Asking for Steps to Make a Dangerous Technology Less Unsafe

Asking for Steps to Make a Dangerous Technology Less Unsafe

A comment on my Wednesday blog last week from my friend Jim Frishe (and I do consider Jim a friend) convinced me to write a follow up blog supporting my plea that the Florida Legislature will (next session?) consider some of the ways

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in which the risk presented by the presence of guns in our homes and in our society can be reduced.

Jim picked at my use of the term “unsafe” to refer to guns as a technology. Perhaps that was not the best way to get my message across.

So how about “dangerous”? And if that danger is not properly managed, then one has an unsafe situation.

Guns, like many technologies, are dangerous. Guns, however, are designed to be so. Indeed, it is precisely the threat they pose to the well-being of others that has given them such prominence. Our soldiers don’t carry pikes, lances and swords any more, and they ride in armored vehicles rather than on horseback, because of the death-dealing power of the gun.

A well-designed firearm in a skilled and responsible person’s hand, however, is dangerous, but not unsafe. So my choice of words could have been better.

Except that I wasn’t thinking about responsible people when I wrote that blog Wednesday.

I was thinking about Alex Hribal.

Alex Hribal is the 16-year-old accused of stabbing 21 students and one adult in a suburban Pittsburgh high school earlier this month. The assaults apparently were carried out with a pair of large, but perfectly ordinary, kitchen knives.

Alex got close enough to 21 students to wound them with one or the other of these knives, four of them critically.

But, as of this writing, no one has died.

Why didn’t anyone die? Because killing with a knife isn’t as easy as killing with a gun. One has to get close to the victim (unless one has developed the rare skill of knife throwing . . . and then, one has to recover one’s weapon, or have a lot of throwing knives, to cause real carnage). One has to understand, at some level, what kinds of wounds are most likely to kill. And then, one has to execute one of those wounds . . . all presumably while the victim(s) are running or trying to fight back . . . and the assailant is in range to be fought by anyone with a leg or an arm or a backpack.

Of course, one can kill with a knife by sheer volume of wounds, or by causing one or more wounds that just happen to be lethal. Alex Hribal almost did that.

But four times as many homicides are committed in the U.S. with firearms as with knives, nearly 8,000 a year in the U.S. according to the FBI. And an additional 19,000 suicides are committed with firearms, each year, roughly the same number as all other methods combined. (Knives, by the way, don’t figure prominently in suicides at all.)

So let’s be honest: a gun is a dangerous technology. It’s designed to be. In the wrong hands, whether those hands are “wrong” because they are planning violence, or wrong because of the passions of the moment, or wrong because of mental illness, a technology this lethal is unsafe. We can (and should) continue to explore and invest in ways to diminish the emergence of “wrong hands.” But we also can (and should) explore and invest in ways to decrease the ease with which this dangerous technology can be used to cause unnecessary harm . . . not just through willful acts of murder, but through sorrowful acts of suicide and tragic accidental deaths.

Nothing in the Second Amendment prohibits such explorations. Indeed, there is much we could be doing (explicitly recognized as permissible in the most recent cases) that our Legislature has chosen not to do, or affirmatively told local governments they cannot do. Such decisions aren’t about constitutional rights.

They are about making Floridians, on balance, less safe than they otherwise might be.

2 Responses to Asking for Steps to Make a Dangerous Technology Less Unsafe

  • Richard L. Block

    The function of government is not to legislate morality. It’s function is to deal with those members of society who disregard the safety of others in the responsible use of guns. You can legislate laws which hold all who have access to guns accountable for their actions. You can educate the public about proper gun safety. The much maligned NRA devotes a considerable part of their agenda to proper gun safety. Maybe the government can contract the NRA for this phase of instilling public awareness of gun safety issues. You also can introduce biometrics, allowing only the owner access to his weapon. The trouble with government control is that government tends to over-regulate everything.It’s their way to ensure their own survival and growth. A case in point is the pitiful reality of Chicago, a city where morgues do a land-office business in gun related deaths despite all the gun restrictions imposed. Responsible gun owners will take care of their gun safety issues. The government should take care of that segment of society who doesn’t.

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      Thanks, Richard!

      Biometrics are an interesting example of a means of making a dangerous technology safer. It may, or may not, be a prudent approach for guns. But it won’t be adopted without government regulation (not at the level that would provide a meaningful increase in safety). It would be helpful if the NRA and others were willing to support intelligent discussions of these sorts of options in a regulatory setting. And yes, government can overregulate, and there are institutional and personal incentives to do so . . . Just as there are personal and institutional incentives operating in companies and interest groups to deter regulation and compel underregulation.

      At least we are having the conversation here!