Risk Management, Tyranny, and Guns

My job title is Risk Manager. The title is a misnomer. No one can manage risk. Risks come at us like sunlight, like wind, like water, an inattentive step, or a swarm of bees. We exist among these things, and try as we might, we can’t manage them. What we can manage are controls. Sunscreen, jackets, umbrellas, smooth sidewalks, and the good sense to stay away from a hornet’s nest are familiar controls in our daily lives. We are all risk managers.

Good risk managers assess situations and apply controls appropriate to the degree of risk and inversely proportional to one’s tolerance for the consequences of the risk. It’s a balancing act, a basic comparison of costs and benefits. It’s not rocket science–although rocket science is a good example of risk management.

In a free society, tyranny is a risk. Our founding fathers had the foresight to implement controls against tyranny. They established a government with divided, balanced powers; they defined a process by which to elect leaders; and they proclaimed the right to keep and bear arms. The key controls against tyranny are constitutionally-based institutions and fundamental rights. The Second Amendment to the Constitution is a right precisely because, first and foremost, it’s a control against governmental tyranny.

Ironically, the Second Amendment also enables tyranny. Not the tyranny of oppressive government, rather the tyranny of a psychopathic individual who wields violent power over defenseless victims. The Constitution offers controls to prevent psychopaths from achieving elected office, and against abusing power if one of them happens to attain office. The controls it offers against psychopaths wielding power with a gun are more subtle. They require the care and foresight of elected officials to enact laws that weigh the actual rights of citizens against the potential abuse of a right that would result in direct harm to unwitting victims. This is a balancing act. This is risk management.

Guns are not a risk. They are inanimate, dumb objects. They pose no threat by themselves, they carry no inherent risk. The gun-related risk we face is that of being shot by someone who has a gun. It arises from gun ownership. To control the risk of being shot, we must manage gun ownership.

When I was 15 years old, my three best friends and I took a hunter safety course. It was a prerequisite to obtaining a hunting license. The course emphasized gun safety. As a result of the training we received, my friends and I became lower-risk gun operators than our friends who had not taken the course. Through the many years since that course, we have demonstrated that mandatory education as a prerequisite to gun use is a reasonable, effective control against the misuse of a firearm.

Education does not prevent all instances of misuse, but it does prevent some, and it certainly helps prevent gun-related accidents. It is not sufficient to mitigate the risk Americans face from people who deliberately misuse firearms. The risk of being shot is complex, arising from many factors. The best strategy a risk manager can employ to address a complex risk involves layered security.

In layered security, the failure of a control at one point in a process might be compensated for by a control at another point. Education provides one layer of security against gun violence. Other effective controls include restricting ownership, deterring misuse, and promoting proportionality.

Laws already restrict ownership of firearms. In most jurisdictions, convicted felons can’t own guns. Similar laws should restrict gun ownership by people who demonstrate an increased likelihood to abuse their constitutional right to the detriment of other citizens. People who appear on a terrorist watch list and people who have been diagnosed with disorders that limit their ability to exercise self-control are two examples. There are others. Preventing these people from owning guns provides a layer of protection against gun violence.

Deterrents provide yet another layer of protection against gun violence. For law abiding citizens, laws against gun-related crimes serve as an effective deterrent. The penalty for murder surely prevents some murders. Similarly, the threat of losing the right to own a gun deters some gun owners from taking their guns into places where carrying a firearm is inappropriate. Not everyone will respect deterrents, but many people will. When they do, they will make the job of law enforcement officers a little bit easier.

Proportionality is a more complicated subject than education, restrictions, or deterrents. Proportional use of force means meeting a threat with a reasonable response, not excessive force. Firearms with modest capacities and a brief pause to chamber a fresh round of ammunition are reasonable for use by ordinary citizens who want to hunt, protect themselves from someone wielding a weapon, or fend off the agent of a tyrant who has come to take their gun. This last example flows directly from the intent of the Second Amendment.

Firearms designed to maximize the chance of preemptively killing an enemy in the fog of war project a massive amount of force. Their force is unreasonable in situations faced by ordinary citizens. Although fully automatic weapons may be fun to shoot, fun is not a Constitutional right. Fully automatic weapons bestow a disproportionate advantage in non-combat situations. They violate the concept of proportionality. Therefore laws designed to promote the general welfare should not allow ownership of fully automatic weapons by private citizens.

Education, restrictions, deterrents, and provisions to ensure proportionality must serve as complementary controls against abuse of the right of gun ownership in the United States. They can do so without infringing on the basic right. Legislators who defend the Second Amendment, yet refuse to provide multiple, complementary layers of control to mitigate the risk of its abuse, have failed to manage controls. As a result, they promote risk, making them complicit in enabling the brief reign of psychopathic tyrants who deny the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of their victims.