Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Three Thoughts on the Las Vegas Massacre, in Time Order

1.  I was awake that night when the first news from the Las Vegas massacre appeared in the social media, and almost simultaneously with the news that "an active shooter situation" (using police jargon) was developing I began seeing heaps of fake news about what might be going on.  The nastiest aspect* of those came when the Las Vegas police gave the name of the suspect's partner as "a person of interest" the police wished to contact.

The keyboards of a few thousand 4chan trolls were smoking hot, their owners Googling the name, trying to find someone who might be the killer that way, and they hit the jackpot (in their reality):

A woman with the same name, whose husband appeared to demonstrate anti-Trump politics.  Thus, it was convincingly (!) proved that this man, this husband,  was the Las Vegas butcher.

Sadly, all those trolls were wrong:

When they woke up and glanced at their phones on Monday morning, Americans may have been shocked to learn that the man behind the mass shooting in Las Vegas late on Sunday was an anti-Trump liberal who liked Rachel Maddow and MoveOn.org, that the F.B.I. had already linked him to the Islamic State, and that mainstream news organizations were suppressing that he had recently converted to Islam.

They were shocking, gruesome revelations. They were also entirely false — and widely spread by Google and Facebook.

In Google’s case, trolls from 4Chan, a notoriously toxic online message board with a vocal far-right contingent, had spent the night scheming about how to pin the shooting on liberals. One of their discussion threads, in which they wrongly identified the gunman, was picked up by Google’s “top stories” module, and spent hours at the top of the site’s search results for that man’s name.
In Facebook’s case, an official “safety check” page for the Las Vegas shooting prominently displayed a post from a site called “Alt-Right News.” The post incorrectly identified the shooter and described him as a Trump-hating liberal. In addition, some users saw a story on a “trending topic” page on Facebook for the shooting that was published by Sputnik, a news agency controlled by the Russian government. The story’s headline claimed, incorrectly, that the F.B.I. had linked the shooter with the “Daesh terror group.”

Google and Facebook blamed algorithm errors for these.

So.  Algorithm errors...

The above example is not unique about the difficulty of finding facts and truth about some recent horrible event on social media.  It might even be representative.

What truly does seem representative to me is the chaos and the noise in social media, the short opinions rarely based on any evidence at all, the refusal to wait and see what the authorities will be telling us.  Instead of rubbernecking only when we pass a car accident on the highway, the Internet has gifted us all with the chance of becoming global rubberneckers.

Add that to the old dilemma about how to report on mass killings:  Excess focus of the butcher can cause copy-cat crimes, and  instructions on how to alter a weapon can make it easier for those copy-cats to alter their weapons, too.  So better get that all into one article!

2.  Then came the political arguments.  They are always the same after each major massacre that cannot be clearly linked to political causes.  Anyone who remembers the Newtown massacre where little children (and their caregivers) were slaughtered might get why I'm very skeptical of any progress on the regulations of firearms in this country.  If the butchery of small children didn't change the laws, surely the butchery of adults won't, either.  All one needs, to see the strength of the emotional appeal of guns in this culture, is to follow a few debate threads on the topic of gun control.

No amount of evidence showing that the United States is an outlier among developed nations in the number of gun homicides will matter, no amount of evidence that gun control will reduce deaths will matter, no amount of evidence showing that "stand-your-ground" or concealed-carry or other similar pro-gun law changes will increase gun deaths matters.

That's because the debate, on the side of the pro-gun group, is not about evidence or about other innocent people possibly dying in horrible ways.  It's about their right to have a gun, their right not to feel afraid in the dark, because someone else might have guns, their right to  be a more efficient killer if they judge that this is what their safety or the safety of their loved ones requires.

This is a deeply embedded cultural value, and it is argued to derive from the Second Amendment to the Constitution:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
 Whether the Founding Fathers would have created a similar amendment had they known what types of guns are available today and how rapidly they shoot is doubtful.

Never mind, the consequences of the Second Amendment is that the American cultural values about guns and about gun rights are globally fairly unique, and it is those values (and the fear) that drive pro-gun arguments.  It is those values which are partly responsible for this graph:

And it is those values which cause the kinds of counterarguments that if we are going to "ban guns" (the usual interpretation of any attempt to make getting semi-automatic guns, say, a little bit more difficult), then we should ban cars or alcohol or cigarettes, because all those kill a lot of people, too.  That driving cars is regulated and subjected to tests, and that both alcohol and cigarettes are already fairly regulated is ignored in those counterarguments.  But most centrally, they ignore the fact that the deaths guns cause are not some sort of unavoidable side-effects of other enjoyable ways of using guns, but their major purpose**.

This is not the case if the "right to bear arms" is viewed from that cultural angle, if it's all about not being left defenseless against the dark, because then the main purpose of guns is precisely the relief of that fear.

The other common counterargument to greater regulation of firearms is to argue that it's people who kill people, not guns (or people with guns)***, and that what we really need are better gun-owners.

The way to get there is presumably by making it harder for mentally ill people to get guns or for individuals in red-hot rage to buy a gun on the same day.  The way to get there doesn't seem to require that individuals with guns take courses on how to use them safely or store them in a way which reduces the chances that a toddler, say, gets access to them, and neither does it require insurance (the way operating a car does).

In any case, the current Congress, firmly on the side of the gun lobby, has been accused of having made it easier for mentally ill people to obtain firearms, and at least last May various news sites told us that the Trump administration proposes cuts in mental health care.

Indeed, the current Republicans had planned additional legal changes to make gun ownership easier, though the Las Vegas massacre has temporarily put those on a back burner:

A controversial bill to loosen restrictions on purchasing gun silencers won't be reaching the House floor anytime soon after a horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas that left at least 59 dead and hundreds more wounded, according to GOP sources.
A bill to allow concealed-carry permit holders to take their guns with them to another state could also be affected after the tragedy, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
In what has become a familiar pattern, President Donald Trump and lawmakers in both parties issued somber statements of condolences following Sunday’s shooting, in which a heavily armed gunman opened fire on a crowd attending a country music festival. A number of Democrats called for immediate hearings and votes on gun-control measures, while Republicans and conservatives countered that it is inappropriate to talk politics when the tragedy is still fresh.

The silencer bill looks particularly horrible, given that the sounds of gunfire might be the only warning the victims of mass killings would ever receive.

Not all political commenting I came across in the last two days was about gun control.  I also saw several arguments about how "terrorism" should be defined and if the Las Vegas butchery should be something that is attributed to all white men as a form of terrorism, given the equivalent and fairly frequent attempts to blame all Muslims for Islamist terrorism.

I didn't, however, see anything yet about the fact that most firearm homicides and almost all mass killings with guns are carried out by men****.

I'm not happy with the current trend of generalizing guilt for the actions of individuals to wider demographic groups and I'm not pointing out this omission to support more such generalizations.

But studying and understanding the psychological and cultural reasons for this fact could be a way of preventing future deaths.  As one example, consider this old ad which explicitly tries to link masculinity with gun ownership

3.  Then came the grief, and thinking about the grief of those who lost loved ones, the grief of those who are sitting by the hospital beds of loved ones fighting for their lives, the grief over the enormous price this country pays for the Second Amendment or at least its current interpretation, and the grief from realizing that soon this massacre, too, will fall into the memory hole of history and then this tragedy, too,  will be too stale for talking about the politics of guns.


* Nastiest, because such fake news can cause dreadful consequences to completely innocent individuals who might be harassed, threatened or even hurt by unstable people reading those news. 

Added later:  This seems to have already happened

Speaking to CNN affiliate KHBS, the daughters of Danley's ex-husband described their former stepmother as a "good and gentle person."
"I know she has to be devastated about what has happened," Dionne Waltrip said, adding that the family, which now lives in Arkansas, has been receiving death threats after her father was erroneously identified online as the shooter.

** Cars, for example, are mostly intended not to kill people or animals, but to transport people, animals and goods from one place to another.  The only unrelated pleasure I can imagine guns provide is target practice.  But air rifles should suffice for that, right?

***  I can cut my lawn with nail clippers or with an electric lawn mower.  It's true that in both cases I am the person cutting the lawn, not the nail clippers or the lawn mower, but within, say, fifteen minutes the combination of myself and the lawn mower will cut a lot more grass blades than the combination of myself with nail clippers.  Nobody is arguing that guns get up on their own and go out to kill people, only that guns make people into much more efficient killers.

**** And the latter in the US mostly by white men.