Be wary of treating gun violence like international terrorism: different problems require different solutions

Like everyone, former Army officer Benjamin Haas is rightly horrified by the terrible tragedy in Las Vegas where 50 were killed and 406 hospitalized.  However, his essay over on Just Security (“Gun Violence Deserves As Robust a Response as Terrorism”) can be easily misunderstood as a call for a military-style approach here at home, much because it references techniques Haas used as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan to counter terrorists there.  I also believe his piece risks conflating the very grave threat posed by organized armed groups of terrorists waging war overseas with the very serious but quite different problem of domestic gun violence in the U.S.

Haas says that “the U.S. spends at least $100 billion on counterterrorism every year” and seems to suggest that markedly less money is being spent on law enforcement and other efforts that might counter gun violence.  How do the resources compare?

Comparisons are difficult but consider this: in 2012 the Justice Policy Institute said that as of 2011, the U.S. “spends more than $100 billion on police every year.”  That number has surely risen in the last six years, and doesn’t even include the more than $80 billion spent on incarceration each year, which includes confining thousands taken off the street for gun violence.

If the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are to be regarded as “counterterrorism” as Haas appears to do, the cost to the average taxpayer in the sixteen years since 9/11 has been a total of $7,740.  For this year it’ll be about $289 per taxpayer, and for 2018 it’s estimated to drop to $281.  Polls tell us that more Americans think we spend too little on defense than believe we spend too much.

In terms of manpower, as of 2008 (the last year for which statistics are available) “[s]tate and local law enforcement agencies employed about 1,133,000 persons on a full-time basis…including 765,000 sworn personnel.”  In addition, there are about 120,000 Federal law enforcement personnel, for a total of about 1,253,000 domestic security officials as of nearly a decade ago (and that number may have risen since 2008).  For comparison, the size of the entire active duty U.S. military is projected to be 1,290,000 people by the end of 2017.

Moreover, as terrible gun violence is, it’s important to understand the scope of the problem today, and not get the wrong impression from recent incidents (as horrible as they were).  For example, Vox reported earlier this month that the “good news is that all firearm homicides, like all homicides and crime, have declined over the past two decades.”  (Emphasis added.)  This is consistent with a December 2015 Washington Post report that there has been “a massive decline in gun violence in the United States.”

What about the nature of the terrorism threat?  Is gun violence on a par with it?  As the Las Vegas shooting amply illustrates, the technology of firearms can produce a sickening amount of harm to innocent people, but the mechanics of the operation of guns significantly limit what they can do relative to the massive horror some of the means terrorists have and seek to use can inflict.

The reality is that counterterrorism operations have to defend against a vastly more diverse array of weaponry than just guns; in fact, other technologies such as improvised explosive devices can wreak even greater carnage than guns as the truck bomb in Mogadishu that killed 500 earlier this month sadly illustrates.

Even more alarming is the “growing” threat of technologies of weapons of mass destruction that our counterterrorism efforts are striving to keep out of the hands of extremists.  How serious a threat?  President Obama said this in 2009:

I do continue to believe that the greatest threat to United States security are the terrorist networks like Al Qaida. And the reason is, is because even though they are small in number, what they have shown is, is that they have no conscience when it comes to the destruction of innocent civilians.  And because of technology today, if an organization like that got a weapon of mass destruction on its hands—a nuclear or a chemical or a biological weapon—and they used it in a city, whether it’s in Shanghai or New York, just a few individuals could potentially kill tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands. (Emphasis added.)

Along similar lines last year journalist and author Thomas Friedman said that technology is enabling the creation of “super-empowered angry men and women,” and this means that we are entering an age when, he tells us, “one of us can kill all of us.”

So ask yourself this: in light of the multi-faceted and enormously deadly potential of the international terrorism threat, does domestic gun violence really “deserve” as “robust a response as terrorism” as Haas claims?  Are the two kind of threats actually on equal footing?

Still, what does Haas want?  He says that during his military service he “saw first-hand what it looks like when the federal government is serious about addressing a threat to public safety.“  Haas explains how he linked combat operations against terrorism overseas to the domestic law enforcement problem of gun violence in this way:

When I saw a map depicting mass shootings in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, it looked strikingly similar to a map of attacks in Afghanistan that I would have been charged with analyzing as an intelligence officer.  When the red dots on a map indicate activity tied to suspected terrorists—or, in the case of the Taliban, a group that supports them—the U.S. government has an arsenal of personnel and resources it is willing to use in response.

Haas outlines the sophisticated intelligence and surveillance processes the military used for warfighting while he was in Afghanistan.  He says these included identifying what he says were “suspected terrorists” by employing “a host of analysts, computer programs, and collection capabilities.”  Informed commanders would then marshal an “impressive array of weapons and munitions to ultimately prevent more red dots from appearing.”

Haas goes on to say:

Imagine if the federal government brought to bear even a small fraction of the amount of resources it uses to combat international terrorism in order to mitigate gun violence.  What if the federal budget provided more money for research aimed at understanding gun violence and offering smart ideas to counter it?  What if the government created a national center dedicated solely to this issue?

The devil, of course, is in the details.  Exactly which “resources” currently used to “combat international terrorism” does he want “brought to bear” here at home so that, in his words, it “looks like the federal government is serious about addressing a threat to public safety“?  Drones?  CIA/Special Forces capture/kill teams?

Haas’ call for a research center aimed at “understanding gun violence” sounds good, but in practice what would it mean?  Would it merely duplicate the already robust private sector efforts in that regard?  Or would it involve a domestic version of the “host of analysts, computer programs, and collection capabilities” as he says were used in Afghanistan to track enemy combatants?  If so, precisely what “collection capabilities” is he talking about, and who would they target?

Should we have “intelligence officers” putting “red dots” on the homes of Americans to scrutinize any “activity tied to suspected”…well, who exactly?  Gun owners?  People with mental illness or perceived suicidal tendencies (who, as explained below, comprise most of the victims of gun violence)?  Should we monitor those who “support them”?  And who would that be, exactly?

Should “intelligence officers,” for example, create maps of American neighborhoods à la the ones Haas references he had in Afghanistan?  Would the focus be on African-American communities because black Americans comprise more than half the victims of gun violence?  (It’s hard to think of something that would be more offensive and counter-productive in today’s already hyper-polarized environment.)

We ought not think about a law enforcement issue – even something as serious as gun violence – the same way we do about armed conflict against terrorists or any other enemy.  Among other things, law enforcement and warfighting require fundamentally different mindsets.  As I’ve said elsewhere:

Most conventionally trained soldiers advance on potential threats with a view toward destroying them, not arresting them. They don’t expect to reason with “the enemy.” A soldier’s authority is his weapon and his willingness to use it.

Typically, police rely on public respect for the rule of law, expressed in the authority of the badge. They exercise the studied restraint the judicial process requires. Suspects are not “enemies” but citizens, innocent until proven guilty. The elimination of “threats” is the job of the courts.  Weapons are defensive last resorts.

To justify his advocacy for a robust-as-counterterrorism approach to gun violence, Haas cites a CNN report that 440,095 Americans died from gun violence from 2001 to 2014.  That’s misleading since about 62% of those deaths are from suicides, not from criminal activity.  It is not at all evident that any of the military’s battlefield processes he cites would reduce deaths by suicide.

No question there is definitely a case to be made that we need more financial, medical, ongoing care, research and development assistance for mental health (notably, however, the U. S. already spends $200 billion on mental health care), but that is altogether different from imposing, for example, invasive surveillance on all Americans, to include the millions who lawfully and peacefully own guns.

Moreover, during the same time period Haas cites for firearms deaths about 534,601 Americans were killed in automobile crashes.  Should we do anything and everything to lower that number?

There are plenty of things that government could consider doing to limit those deaths: require yearly driver tests, raise the age for driver licenses, ban the elderly from driving, surveille those leaving bars and other places where intoxicants are served (alcohol-impaired drivers are involved in a third of the deadly crashes), require even more costly safety devices on cars, and – especially – draconian enforcement of seatbelt laws.

The last item is especially relevant because Haas references the heartbreak of the Sandy Hook killings where 20 children and six adults were shot by an individual with “severe and deteriorating internalized mental health problems” who used his mother’s lawfully-acquired guns.  As terrible and tragic as that event was, NPR reported last May that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration between 2010 and 2014 “identified more than 18,000 children under 15 years old who were involved in fatal car crashes, 15.9 percent of whom died as a result of the crashes.” (Emphasis added.)

Here’s an especially appalling statistic from the NPR story: “43 percent of children who died from car crashes were improperly restrained.”  In other words, if we really wanted to stop thousands of child injuries and deaths, should we start prosecuting parents who don’t properly restrain their children as “robustly” as we do terrorists?  Require vehicles that transport children to have special safety equipment?  Limit those who transport children to drivers with special training and licenses?

Regarding limiting potential gun violence, I do agree with Haas that there much to be said for additional legislation such as the outlawing of “bump stocks.”  Though Haas doesn’t mention it, I also support repealing the “Dickey Amendment” so as to remove the murkiness regarding the legality of using Federal dollars for more research about gun violence.

We also can re-examine the effectiveness of the background checking process in the purchase of guns and so forth.  Still, we ought to keep in mind that as far as we know now, the Las Vegas killer not only bought his weapons legally, but also seems to have been a retiree living a law-abiding life.  What kind of process, however “robust” and intrusive, would have stopped him from lawfully acquiring weapons?  And at what cost to the freedoms of ordinary Americans?

So, of course, we can do more to try to reduce gun violence – and Haas is to be applauded for calling for a greater effort – but it’s a mistake to think that should get “as a robust a response as terrorism” given the extraordinarily complex and truly ghastly nature of the technology-infused terrorism peril we face these days.

Moreover, there is always a trade-off between security and freedom.  In this country we do not (or should not) want to live in a militarized state, even if doing do so will produce more physical safety.

So, yes, Haas is correct that we need to analyze what more we can do to avoid gun deaths and devote more resources towards that end, but bringing military tactics, techniques, and procedures to the home front is not the way to do it.

Still, as we like to say on Lawfire, get the facts, study the arguments, and make your own decision!



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