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Can we afford what it takes to stop mass school shootings?

Kenneth D. Gough, Community Voices • Mar 21, 2018 at 12:00 AM

After the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida, one would need a heart of stone not to feel the agony of, and have sympathy for, the victims’ families and their community, and burn with the same anger at a system and officials that failed in almost every way possible. Let’s take all the time that’s needed to mourn this unspeakable tragedy.

Then we have to turn our hearts stone-cold in order to think rationally about the appropriate response and make good decisions. Acting in the heat of the moment, emotionally satisfying though it may be, almost never produces good public policy.

How does one value a life? An impossible question, although we don’t think that an individual life is infinitely valuable; what parent wouldn’t gladly sacrifice his own life for his kids? Nor is it logical to say that it’s somehow better to save one life one way than to save another life some other way; the child spared from death by starvation is just as precious as the child who wasn’t murdered by a school shooter.

An awful calculus is at work. Money isn’t infinite. We have more wants than means, so we must prioritize the wants, determine those we think most worth paying for, and leave the rest undone. Thus, a policeman assigned to a school where he might stop a shooting is a policeman not assigned to, say, undercover work, which might lead to the arrest of a drug dealer who instead sold a lethal dose of heroin laced with fentanyl to a teenager who attended said school. Which assignment, in the long run, will save more lives? Our leaders have to make those kinds of impossible decisions every day, then go home and try to sleep, then get up the next morning and look at themselves in the mirror.

My critics will argue that this is a false choice, that we must do both. Sadly, that’s not always possible. We have only so much to work with; our leaders have to dole it out. We can give them more, but the sad truth is, no amount is ever enough. The eternal conundrum of opportunity costs is at work: Money spent one way can’t be spent another, possibly better, way. Our leaders’ task — an awful and awesome responsibility — is to reduce the body count to tolerable levels at tolerable cost.

So here are the stone-cold facts. It’s credibly reported that since 1980, 297 victims have died in school shootings. Most of those were incidents where a single person was targeted, some were suicides, and some were after-school incidents in the parking lot or at athletic contests. Only a handful of mass killings occurred. The average rate from all causes over those 38 years in all schools in the U.S. is less than eight per year. In 2016, the last year for which I could find complete data on the FBI’s website, there were 17,250 murders in the U.S. It’s unclear how many were the result of mass shootings in schools, but, from other sources, there were surely fewer than a dozen. If we had somehow managed to stop them all, we would have lowered the murder rate in the country by less than 0.07 percent.

So here are the stone-cold questions that have to be asked: What would it cost us to stop fewer than a dozen murders in schools each year? I don’t know the answer, but it’s in the many billions of dollars. In the large scheme of things — the way public policy makers must think — is it worth spending that much money? Would it be better spent another way if it saved more lives? Say, on better roads to prevent traffic deaths? Or on anti-overdose medicines to prevent unnecessary drug-caused deaths? Or improved treatments for childhood diseases, or better pediatric mental health care? In Chicago alone, cutting the murder rate in half would likely cost a fraction as much and reduce the number of deaths by over 300. For the same amount of money, paying young women to carry their unwanted pregnancies to term, then putting the babies up for adoption, would save thousands of totally innocent lives every year. As would bringing orphans here from war zones around the world.

All of these are worthy things, none of them objectionable on political, ideological or policy grounds. All of them save lives, most of them innocent. So, if we can’t do them all — and we can’t — how best to use the money we can spend?

The cry from the heart is to do something. It’s hard to realize, even harder to concede, that stone-cold reality may argue for doing something different than what the bereaved families and friends of the dead have in mind.

Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is a semi-retired businessman.

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