19 April, 2013

Why the NRA proposal is dumb

A couple of weeks ago, the National Rifle Association released their counter-proposal for increasing safety in US schools in the wake of another mass shooting last December. This is to be commended. It’s one thing to be against tighter gun control, but the NRA deserves credit for commissioning a study and coming up with their own ideas. If nothing else, it shows they agree that there’s a problem. The idea they have come up with though – putting trained, armed personnel in every school – is not a good one and I will explain why.

Before I get into that, let me first explain that for the purpose of this discussion, I don’t care where you stand on the issue of gun control.  I don’t care if you think all guns should be banned, or if you think every citizen should have one, or anything in between. I don’t care if you think safety comes from more guns or less guns. I don’t care what you think about the independence of the group that did this study. I don’t care if armed guards in schools would make you feel safer or if it would creep you out. I don’t care if you think the right to bear arms is absolute or if you think it should be tempered by modern considerations. I don’t care if you think the US constitution should be a living document which adapts to the times, or if you think it should be set in stone forever and a day.  I don’t care if you think the NRA are patriots defending the constitution or a relic of a bygone age.

The reason I don’t care about any of those things is because they are tangential to an issue that really comes down to a fairly straightforward case of risk management.

The principles of risk management vary slightly between regions and organisations but the process has four stages:

  • Identify the risk
  • Analyse and evaluate the risk
  • Treat the risk
  • Monitor the risk

Once the risk has been identified, analysing and evaluating the risk requires the use of a matrix* to plot the likelihood of the risk (from Rare to Almost certain) against the impact of the risk (Insignificant to Catastrophic).  This gives us an idea of the level of risk. For example, the likelihood of rain is almost certain, but the impact of rain in most situations is insignificant to minor so the level of risk is low. The likelihood of a large earthquake is much higher in San Francisco than it is in Miami, but in both cases, the impact would still be catastrophic. Conversely, the likelihood of a hurricane is far more likely in Miami than in San Francisco but the impact would still be major to catastrophic.

Having evaluated the risk, the next step is to decide how to treat the risk. The types of treatment can be broken down into four basic options:
Avoid the risk: This is clearly the most preferable – try to avoid or eliminate the risk completely.
Control the risk: Put strategies in place to reduce the likelihood or the impact (preferably both) of the risk.
Transfer the risk: The most obvious example of transferring a risk is insurance. Taking out fire insurance transfers the financial risk of a fire from the owner to the insurer.
Retain the risk: Decide that the risk is an acceptable one that doesn’t require avoiding, controlling or transferring.  We do this all the time. For all that we have done to avoid, reduce and transfer the risks of driving a car, it still remains an inherently risky activity and one that millions have decided to embrace.  The same applies to living in cities known to be at greater risk of seismic activity or hurricanes than others.

Finally, we continue to monitor the risk and evaluate the success of the risk management plan we have put in place.
Obviously, I didn’t invent any of this. My instruction on the subject came from a good governance initiative in 2004 but a quick internet search will return plenty of documents from all over the world that give very similar advice.

=       =       =

So let’s apply these principles to the issue at hand:

We have already identified the risk. The risk is that a crazy person takes a gun to a school and starts murdering people indiscriminately. Come to think of it, murdering people discriminately is hardly any better, so strike the last word from the previous sentence.

Next we must analyse the level of risk – what is the likelihood and what would the impact be? While we would all like to think that someone randomly killing school children is unlikely in the extreme, history is beginning to tell us a different story. So let’s put this risk in the ‘Possible’ column. The impact is a no-brainer. Obviously the impact would be catastrophic, however low the likelihood may be.

So how do we treat the risk? Well, rule number one is that where-ever possible, avoid or eliminate the risk. And that’s where the NRA’s suggestion falls down. They are opposing moves to avoid or eliminate the risk and jumping straight to transferring and reducing the impact of the risk. As I’ve already mentioned, there are numerous examples of risks that could be avoided but are instead retained and controlled because the benefit of adopting the risk outweighs the benefit of avoiding it. We make these judgements every day. So what possible benefit is there in not putting procedures in place to stop crazy people from obtaining the tools to murder school children? It doesn’t make sense. Of course, no-one is suggesting that weeding out the crazy people and not letting them get guns is going to stop every potential massacre. If armed guards were being suggested as an additional measure for controlling the impact of the risk after already reducing the likelihood of the risk, that would indeed be prudent. However, to accept that nothing can be done until the risk is imminent is just irresponsible.

This would be an open-and-shut case if not for the fact that the emotive issue of gun ownership is involved so again, let’s put that to one side. Imagine you were on a board of management developing a risk management plan. And imagine you were advocating for an expensive plan for mitigating a risk that could be greatly reduced if not eliminated for less cost, less work and with no detriment to the organisation or its interests. Such a position should give all other rational and ethical stakeholders cause to reflect on your soundness.
There is no rational reason why this risk should be treated differently to any other.

I know there are some who will say that this line of thinking fails to understand the United States or its constitution. As mentioned previously, I don’t care. Such an argument requires one to assume that a relatively small group of men in the 18th century could ever have imagined assault rifles, or mental illness, or what might happen if you mixed the two, and what they might have to say about it if they could. It’s an interesting intellectual exercise but if you ask me (and I know you didn’t), it’s about as useful as debating what Karl Benz would think about speed limits, Charles Babbage’s opinion of file sharing or whether Guglielmo Marconi would agree that you should have to turn your mobile ’phone off on an airliner.

The debate over the true intentions of America’s founders has been going for 237 years and won’t be settled by this generation. What we have at hand is a clearly identified risk and a few ideas about how to manage that risk. From a simple risk management point of view, the NRA’s proposal is dumb.

* I’ve always hated that word. If I’m in a meeting where the words ‘framework’ or ‘matrix’ are used, my first instinct is to run out of the room screaming, but unfortunately there is no better way to describe it.


  1. Why not add one more "I don't care" to your list?

    I don't care what the writers of the bill of rights thought about guns. We have a problem that needs to be fixed, and if the best solution involves modifying the Constitution, then so be it. Change the 2nd amendment to clarify the militia thing, and permit people to own certain types of firearms, and at the same time allow the government to place sensible restrictions on who and what types of weapons can be possessed by private citizens.

    It's not rocket surgery.

    1. You're mixing your metaphors
      it's Not Rocket Science (or)
      It's Not Brain Surgery

    2. I suspect Zach is aware of that and was being ironic.

  2. The 18th Century writers and ratifiers of the Second Amendment were not thinking about individual ownership of weapons by anyone, let alone the mentally ill. If you read Madison's notes on the constitutional convention, the Federalist Papers, and the Anti-Federalist Papers all the discussion of militia was about defense against foreign invasion, not about defense against our own government or personal defense.

  3. To look at the notion of debating the "founders' intent" further, it should be noted that there were spirited debates about interpreting the Constitution while the people who wrote, signed and ratified it were still alive. It's ridiculous to think that we can correctly divine their intent centuries later.

    1. Don Bortle Jr.21/4/13 11:00 AM

      Unless of course you just happen to be a clairvoyant judicial constructionist who might believe that you had been one of the original writers of the constitution in a previous life. This set of unique life circumstances gives you untold powers to divine the original intent of the writers. My god, where oh where would America be with out the omnipotent powers granted to Justice tony “I’m No Activist” scalia!

  4. I'd also add all, these so called 2nd Amendment enthusiasts always seem to forget the opening line
    A Well REGULATED Militia
    what do these fools think well regulated means, I certainly don't think they see it through the same lens a thinking person doe

  5. There's another problem with the NRA proposal.

    Most schools these days aren't of the one room shack variety, they're sprawling complexes, made larger by the use of mobiles as well, by the time an armed guard figures out where the rampaging gunman is at, the cops and law enforcement have arrived.

    So, there would have to be an armed guard not only in every single class room, but every mobile as well.

    And then, there would have to be armed guards at every single point of entry/exit for auditoriums, gyms, cafeterias, libraries, etc.

    I doubt the NRA is willing to fund the costs involved in their blueprint/battle plan.


  6. Thanks for the comments, folks.

    Apart from the little aside at the end, I am making no comment on the second amendment.

    What's needed is a solution to a problem and this isn't a good one.