

          2. “what law will stop that?”

            Laws that make it less likely that there are guns in the house with which to commit suicide. The strongest links in actual studies, and not position papers, are a reduction in the number of suicides when there are more gun control laws in place.

            You also accuse the authors in the study of bias. They’ve put their method for determining how they rated gun control laws right there in the paper. Why don’t you read it instead of making unsupported allegations?

            1. By his comments, he did read the methodology and dismissed it. Of course, he didn’t explain why so I have to take both arguments with a grain of salt. Aside from that ol’ P-meanzie did a good job refuting your links. As for your first paragraph, You deflected the issue away from violent crime to preventing suicide as the reason for more gun control. That wasn’t the premise of your original posts. I personally ascribe to the idea put forth in the book Freakonomics. Violent crime in this nation has dropped significantly over the last two plus decades because of less unwanted pregnancies. The real hero of the decrease is Roe vs. Wade. Gun laws or lack thereof, have little to do with it.


        “Gun advocates claim mass-casualty events are mitigated and deterred with three policies: (a) permissive gun laws, (b) widespread gun ownership, (c) and encouragement of armed civilians who can intercept shooters.They cite Switzerland and Israel as exemplars…Compared with the United States, Switzerland and Israel have lower gun ownership and stricter gun laws, and their policies discourage personal gun ownership.”

        Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms were followed by more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides. Total homicide rates followed the same pattern. Removing large numbers of rapid-firing firearms from civilians may be an effective way of reducing mass shootings, firearm homicides and firearm suicides.”


          And your point is, what exactly? I mean, culture certainly wouldn’t play a role in comparing Switzerland and Israel to the US, right? Oh, and the author, from the MPRC (noted centrist organization, of course) was slammed for her shitty academic rigor in the aforementioned study. Care for a money shot?
          “In fact, despite your absurd claims that ownership of firearms in Switzerland is “rare,” the same data shows that Swiss civilians are better armed than the populations of Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Kosovo, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Libya, Mexico, Guatemala, South Africa, Pakistan, Jordan, Brazil, Nicaragua, Iran, El Salvador, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Laos, Chad, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Perhaps now is a good moment to remind you once again that you cite the same report from which these figures are drawn repeatedly in your research?”
          I got that quote from right wing pulpit and well-known conservative rag, Democratic Underground.


          HA! You cited that? While it is indisputable that there were no mass shootings between 1996 and 2007 in Australia, let’s take a look see at the other things that happened in that period of time, shall we?
          -Armed robbery up by 66%
          -Unarmed robbery up by 37%
          -Assaults up by 24%
          -Kidnappings up by 43%
          -Manslaughter up by 16%

          There are some very compelling replies to the study here:…../365/reply


        “Canadian Bill C-17 was implemented in 1991 to restrict the use of firearms, providing a chance to investigate the effect of firearm control laws in the use of firearms for suicide and homicide. Following Lester and Leenaars’ comprehensive studies, the present study examined the use of firearms for suicide and homicide during the period prior to the bill and during the period after the passing of Bill C-17 to assess the association of the bill with rates of suicide and homicide by method. Analysis showed a significant decrease after passage of Bill C-17 in the rates of suicides and homicides involving firearms and the percentage of suicides using firearms. The analysis provides support for the position that restricting the availability of firearms as a lethal means of committing suicide and homicide may help reduce the numbers of suicides and homicides.”


          Let’s unpack that.

          From the article:
          “Comparisons of suicides and homicides before and after the passage
          and enforcement of Bdl C-17 show the rate of suicide using firearms and the
          mean percentage of suicides using firearms decreased significantly, while the rate of suicide by all other methods increased significantly. However, the total rate of suicide did not change significantly.” Leading us to the shocking conclusion that suicidal people are suicidal. Hmmm, go figure.

          Followed shortly later by, “In addition, the percentage of homicides using firearms did not change significantly.”
          “These results suggest that the passage and enforcement of Bill C-17 may have reduced the use of firearms for suicides and homicides, but that individuals
          may have switched to other methods for suicide, and the significant decrease
          in homicides using firearms may only reflect a significant overall decrease in homicide by all methods.”

          So, that’s five shitty articles posted by the resident totalitarian fanboi. This is my shocked face.

          I didn’t skip it and largely avoided calling you names. Care to come up with any studies that actually support your ridiculous and childish beliefs?

          Protip: it helps to read the articles you post instead of just regurgitating their abstracts and conclusions.

    2. Actually, it appears that a search of “the peer reviewed literature” shows that “major studies on the topic have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between” “violent crime and gun control laws”.

      1. Correction:

        “major studies on the topic have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between” “violent crime and gun control laws”.

    3. According to the FBI SHR data, in 2007 there were 7,387 black homicide victims in the United States. The homicide rate among black victims in the United States was 20.86 per 100,000. For that year, the overall national homicide rate was 5.30 per 100,000. For whites, the national homicide rate was 3.11 per 100,000. Blacks commit 8 times more murders than whites. Of black murder victims, 93 percent were killed by other blacks. Statistically, the main problem is Blacks, not guns, but to even mention this in polite conversation will get one instantly labelled as a racist. It’s much easier to go after an inanimate object than it is a broken culture.

      1. race statistics on crime are not very helpful to enlighten the issue (all by themselves).

        poverty leads to racism leads to crime.

        yes black america is just about the most racist population on planet earth, yes they are “8” times more likely to murder someone than a white person.

        the problem is that poverty is the cause (not race). which poverty is caused by a few factors, primary among them is the break down of the family.

        black crime is a result of feminism’s effect on the black family (gynocentric family law, misogynist porn). it replaces fatherhood with vagina worship and equality with gender preference.

        black america is not some neanderthal type subhuman population. black america is now what white america will be in few short years.

        they are the harbinger of our coming wedding nuptials.

        being raised by a single mother means you will live in poverty, will likely not get a college education, are more likely to become a criminal, are more likely to be abused, and are more likely for teenage pregnancy yourself.

        being a single mother is the moral equivalent of being a full-fledged child rapist. yet its constantly celebrated in progressive culture.

        black criminality is not race based, its culture based. until 1950, black birth out of wedlock was on par with white. agitators didnt like that, so they did the great society, which welfare reduced maleness to a superfluous luxury.

        1. black bitches responded. they dont need to ‘put up’ with ‘male oppression’ if big brother pays their bills.

          its the equivalent of de-ionizing the protons and electrons of an atom. atom will fly apart.

          the proper model is mutually beneficial relationship where each party brings something of unique value. they are needed and useful, provide a service to another, and their own needs are nourished in turn.

          financial welfare is simply evil. its the cause of the breakdown of black america. perversely enough, its effects necessitate its perpetuation. so much like drugs.

          1. Thanks for joining us Mr. Bundy. Who’s watching the ranch?

        2. There is so much wrong with this post, I don’t know where to start. How exactly does “poverty lead to racism”? How exactly does “racism lead to crime”? The higher rates of poverty, and racism, and crime associated with Blacks, is a result of one thing, and that thing is a broken culture. And to be perfectly honest, race has nothing to do with any of it. It is purely a cultural phenomena. Nobody forces Blacks to engage in premarital sex, resulting in a 72% rate of single-parent homes. Nobody prevents the responsible male from marrying the mother of his child. Nobody forces these single mothers to raise their children on Government Plantations, completely dependent on welfare, food stamps, and 80-something other social welfare programs. AND, nobody forces their children to grow up to be Flavor-Flav-emulating thugs shooting each other in the streets at a rate many, many times higher than any other culture. My point is that while Blacks are the leading perpetrators of firearms homicide, there is no Brady Campaign against Black Hoodlums, or Mayors Against Illegal Blacks. There is no media outlet that will point out the fact that Blacks commit a vastly disproportionate amount of gun crime, and are in fact responsible for the majority of firearms homicides. Instead, they go after guns, the overwhelming majority of which are legally possessed by law-abiding citizens. It’s the easy, non-offensive, politically correct, and dishonest solution to a nonexistent problem.

  7. What’s that? You say some cull pulled off another mass killing? Obviously we haven’t been strapping enough Negroes in the electric chair!

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