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A Swiss Cheese Approach to Curbing Gun Violence

Red-flag laws, policing, age limits, background checks, and more.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
May 26, 2022; ported here on June 4, 2024

Anyone who follows the news is aware that many American families are going through hell, having lost a loved one to a murderer with a gun. Yet again, we ask, what should we as a society do about the problem of violence and especially violence involving guns?

The "Swiss Cheese" approach to curbing Covid was helpful, and I think a similar strategy is useful when it comes to gun-related violence. The point is, it's not just "one thing" that we have to do. We have to do a lot of relatively small things that add up to serious (although imperfect) protection.

As a reminder, here is the "Swiss Cheese Model" as presented by the Colorado Department of Health:

An image illustrates how different types of protective actions, such as distancing, hand washing, and getting vaccinated, can add up to strong protection against Covid.

Of course the main thing on this list is "get vaccinated." So I'm definitely not saying that every possible intervention has the same impact. But vaccinations do not offer perfect protection (especially with new variants and with legal barriers to updated vaccines), so the other interventions are useful. Especially before the vaccines came out, a multi-layered approach was important to cut risks of contracting the disease. Of course, even someone being careful can get Covid.

I'm not saying that every possible layer of protection would have been a good idea. For example, China's extreme lock-downs have been unjust and harmful in various ways. We could have tried to force people to get vaccinated, but that would have violated people's rights. In a free society, we don't automatically authorize whatever use of governmental force that might increase our safety. We should have a very compelling reason to authorize government agents to use (potentially lethal) force, and we should be sensitive to arguments for not authorizing force in a given case. Short-term safety is not all the matters. None of this counts against the general "Swiss Cheese" strategy; it does impact what layers we might accept or reject.

Similarly, I'm suggesting that the right way to approach gun-related violence is to put in place many stages of protection. Each measure by itself is relatively weak, but all the measures combined are fairly strong. In the case of gun-related violence, a multi-layered approach is even more important, because no one realistic strategy is as important to curbing such violence as vaccines are to curbing Covid. (Confiscating all or even many guns is not realistic.)

One error is to look at a given intervention, point out that it, by itself, often will not work, or in fact did not work in a given case, and conclude that the intervention is therefore worthless. I used to make this error with respect to some possible gun restrictions. Some people make it with respect to arming the "good guys" (including gals), who sometimes but not always stop a would-be murderer. The Swiss Cheese approach encourages us to look at a bunch of partial solutions and to stack them together as part of a comprehensive approach.

Following are what I see as the elements of a Swiss Cheese approach to curbing gun-related violence, starting with what I think is most important.

Pass and Enforce Red Flag Laws

People who threaten violence, announce they plan to commit violence, or strongly suggest they intend to do so, have no business possessing guns (or other lethal weapons). Yet, according to Wikipedia, most states do not have a "red flag law" that allows police to disarm people who threaten violence.

True, as Jacob Sullum writes, red flag laws are not a panacea, and it's hard to predict which person who threatens violence will carry it out.

Still, I think David French has it right (more):

Here's a reform that matters. Red flag laws. Mass killers consistently display warning signs, and when people display signs that they're a danger to themselves or others, we need take action. 19 states have them. Only one red state. That needs to change.

Of course, these laws don't enforce themselves. People need to report to police cases where people threaten violence. And police need to act. That brings us to the second layer. . .

Promote Proactive and Rights-Respecting Policing

Police have killed hundreds of people so far this year. I'm sure almost all of those killings were legally justified. I'm also pretty confident that many of them could have been avoided with better policing.

People not trusting the police creates all sorts of problems. People are less likely to report crimes and threats of violence. People are more likely to take their protection into their own hands. Often lack of trust in police means that police are not doing their job of fighting crime very well.

There is no inherent conflict between proactive policing and rights-respecting policing. Properly, those things go together.

Police reform is a tough problem, and it matters in a lot of ways, not only because of its effect on gun-related violence. I'll put the item on the agenda even though I understand reforms in this area are very hard.

If people publicly threaten violence, police and other relevant government agents need to do something about it.

In the Texas shooting, it appears that police did not do a very good job handling the crisis. According to the New York Times, after the perpetrator shot his grandmother, she "contacted the police while he drove off" toward the school. Yet police appeared woefully unprepared. The AP reports, "Frustrated onlookers urged police officers to charge into the Texas elementary school" during the attack. It appears that police instead tackled at least one desperate parent to the ground. After the embarrassing performance of police at Columbine, I thought police departments had learned how to act in a crisis, but apparently not all have.

Put in Age Limits for Purchasing and Possessing Certain Guns

One fact become immediately relevant when discussing this issue: The federal government continues to register 18-year-old males for the draft. It is morally intolerable that government tells an 18-year-old that it reserves the power to hand the person a rifle and ship the person off to fight and die for country, but the government will not recognize the person's full adult rights. The solution is obvious: Repeal draft registration. Once this is done, we can talk about age tiers for things like gun purchases.

Obviously the age of eighteen is an arbitrary line for adulthood. In some respects people younger than that normally are ready to start entering adult life; in other respects, people mature later. I think it's now a truism that people's brains do not fully develop until they're around twenty-five.

I'm totally fine with saying an eighteen-year-old should be able to buy 3.2 beer, single-shot rifles and revolvers, and cigarettes, but not whiskey, AR-15s and the like, and marijuana. Certainly people should acquire their full adult rights by the time they turn twenty-five. Before that, we can reasonably draw some limits.

I do not think an eighteen-year-old, who is old enough to marry, buy a house, and have children, should be prohibited from buying or possessing all guns. People have a right to self-defense.

To make such restrictions work, we have to have some reasonable allowances. For example, an eighteen-year-old should be (and actually is) legally allowed to consume whiskey in certain circumstances (say, with parents), shoot an older friend's AR-15 at the gun range, and so on.

I also think that, if the government accepts a given individual into the armed forces, that person should automatically get full-level adult rights, even if only eighteen. Also, I think people generally should be able to petition a court to "age up" early, as with emancipation. Some people are a lot more responsible and mature than others even at a relatively young age.

Regardless, we can't have cops and prosecutors be assholes about this. We should be looking at things like citations and red-flag invocations, not sending in the SWAT teams and throwing people in jail.

Adopt a Universal Background Check

Here's the sort of universal background-check system I endorse: Government provides a list of everyone disqualified from buying a gun to all gun sellers, who then must check the identification of a potential buyer against the list. If a seller does not do this and government finds out about it, the seller faces severe penalties. This would very strongly incentivize sellers to do a good job checking identities (in consultation with government agents if necessary) and keeping good records. No, this system would not always work, but neither does today's system.

Of course, my proposal does not set the basis for universal gun-owner registration and gun confiscation, which is why a lot of people don't like it.

Improve Building Security

It's pretty standard now to think about things like putting up barriers to prevent people from smashing their car through the front of a building.

There are people who make it their career to think about building security. Schools should consult these people. I'm not talking about turning schools into prisons or fortresses; many security measures are inexpensive and invisible or nearly so.

Security is not always easy or obvious. A lock that keeps out an intruder also can be used by the intruder, if he makes it in, to keep out others. Still, building security can constitute an important layer of protection.

Improve Access to Mental Health Services

Would improving access to mental health services prevent all murders? Obviously not. Would it help in some cases? Almost certainly.

Train Staff on Emergencies

Staff at a school should basically know how to handle various emergencies and have simple plans for them.

I think staff that wants more extensive training in things like self-defense should be able to get it.

By the way, I also think it's a good idea for other people to get training on how to respond to an attacker.

I totally agree that active-shooter drills for students, especially for young children, are stupid and needlessly traumatizing. (Still, if older students want such training, I have no problem with them getting it.)

Arm and Train Teachers Who Want to Be Armed

No serious person is saying teachers or other school staff (aside from security) should be required to be armed. But teachers who want to carry a concealed gun and want to undergo the training for that should be allowed to do so.

Yes, it's possible for something to go wrong with an armed teacher. True, armed teachers won't always be able to stop a mass murderer. Again, we're talking about meaningful layers of security, and this definitely is one. There's just no reasonable argument against this.

Let People with Concealed Carry Permits Carry on Campus

People who get a concealed carry permit go through rigorous screening, file with the government, get training, and so on. Is it conceivable that something could go wrong with allowing permitted people to carry a concealed gun into schools? Sure. Allowing it also would provide another important layer of protection, on net.

Ask yourself: If you were stuck inside a school (or any other facility) under attack from an armed mass murderer, would you want someone with you with a gun who is trained to use that gun? If you say no, you're either lying or you're so biased on the topic that you cannot think clearly.

Does that mean nothing could ever go wrong involving someone with a permitted gun? Obviously not. Can we always count on such people to stop a mass murderer? Again, obviously not. But we're not talking about perfect scenarios in which nothing can conceivably go wrong. If that's our standard, we will do nothing. We're talking about adding meaningful layers of security.

* * *

I'm not claiming that I've covered all the relevant layers of security. Nor am I claiming that all of these layers combined would eliminate incidences of mass murder. I'm saying that, by adopting many layers of security in combination, including the ones listed here, we can substantially decrease our risks and save lives.

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