Universal Background Checks Are a Good Idea

I apologize in advance for writing this so soon after yesterday’s tragic shooting at the Navy Base. But there’s one conservative argument on gun control, professed on Twitter repeatedly by National Review’s Charles Cooke, that I have to address.

Here are a couple of Cooke’s tweets from yesterday evening the infuriated me:

cooke 2

First, of course all these mass shooters pass background checks or find a way around the system. Any person who fails a background check and doesn’t circumvent the system doesn’t become a mass shooter, because they don’t get a gun. And you know what they also don’t do? They don’t show up at the local police station or research institution and declare that if not for failing a background check, they would’ve gone on a shooting rampage. This means there aren’t any news stories about background checks preventing homicides, but we do have academic evidence on their effectiveness. And guess what the evidence says? Background checks help prevent shootings.

Second, background checks did not stop today’s shooter. That’s a fact. But just because a background check didn’t prevent today’s tragedy, that doesn’t mean a background check won’t prevent a future one. No one is saying that universal background checks are going to stop all shootings or even most shootings. But they could make a difference on the margin. Given that both the compliance costs and infringement on freedom are tiny, that marginal difference is worth it.

Cooke advocates enforcing current laws, something that could’ve stopped yesterday’s shooter. Absolutely. I 100 percent agree. But that shouldn’t be the end of gun control. Background checks work and they are minimally intrusive. Just because they couldn’t have stopped yesterday’s shooting doesn’t mean they aren’t a good idea.

Insurance Companies Hesitant to Cover Schools with Armed Guards

After the school shooting Newton last December, the NRA’s proposed policy solution to help make schools more secure was to add armed guards to each location. At first blush, the argument made sense: at sporting events, concerts and nearly every other public gathering, armed security is present. Why not at schools?

The answer soon became clear. Students feel less safe when armed guards are around and it inhibits their learning. In addition, it’s unclear whether those guards even help reduce crime. The NRA was proposing a massive investment in beefed up security that hurt students’ learning and had an uncertain effect on crime. Upon further review, it didn’t seem like a very good policy.

Well, a New York Times article today splashes even more cold water on the proposal:

As more schools consider arming their employees, some districts are encountering a daunting economic hurdle: insurance carriers threatening to raise their premiums or revoke coverage entirely.

The insurer of 90% of Kansas school districts has said it will deny coverage to any school that allows any personnel to carry a concealed gun. Many other insurers are close to following suit and schools that can’t find coverage will open themselves up to huge amounts of liability. It will force them to forego armed guards in order to retain insurance coverage.

Effectively, what insurers are saying is that adding armed guards to schools increases the risk of costly injury and thus requires higher premiums. In Kansas, the main insurer, EMC Insurance Companies, is saying that the potential costs are so high that it can’t provide any coverage at all. Through these policies, insurers are communicating that this policy makes schools less safe, not more.

So now that insurers have spoken out and the NRA’s proposed policy is technically unfeasible, what else do they propose to make our schools more secure?

An Easy Mistake to Make on Potential Gun Policies

Dave Weigel makes a mistake that I’ve heard frequently since NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre’s speech post-Newtown:

But this isn’t an entirely new idea. You probably don’t remember the name of Neil Gardner, a sheriff’s deputy in Jefferson County, Colo. He was the armed guard assigned to watch Columbine High School who usually ate lunch with the students, so he could be in the school.

Wonkblog’s Brad Plumer made a similar error as well in a very interesting post about the research on the effects of armed security in schools:

And what about mass shootings? It’s worth noting that Columbine High School had an armed “community resource officer” on duty the day that two students shot 12 of their peers and one teacher. So armed security guards can’t stop every death. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the same can be said about some of the gun-control legislation being discussed right now — the federal assault weapons ban was also in effect during Columbine, after all.

I ranted about this on Twitter. The fact that armed security and the federal assault weapons ban did not prevent the Columbine shooting is not  a reason for not implementing those policies.

Certainly, it’s useful to examine how such a policy would have impacted past events. But looking at one event, especially a high-profile one, as a way of evaluating a potential policy is a cheap way to score political points. Yes, having armed security at Columbine High School did not prevent that tragedy, but maybe it would have helped prevent the shooting in Newtown or could help prevent a future one. Same with an assault weapons ban. Both conservatives and liberals have been using this type of argument the last few days and it just muddies the water. We need to examine the pros and cons of each argument overall, not how they impacted isolated events.

Now, I happen to be skeptical of LaPierre’s idea. As Plumer writes, armed security in schools may make students feel less safe and hurt learning and it’s unclear whether it reduces crime. That’s a good argument for not putting a cop in every school. The fact that Columbine High School had a security guard is not.