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The Myth of Red Flags

When "red flag" laws don't work, liberals will start crying for "more." They'll keep pointing to the wet pavement, and demanding we outlaw the rain.

I get the emotional response to any mass shooting or act of unspeakable evil to “do something!” I really do, and I really believe some kind of “red flag” law is probably inevitable in most states (it’s already passed in 17 states, with mixed results). But let’s dispel the myth that a “red flag” law is the answer. It’s not.

David French cited a statistic that in “93% of [mass attacks], the authorities found that the suspects had a history of threats of other troubling communications.” That’s a powerful number, 93%, but it’s fairly meaningless. I could say that 100% of the time, I’ve found when it rains, the sidewalk is wet, therefore a wet sidewalk is proof of rain. Obviously that’s false.

Hindsight is always 20/20, the saying goes. It’s easy to find “red flag” predictors after the fact when you’re looking for them. It’s not so easy to find them when you’re trying to predict an act of evil or save lives. Here’s one example on David’s twitter feed, calling out his logic.

“You can’t quantify precursors” is a very astute statement. In criminology, three elements have to be present to frame a crime: means, motive and opportunity. In law, these three elements must be reasonably proven for a prosecutor to build a circumstantial case. You can’t convict someone (and probably can’t move forward in a case) if all you have is opportunity and motive. If you can’t prove the means, you have no case. (This is why murder cases with no found bodies are so difficult. If you don’t know how or even if the victim died, you can’t establish means.)

In dealing with “red flags,” this is the real problem: we wish to pass a law to temporarily deprive a person of the means to commit a crime, presuming opportunity and motive. But opportunity is always there for a mass crime (Walmart is open 24/7), and motive, for a person obsessed with mass killings, doesn’t just go away. So we’re back to “mental health,” which is already a disqualification for purchasing firearms.

Looking again at criminology and law, there are basically two kinds of violent crimes, leaving aside incidental violence committed in a robbery or other crime. There’s pre-meditated crime and a crime of passion–the husband who walks in on his wife in flagrante delicto with another man, and shoots them both likely committed a crime of passion. Some mass shootings could very well be crimes of passion, where the shooter “broke” mentally. These are difficult to predict, because everyone has their breaking point. “Red flags” here do very little good.

Pre-meditated crime is easier to find the flags. But many mass shootings are crimes of opportunity. We know that the Las Vegas shooter planned his timing, down to the position of the room in the hotel. But we may never know his motive. The only “red flags” here are that he had a large arsenal. But so do many people who aren’t planning a slaughter.

The El Paso shooter, we may find as details emerge, didn’t plan his shooting. He planned to do it, but not where or when. It was totally a crime of opportunity, as he drove past a busy Walmart and thought “this is it.” There were plenty of “red flags” about him, but not about the where–so this is where depriving him of means comes in.

If the police had to investigate every possible “red flag” report, there wouldn’t be enough left to direct traffic or respond to crimes in progress. This is because we simply don’t know how many “red flags” there are, but we do know that they exist for the actual shooters. It’s the wet pavement problem.

As I wrote above, I think “red flag” laws are coming, like them or not. But they are likely to result in just as many (if not more) false deprivations of Second Amendment rights than actual “saves.” It’s difficult to even determine that number, and gun control activists will say “it’s worth even one life” to deprive many of their rights. But that’s why they want everyone to give up Second Amendment rights. To them, this is just a baby step on the way to their goal.

When “red flag” laws don’t work, liberals will start crying for “more.” They’ll keep pointing to the wet pavement, and demanding we outlaw the rain.

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