Jan 30, 2013

The Five Step Way to Think about Security, Suicide and Guns

As Mark Cross testified today at the U.S. Senate hearing on gun violence, “When dangerous people get dangerous guns we are all more vulnerable.”

But who is too dangerous to own weapons? What weapons are too dangerous? And what will be effective security to stop dangerous people gaining access to weapons?

The answer to these questions depends on context. When considering if it is too risky for someone to have access to a gun, one choice may be right for public policy, but another may be right for our homes.

Answers also differ based on a person’s point of view. As we listen to people offer answers to these questions, we can spot the mental lenses the speaker uses to frame the issue. One person views the issue from a moral lens. Another may use a gun rights lens. Someone else has a lens tuned in to the rights of people with mental illness. Another may use a lens tuned to safety.

All these points of view help us make choices about security. Security involves trade-offs and choices. Real security depends on rational, not emotional, process.

Security expert Bruce Schneier notes
Security is not an isolated good, but just one component of a complicated transaction. It costs money, but it can also cost in intangibles: time, convenience, flexibility or privacy... No security is foolproof, but neither is all security equal. There’s cheap security and expensive security. There’s unobtrusive security and security that forces us to change how we live. There’s security that respects our liberties and there’s security that doesn’t. There’s security that really makes us safer and security that only lets us feel safer, with no reality behind it.
In his book Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World, Schneier offers a framework for thinking about security choices.

Step 1 – What asset are you trying to protect?

Schneier says that people often forget this step. Protecting schoolchildren from foreseeable harm, protecting families from violent intruders, and protecting public spaces from stray bullets are separate problems, with separate security solutions.

Step 2 – What are the risks to these assets?
The issues here focus on the need for security. What is being defended? What are the potential consequences of a successful attack? How might the attack be carried out? What motivates the attacker?

Step 3 – How well does the security solution mitigate those risks?
If the proposed solution does not actually solve the problem, it’s not a good option. This is a complicated step, because every countermeasure is imperfect. Solutions that are not 100 percent effective may still be appropriate if vulnerabilities in the potential solution are addressed by other parts of the security environment.

Step 4 – What other risks does the security solution cause?
This is the “unintended consequence” issue. Every action in a complex system has ripple effects. Many things that look good at first glance actually make the overall system more fragile. According to Schneier, “The trick is to understand the new problems and make sure they are smaller than the old ones.”

Step 5 – What costs and trade-offs does the security solution impose?
Schneier’s point is that every security effort has costs and trade-offs. Often the cost is money, but trade-offs can be anything from the loss of personal freedom, to increasingly complicated transactions and loss of convenience. Is the security advantage you gain worth the cost?

Let’s try applying this framework to the issue of removing guns from households where a person has a risk of suicide.

Step 1 – What asset are you trying to protect?
The assets to be protected are the person at direct risk, the other people who live in the house, the first responders who might come to the scene, and unforeseen external targets who might be threatened by the way the suicide is carried out (e.g. through a rampage shooting suicide attack).

Step 2 – What are the risks to these assets?
Suicide is an infrequent occurrence with terrible consequences. The person at risk of suicide has some factor that makes the situation more dangerous and risky. For each of the other potential targets, the frequency of exposure to the risk may diminish, but any occurrence involves potential mortal danger.

Step 3 – How well does the security solution mitigate these risks?
Removing guns substantially lowers the potential dangers within the household. It reduces potential lethality of any suicide attempt. It increases opportunities for rescue. It reduces lethality of spontaneous or impulsive action. It offers opportunities for others in the household to defend themselves, interfere with the commission of a suicide, or escape. It places obstacles in the way of people who might attempt suicide only if it is imagined to be immediately lethal and therefore painless. It requires a suicidal person to confront more complicated, bloodier and painful methods of harming themselves. It permits someone to stay with the person at risk without fear of encountering mortal danger. 

Step 4 – What other risks does the security solution cause?
The person whose weapon is removed may become angry and react in an aggressive manner, but this will likely be transitory and less lethal than the potential violence of the situation before the weapons were removed. A person intent on harming himself or others may commit a crime in order to obtain another firearm, but this only replaces the pre-existing risk.

Step 5 – What costs and trade-offs does the security solution impose?
The person who removes the weapons may face potential liability for the action, but very likely has a valid defense of necessity in view of the elevated risk of suicide. The person deprived of access to his weapon loses access to his weapon. On the other hand, the situation within the household is much safer. 

Think about security in the larger context. Imperfect measures like traffic signals keep people safer. They don't prevent all traffic passing through, but we are safer because of them.

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