While the moral guilt for the Aurora murders lies with the murderer himself, obviously with any crime it’s worth looking at contributing factors.
To take an example related to a different crime, consider that drunk driver Gary Sheats injured a woman and killed her child-to-be in an auto wreck after creating a “DUI history spanning three decades.” While obviously the moral fault is his, the fact that the justice system treated his previous drunk-driving crimes leniently increased the likelihood of him causing a disastrous wreck, and we might want to consider legislative reforms.
At the same time, we should avoid making unwarranted accusations or demonizing the innocent. Recently The Objective Standard published my article, “Condemn Scapegoating in Aftermath of Atrocities,” in which I point out the foolishness and injustice of blaming abortion, the Batman films, or the National Rifle Association for the Aurora murders. I will be disappointed, but not surprised, if others think of many new targets to scapegoat.
A contributing factor is anything with a causal bearing on the incident in question. The fact that Colorado legalized abortion obviously has no causal bearing on the Aurora murderers, so abortion is not a contributing factor. The fact that somebody sold alcoholic beverages to Sheats clearly is a contributing factor to his crime; it’s impossible to drive drunk without consuming alcohol.
Of all the factors that contribute to crimes, we knowingly and rationally accept some of them, whereas we rationally seek to mitigate or eliminate others.
First consider a couple of obvious things that we rationally accept, though they are contributing factors to crimes.
A contributing factor to drunk driving is driving itself, or, to narrow the example, driving for entertainment-related purposes (such as driving to a movie theater). Yet no one seriously proposes that we stop driving for purposes of entertainment, or that the government limit driving to only certain, politically approved purposes. Obviously we accept all the risks of driving as well worth the rewards.
The most obvious contributing factor to mass murders is the fact that people often meet in public. They meet in theaters, businesses, churches, restaurants, sporting events, concerts, and so on. Yet no one seriously proposes that we stop meeting in public, or that the government restrict public meetings. Obviously, the benefits of mass public meetings far overshadow the risks.
Now consider a contributing factor to drunk driving that Americans have actually tried to outlaw in the past.
Despite the fact that the sale of alcoholic beverages is a contributing factor to drunk-driving crimes, some of which kill the innocent, we’d be foolish to outlaw the sale of alcoholic beverages in order to try to stop such crimes. Americans tried that before (for broader reasons), and the resulting ignoble disaster was Prohibition.
Many people consume alcoholic beverages responsibly, and such beverages are quite important to many people’s lives; consider how enthusiastic some people are about wine, beer, Scotch, and so on. Prohibiting alcoholic beverages would constitute a large-scale violation of people’s rights to enjoy liberty, control their bodies and their property, trade freely, and pursue their happiness.
Prohibiting alcohol is not necessary or even very useful for curbing alcohol-related crimes. Regarding drunk driving, the police can and should pull over and, where appropriate, arrest dangerous drivers. Of course, this cannot prevent all drunk-driving crimes, but it can prevent many of them.
Another problem with the prohibition of alcohol is that it cannot possibly eliminate its production and sale. Millions of Americans (myself included) would manufacture or trade alcoholic beverages illegally. Prohibition would turn loose the police state on those millions of Americans, thereby violating their rights, and radically expand the violent black market. My guess is that the number of deaths and injuries resulting from prohibition would exceed those associated with drunk driving.
The upshot of these considerations is that we rationally accept the sale of alcoholic beverages, though it is a contributing factor to drunk driving.
Consider a broader example: the Fourth Amendment. No doubt certain crimes could be prevented if the police had the power to randomly search houses, cars, and bodily cavities at any police officer’s discretion. But we should never allow such a thing, because it would turn America into a police state and turn the police into the primary violators of rights. Thus, we rationally embrace civil rights and restraints on the police, even though such protections certainly contribute to the perpetration of some crimes.
Obviously the proper focus is on those contributing factors that we rationally should seek to mitigate or eliminate. We should remember that living entails risks. The only way to eliminate all risks in your life is to stop living. It is important, then, to figure out which risks we reasonably can mitigate or eliminate, and which we cannot, and then to mitigate risks appropriately. With that background, let us proceed.
The Government and Risk Management
The surest path to the destruction of a prosperous and free society is for its members to demand “there ought to be a law” for every real or imagined evil.
The proper purpose of government is not to micromanage our lives, not to decide for us what risks we may accept, not to enact controls based on “cost-benefit” considerations that ignore the nature of government.
The proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights. When government accomplishes that, it mitigates the risk of crime and enables us, as individuals, to make our own decisions about our lives.
If you want to invite lung cancer by smoking, you should be perfectly free to do so (consistent with property rights). If you wish to die young as a drunk, that is your right.
But if you try to criminally harm others or their property, then the government should seek to stop you.
Obviously the government cannot stop all crime. That is why the government properly recognizes and protects the fundamental human right of self-defense. And that is why we, as individuals, take numerous precautions to try to protect ourselves from crime; for example, we lock our doors and refrain from walking down dark alleys at night in dangerous neighborhoods.
As the rivers of blood flowing through human history illustrate, governments are not metaphysically restricted to the mitigation of harms; very often governments commit horrific atrocities. So it is obviously a foolish mistake to look on government as an agent capable only of mitigating risks; we must look on government as an agent capable of imposing overwhelming risks to our lives, our liberties, and our safety. It is the principle of individual rights that properly defines the ways in which government should act to mitigate risks, and the ways in which we as citizens should act to mitigate the risks of abusive government.
Thus, when seeking to mitigate risks in our lives, we must ask not only which risks we rationally can mitigate, but how those risks should properly be mitigated. Specifically, we must establish whether a particular risk should be managed by private individuals or by government agents.
The Media and the Publicity of Criminals
One of the “reasons” the Aurora murderer chose to attack people at the opening of one of the most popular movies in history is obvious. He knew doing so would cause his name and photograph to be plastered across practically every news-related web page in the world for months on end. He wanted to achieve global infamy, and he did.
Round-the-clock media coverage of mass murders give some murderers precisely what they want—publicity and attention.
Don Lindley, a former Denver police officer who teaches as Regis University, told the Denver Post: “The media [have] an awful lot to do with this. A lot of these offenders are driven by the exposure they will get. That’s what they want, in addition to payback for some hurt they think they’ve suffered.”
In an article for USA Today, Dave Kopel urges, “Don’t turn Aurora killer into [a] celebrity.” J. J. Gould writes a similar piece for The Atlantic.
That sensationalist media coverage of mass murders encourages more mass murders is obvious.
Hopefully it is equally obvious that it is not a problem for the government to try to solve, for that would violate rights of free speech, a pillar of a free society.
But journalists can take care how they report a story, and we as consumers of media can pay attention to what we promote and encourage.
The fact that the Aurora murderer was able to obtain firearms obviously allowed him to use those guns to kill and injure others.
It does not therefore follow that the government should ban certain guns or all guns.
As I’ve written, people own and use guns for self-defense, and doing so is their right. Moreover, as philosopher Michael Huemer argues, people benefit from gun ownership in other ways, as from their value in recreation.
Generally, gun restrictions impose harms on the law-abiding—especially by diminishing people’s ability to defend themselves from criminals—without doing much if anything to impede criminals. Everyone knows that it’s relatively easy to obtain every sort of illegal drug, and the same would be true of guns under a regime of gun prohibition. Moreover, murderers can cause mayhem in other ways, as by setting off bombs, lighting fires, and plowing vehicles into crowds of people.
The idea that attempting to control the gun ownership of millions of law-abiding Americans will somehow significantly cut crime is ludicrous.
What we need instead are laws and enforcement actions that target criminal activities and threats of such, and that leave peaceable citizens unmolested.
Other Contributing Factors
We know the Aurora murderer was seeing a psychiatrist. Was he taking prescribed drugs for emotional problems? Did he in fact send a package to his psychiatrist describing his criminals plans before he carried them out? These are important matters to investigate.
What about violent video games and movies? I have seen a video game in which the user plays a criminal who shoots and maims others and steals their belongings—that’s the point of the game. Such a “game” is disgusting, and it should not be sold. Nor should it be censored.
Many violent video games and movies, on the other hand, portray good people fighting evil people. Not all violence means the same thing. There is a profound moral difference between initiatory violence that violates the rights of others, and defensive violence.
Only a tiny fraction of those who play violent video games or watch violent movies commit acts of violence, and if a causal connection exists at all it is extremely weak. People have free will! A basic principle of a free society is that we do not punish or restrain the innocent on account of the guilty.
No doubt contributing factors to the Aurora murders can and will be discussed at mind-numbing length. Let’s remember some important points. The moral fault lies with the murderer. Scapegoating is wrong and counterproductive. We knowingly and rationally accept many things that contribute to crimes because we benefit from those things. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, just because something contributes to crime, doesn’t mean the government should ban it. If we wish to mitigate our risks of suffering harm, the most important thing we can do is restrain government to its purpose of protecting individual rights.
Creative Commons Image: Aalborg Stift