In the wake of the Aurora Theater shooting, I suggested that private sector establishments ought to be expected to be more concerned about the safety of their customers. In the case of the Aurora Theater, this was magnified by the fact that the theater was a “gun free zone” and did not allow patrons to carry their own firearms as self defense. At the same time, the theater owners themselves couldn’t be bothered with taking even the most rudimentary steps against allowing a gunman to casually carry multiple weapons from his car into one of the theater’s back doors.
The issue came up again with the Orlando shooting in 2016, when the perpetrator simply walked into a private establishment with a rifle and started shooting. Again, we find ourselves with a situation in which the owners of a private establishment refused to take simple steps such as checking entrances for people with rifles, or employing reasonably well-trained security personnel to be present inside the club.
I wasn’t the only one to suggest that maybe, just maybe, private establishments such as the Orlando nightclub and the Aurora Theater may share some responsibility in preventing violence on their own premises.
In response to this position, numerous commentators — mostly conservative and libertarian — took the position that it is outrageous to expect private owners to take steps to prevent events like these. At the time, I noted Reason magazine’s response as representative of this type of thinking:
Reason magazine has … hopped on the bandwagon of pre-emptively and unconditionally absolving the theater owners of any possible responsibility. Reason writer Lenore Skenazy claims that a focus on worst-case scenarios is “worst-first thinking” and that such thinking “promotes constant panic. The word for that isn’t prudence. It’s paranoia.”
In other words, Skenazy’s position is that private owners should simply assume terrible things won’t happen and proceed accordingly. If bad things do happen, then let’s all just throw our hands in the air and declare “who woulda thunk?”
This sort of thinking results in what security consultant Bo Dietl calls the “panic, forget, repeat.” It’s not a serious approach to security.
Unfortunately, this problem has become apparent again with last weekend’s shooting in Las Vegas which has so far claimed at least 58 lives, making it the worst mass shooting in modern American history.1
To perpetrate the shooting, the shooter used the Mandalay Bay hotel as a sniper’s nest from which to rain down death on a crowd assembled at a nearby music festival. (Both the hotel and the venue are owned by MGM Resorts International.)
At the same time, it appears the organizers of the event did not take steps to prevent a shooting of this nature. The police response to the shooting, not surprisingly, appears to show disorganization and lack of knowledge about the situation.
The State Protects Its Own
Some readers will scoff and say “how could anyone be expected to anticipate a sniper situation like this?” In response, I suggest this thought experiment: imagine that a US president or any important political figure were present at the music festival. What do you think security would have looked like? There would have been well-trained security personnel stationed to keep an eye out for snipers, with spotters and “good guy” snipers all around.
Obviously, we would have found out that looking for the worst-case scenario would suddenly have mattered when “important” people are involved. But protecting ordinary members of the public? Well, that’s just “paranoia,” we’re told. The state, of course, is highly invested in protecting its own personnel and its own interests. The organizers of the music festival, however, appear to have relied on blind faith as their primary defense.
The importance of competent professional private security in this case is also illustrated by the fact that a large number of private individuals armed with side arms would have done little to prevent the situation. Even if festival-goers on the ground had been able to quickly spot the source of the gunfire — which itself seems unlikely — a handgun would have been of little use. The often-repeated claim by gun-rights activists that conceal-carry is the answer to all shootings falls flat in this case.
Inaction from Public and Private Police Forces
Private security weren’t the only ones who appear to have taken a rather lackadaisical view of the situation.
Interviewed in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings, The Boston Herald interviewed former Boston Police Commissioner — and current security consultant — Edward Davis about the situation. Davis notes:
There’s always been a fear — not so much among the security chiefs, but by the police out here — that there would be an attack. It is their worst fear coming true.
There are two things we can take away from this claim. First of all, assuming Davis is right, we learn that the private sector security chiefs weren’t terribly concerned about this situation arising. Second, we learn that the public-sector police were concerned about it. Yet, it appears that nothing was done to address the fear by either group.
Moreover, Las Vegas has long been recognized as a target for terrorism, given its iconic status. “This is, just on its face, a big glaring target for Islamic terrorists,” Davis added. (Davis is right that it’s a target. But he’s wrong that only “Islamic” murderers are interested.)
Davis also confirms our suspicion that the safety of government personnel in the area have been a subject of worry, in regards to security. The general public? Not so much:
Working on presidential visits and with the Secret Service, snipers are a concern for them, but you don’t think about it around a concert.
And why not consider security around a concert? Are we already incapable of remembering the Paris theater shooting of 2015? This sort of amnesia-based thinking is apparently the best that our security personnel have to offer. Had security personnel and their employers been taking the situation seriously, they might have concluded that the chosen locale for the event could not be conducted while offering sufficient security. Certainly, were the Secret Service to conclude that a location can’t offer sufficient safety for a political figure, they would recommend against that political figure accepting the risk at all. Perhaps concert organizers in Vegas should bring the same level of scrutiny to their own events.
The Imagined Cure-All: Gun Control
Predictably, in the wake of the shooting, gun control advocates have already seized on the tragedy to push for preferred legislation. They like to portray the US as an exceptionally violent place, and claim the reason is too little gun control.
Forgotten, of course, is the French Bataclan Theater shooting, which resulted in 130 deaths. Forgetten, of course, is the 2016 Brussels airport bombing which took 35 lives. Forgotten is the spate of car-rammings, including the Nice, France, massacre which alone took the lives of 86 innocent people.
Indeed, if we look at mass-murder events such as these public rammings and shootings in 2016 and 2017 — and thus excluding the 2015 Bataclan Theater shooting — we end up with a total of approximately 140 victims in Western Europe, and around 120 victims in the US (this includes the Orlando shooting.) This alleged juxtaposition between chaotic America and serene Europe appears to be rather misplaced.2
Moreover, as total gun sales in the US climbed repeatedly in the 1990s and the 2000s, homicide rates fell. Stringent gun control laws are common in Latin America, yet homicide rates are much higher in that region than in the more laissez-faire United States. Clearly, gun control does not explain away differing levels of violence absent consideration of other factors.
Government Won’t Protect Us
Shootings in night clubs and theaters simply are not matters requiring national policy. Nor is the challenge of stopping terrorists from driving trucks through crowds of revelers, as has happened repeatedly in Europe in recent years. Prevention in these cases require that security personnel on the scene employ competent security to control what goes on inside their own buildings and venues.
The knee-jerk appeal to national policy such as nationwide gun control, however, highlights what happens when the private sector blithely relies on a disinterested government to provide security instead. In the US, the Supreme Court has ruled (in Castle Rock vs. Gonzalez) that police are not obligated to provide protection to citizens. As a result, de facto policy is that the lives of police officers receive priority over that of members of the public. It also means that government police are protected from any liability should they be AWOL or incompetent when homicidal maniacs unleash themselves on the public. Thus, there is absolutely no reason to expect public-sector police agencies to provide security at night clubs, movie theaters, or large public events.
Should Private Owners Be Expected to Provide Security?
But, as soon as someone suggests that private owners of public-access venues be expected to take security seriously, then the very idea is denounced by many as simply a bridge too far. For these critics, apparently, it’s much better to just trust in government, and hope for the best.
It’s easy to see why the private sector and its defenders might vehemently oppose the idea that private owners need to do more. Private security is costly and could drive up prices of goods and services. If the legal system simultaneously protects these owners from any responsibility in allegedly “unforeseeable” events, then we have no reason to expect them to do anything differently. The Aurora-Shooting lawsuits against the theater’s owners was significant because it called into question whether or not a private owner should be held legally liable for allowing a nut with multiple guns to so easily plan and set-up a mass-shooting scenario under their noses.
In the end, the theater was found not liable, and the theater owners’s attorney claimed the event was “unpredictable, unforeseeable, unpreventable and unstoppable.” This claim is obviously nonsense. Of coursethe shooting was preventable. It simply wasn’t preventable using the minimal amount of time and effort the theater owners were willing to devote to customer safety.
In the future, will we continue to label shootings of this nature as “unforeseeable”? It’s true that, given the size of the population, events of this magnitude remain exceedingly rare. Yet, how many times must an event of this nature take place before it does become foreseeable? How long will it be before customers should enjoy a reasonable expectation that private owners will plan ahead to prevent these sorts of threats?
The response of some people to this revelation will be to indulge in maudlin declarations of “it’s a crying shame.” “It’s a crying shame we have to live in a world where we have to worry about gunmen!” Perhaps. It’s also a crying a shame we live in a world where not everyone drives the posted speed limit in residential areas. If they did, we wouldn’t have to worry about our children as much when they play outside. It’s a crying shame we live in a world where the plane you’re flying in might malfunction and fall out of the sky. Thanks to human error, malice, and stupidity, many bad things happen every day.
Many other bad things happen thanks to an unwillingness to plan ahead. And so as long as we continue to declare things like mass shootings on private property to be “unforeseeable” and “unstoppable” and generally not worth the effort needed to prevent them, we’ll just be left relying on the same government agencies who are under no obligation to protect citizens from anything.