Guns and Death from Massachusetts to Alabama: Misrule of Law?

The murder of three faculty members at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, allegedly by Harvard-trained neurobiologist Amy Bishop is eliciting much media attention. Professor Bishop is accused of opening fire at a biology department faculty meeting—to discuss a prior decision to deny her of tenure at the University of Alabama. She allegedly shot and killed three of her faculty colleagues while injuring three others.

Thus far, the media has focused on the shock of a Harvard-educated scientist perpetuating such a heinous act, and on the related perennial issues of fierce academic competition and tenure decisions.

Some have already begun speculating about her mental state and about the possible links between decades of often competitive intellectual pursuits and longstanding mental health challenges that may have gone unaddressed. It is both misguided and superficial to conclude simply that she “went ballistic” or just “snapped” during Friday’s faculty meeting or merely focus on her mental state.

What is still receiving insufficient attention is the simple fact that Dr. Amy Bishop walked into the faculty meeting and sat quietly during its proceedings with a fully-loaded gun in her possession.

In the United States, it is almost taken for granted how easy it is to gain access to guns and carry them undetected—even onto college campuses, whether they are a ‘gun-free zone’ or not. This is in sharp contrast to other industrialized, and many emerging, countries around the world today.

Guns play a role by effectively translating fallible human intent into lethal outcomes. It is much more difficult to kill, even in the presence of deadly intent, if access to a gun and free movement with a loaded weapon is effectively limited.

Assume hypothetically that the same Amy Bishop, after obtaining her Ph.D., became a professor at a university in Europe or Asia. Even if that university had denied her academic tenure, following the same process and rationale as the University of Alabama did, her ability to inflict such lethal damage would have been significantly hindered by the stringent rules regarding access to and carrying of firearms in these regions.

Further, it may be the case that in a different setting she would have been more carefully vetted prior to being offered her university faculty position. If she had been vetted, a faculty job offer may have been denied or, even if offered, she certainly should have warranted a special watch. This is because Amy Bishop had fatally shot her own brother in Massachusetts over two decades ago using a legally registered gun from her home. Her past suggests that she had no problem accessing guns since her youth and using them with lethal results.

However politically incorrect, this tragic incident illustrates the damage inflicted on society by the apparent anachronistic, and at times distorted, interpretation of the 220-year old Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which protects “the right to keep and bear arms.”

Amy Bishop had access to a gun decades ago in Massachusetts and now in Alabama, inflicting significant damage both times. In the recent Alabama killings, it can be argued that the system did not fail, but that Amy Bishop broke the law by obtaining and carrying a gun illegally. The problem with this argument is basic supply and demand economics, given the mammoth number of firearms among civilians, in the streets, and under. It is estimated that there are close to 300 million guns in America today.

The difference between accessing a gun legally (which is commonplace) or illegally (also commonplace) comes down to the price mark-up difference (and transaction costs at the margin, although it is not impossible to order extralegal guns online).

The rate of gun possession per capita in countries like Canada, Denmark, England, Ireland or Japan are a very tiny fraction of that in the U.S. In England, for instance, there are about 6 guns per 100 residents, in Chile and Denmark about 12, in Canada 31, while in the United States there are about 90. And the rate of killings resulting from guns in America (32 per million population per year) is a multiple of that of other countries (1.6 per million in England, 2.6 in Denmark, 4.6 in Canada), as we see in this table. Further, there seems to be no compelling evidence that when gun laws are more stringent, there is a substitution to other weapons that kill.

Unfortunately, in today's political system where money in politics and vested financial interests by powerful minorities play a prominent role (and where lobbying groups such as the NRA and others wield disproportionate influence over lawmakers), the likelihood is low that the United States will enact more stringent gun laws aligned with those of other modern societies anytime soon. In fact, last Friday, the same day of the University of Alabama murders, the Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill that allows people to carry concealed weapons into bars (as long as they do not drink), and yesterday it repealed a 17-year old ban on purchasing more than one handgun a month. This further permissiveness in the purchase and concealed transport of guns is taking place in the very state where less than three years ago the worse peacetime massacre in U.S. history took place, on or off-campus, at the hands of a lone gunman at Virginia Tech.

However, the fact that Amy Bishop may have had mental health challenges, and broken the law, as well as the reality of politics moving toward further permissiveness on gun possession, ought not deter the continuation of data-driven policy analysis and research, as well as a frank debate on this thorny issue, which may be another instance of misrule of law.