Thoughts on the murderer outside my building

A reader named Choronzon asks:

Any comments on the horrific stabbing at UT Austin yesterday? Were you anywhere near the festivities? Does this modify your position on open carry of firearms by students and faculty?

I was in the CS building (the Gates Dell Complex) at the time, which is about a 3-minute walk down Speedway from where the stabbings occurred.  I found about it a half hour later, as I was sitting in the student center eating.  I then walked outside to find the police barricades and hordes of students on their phones, reassuring their parents and friends that they were OK.

The plaza where it happened is one that I walk through every week—often to take Lily swimming in the nearby Gregory Gym.  (Lily’s daycare is also a short walk from where the stabbings were.)

Later in the afternoon, I walked Lily home in her stroller, through a campus that was nearly devoid of pedestrians.  Someone pulled up to me in his car, to ask whether I knew what had happened—as if he couldn’t believe that anyone who knew would nevertheless be walking around outside, Bayesian considerations be damned.  I said that I knew, and it was awful.  I then continued home.

What can one say about something so gruesome and senseless?  Other than that my thoughts are with the victims and their families, I hope and expect that the perpetrator receives justice, and I hope but don’t expect that nothing like this ever happens again, on this campus or on any other. I’m not going to speculate about the perpetrator’s motives; I trust the police and detectives to do their work.  (As one my colleagues put it: “it seems like clearly some sort of hate crime, but who exactly did he hate, and why?”)

And no, this doesn’t change my feelings about “campus carry” in any way. Note, in particular, that no armed student did stop the stabber, in the two minutes or so that he was on the loose—though some proponents of campus carry so badly wanted to believe that’s what happened, that they circulated the false rumor on Twitter that it had.  In reality, the stabber was stopped by an armed cop.

Yes, if UT Austin had been like an Israeli university, with students toting firearms and carefully trained in their use, it’s possible that one of those students would’ve stopped the lunatic.  But without universal military service, why would the students be suitably trained?  Given the gun culture in the US, and certainly the gun culture in Texas, isn’t it overwhelmingly likelier that a gun-filled campus would lead to more such tragedies, and those on a larger scale?  I’d rather see UT respond to this detestable crime—and others, like the murder of Haruka Weiser last year—with a stronger police presence on campus.

Other than that, life goes on.  Classes were cancelled yesterday from ~3PM onward, but they resumed today.  I taught this afternoon, giving my students one extra day to turn in their problem set.  I do admit that I slightly revised my lecture, which was about the Gottesman-Knill Theorem, so that it no longer used the notation Stab(|ψ⟩) for the stabilizer group of a quantum state |ψ⟩.

31 Responses to “Thoughts on the murderer outside my building”

  1. Ido Says:

    Hi Scott,
    Even in Israel students are now allowed to carry weapons.
    As you said, gun-filled campus (or state for this matter) is a terrible idea.

  2. Konstantin Says:

    BTW, during the UT tower shooting on August 1, 1966, when another lunatic killed 15 and wounded dozens, the shooter was also stopped (shot dead) by armed cops, not by citizens. In fact, one citizen joined the police officers on the way to the top of the tower to help stop the shooter. Rather than an ordinary citizen, however, he was a recently retired air force gunner who had served for two decades.

  3. Or Meir Says:

    Just to reinforce Ido’s point: In Israeli universities, there are very few students, if at all, that carry weapons from their army service. Those that do are usually soldiers that study during their service for some reason. This kind of soldiers (i.e., who study during service) are usually given very poor training, and know that if anything happens, they’d better run and hide.

    However, Israeli universities usually have a lot of armed security personnel. They are there as a counter-terrorism measure, but they can also deal with lunatics.

  4. Scott Says:

    Ido and Or: OK, thanks for clarifying. I had Dana check the policies of Tel Aviv University, and she confirmed that, yes, students are allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus (similar to UT Austin…). But I’ll take your word for it that it’s rare and inconsequential—I probably mentally conflated the armed campus security personnel with the armed soldiers who one can see walking around off campus. If so, then that’s all the more reason for US universities to eschew the “campus carry” model (it’s not widespread or effective even in Israel!), and instead respond to lawlessness by beefing up the trained on-campus security staff.

  5. Joshua Brule Says:

    > Given the gun culture in the US, and certainly the gun culture in Texas, isn’t it overwhelmingly likelier that a gun-filled campus would lead to more such tragedies, and those on a larger scale?

    I think it’s fair to say that we’re not going to see randomized controlled trials on this. So, we have to look at other (albeit less reliable) sources of data.

    But since you said, ‘overwhelmingly likelier’, I think the answer is just ‘no’. Concealed carry permit holders self-select to be very responsible people. They commit crimes at a rate about a full order of magnitude lower than the general population. They commit crimes at a lower rate than police officers.

    Anecdotally, most of the non-police officer shooters I know are better shots than most of the police officers. This is (weakly) supported by data from the field – civilians involved in shooting shoot innocent bystanders less often and hit the actual perpatrators more often than police officers. (Note that this is confounded by the fact that the civilian shooters were there when the incident started and have a lot more information than a police officer dispatched to the scene.)

  6. Mateus Araújo Says:

    I’m always exasperated by the provincialism of these discussions that inevitably follow every murder spree in schools/universities in the US.

    Maybe you should take into account that almost every single country on Earth lacks both murder sprees and armed students? So maybe they are doing something to prevent murder sprees that actually works, and that does not involve turning universities into a spaghetti Western?

  7. BLANDCorporatio Says:

    A hypothetical question: suppose some student would have shot and, to make this more interesting, killed the stabber. What would the legal consequences for this student have been?

  8. Scott Says:

    Mateus #6: The trouble, alas, is that we don’t get to start over with a new country; we have to deal with the fact that we already have both lots of guns and lots of crazy murder-y people (even if statistically, it’s still very low on the list of things that the average person should worry about, far behind car accidents and so forth—yes, even in Texas). Hence stronger police presence being almost the only realistic response.

  9. Scott Says:

    BLANDCorporatio #7: IANAL, but my guess is that a student who shot and killed someone who was actively, randomly, and sometimes fatally stabbing people on a campus plaza would have an extremely strong defense.

  10. John Sidles Says:

    Joshua Brule, to me your reasoning seems unsound.

    As a Fermi calculation, let us suppose that 10% of of the population have a significant personality disorder — which is a pretty good Fermi estimate.

    Let us suppose further — what is highly dubious — that the prevalence of personality disorders among concealed carry permit holders is only 1/10 that of the general population.

    And let us suppose finally, that concealed carry permits become so popular that, on large campuses, one thousand people are carrying guns.

    Q1  In this hypothetical — and highly idealized — gun-loving world, at any given time, what is the mean number of mentally disturbed people who are carrying concealed guns on-campus?

    Q2  Isn’t having 10 gun-carrying disturbed persons roaming a campus … all the time … every day … well … completely crazy?

    Now us suppose further — as is reasonable — that an appreciable portion of gun-carriers have, not personality disorders, but substance-abuse disorder.

    Q4  Can we rely the substance-abusing gun-carrying population to say to themselves “Today we’re not going to carry on-campus, because we’re too high/drunk?” — given that this population gets high/drunk every day?

    It’s dangerous enough that substance-abusers commonly drive cars while drunk and/or high … let’s not arm them too!

  11. BLANDCorporatio Says:

    irt. Mateus Araujo #6:

    Pls. Spaghetti Westerns are Italian. I fail to see how they are relevant here, unless perhaps there is a vigorous Pastafarian community in Austin.

  12. Scott Says:

    Incidentally, I think you can form a pretty good initial estimate of how much to worry about a given cause of death, by asking how many people in your personal circle of acquaintances had their lives cut short by it. Not only is this information that’s readily available to you, but it automatically controls for any of the ways in which your social circle might be unrepresentative—even hard-to-articulate ways. The one thing to be really careful about here, is to avoid being elastic in your definition of “your social circle”—for example, only including people you personally knew for cancer and car crashes, but expanding the circle to include friends of friends of friends, or anyone who lived on the same city block, for something like a terrorist attack that received media coverage.

  13. Joshua Brule Says:

    > It’s dangerous enough that substance-abusers commonly drive cars while drunk and/or high … let’s not arm them too!

    What’s​ stopping them from being armed *now*? The whole “concealed” thing makes it hard to check. About the only thing you’re reliably doing by banning concealed carry permit is disarming the people who respect the notion of “permit”.

    Also, there’s a flip-side. Imagine that you are contemplating commiting violent crime against some population. Are you more, or less likely to do so, knowing that some, invisible fraction of the population is likely to start shooting back. Most criminals may not be brilliant, but they’re still sensitive to risk.

    The why the debate was framed was CCW permit are “overwhelmingly liklier” to lead to tragedy”. First, I don’t understand why this is the null hypothesis. But even then, just what kind of evidence would you have to see to change your mind?

  14. John Sidles Says:

    Joshua Brule wonders (circa #13)  “What kind of evidence would you have to see to change your mind [regarding permissive firearm-laws]?”

    Thank you for your question, Joshua!

    For scientists to embrace permissive gun-laws:
    A necessary precondition is that the Republican Party, Donal Trump, and the NRA must immediately rescind America’s willfully ignorant, culturally disgraceful, and morally wrong prohibition of scientific research regarding gun violence.

    How is it, that “The Party of Lincoln” has become “The Party of Shameful Ignorance and Intolerance”? The world wonders … scientists especially.

  15. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Mateus #6:

    Have you been sleeping the last few decades while dozens of murder sprees with 100’s, 1000’s, 10000’s, and maybe 100000’s of victims occurred?

  16. Scott Says:

    Joshua #13:

      just what kind of evidence would you have to see to change your mind?

    That’s a fair question. If there were even a few examples of campus murder sprees that were stopped by heroic students carrying concealed weapons, that would be evidence I’d need to weigh, alongside any evidence in the other direction (e.g., students carrying concealed weapons who lose their temper in class and start shooting people). Does anyone know of any examples either way?

    I can’t think of any … so it’s consistent with what I know today that the main effect of (for example) the Texas campus carry law has simply been to scare a bunch of people away from wanting to visit UT or study or work here. (Which makes it unsurprising that pretty much every private university in Texas—i.e. every university that was given the choice to ban guns from its own campus—did so.)

  17. Dan Staley Says:

    John Sidles #10: Isn’t the assumption of a Fermi calculation that the probabilities in question are independent? And Joshua Brule’s point is exactly that they are not independent?

    So your argument seems circular, in that you explicitly reject his point as a premise to your argument against it.

  18. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Scott #8: I’m not suggesting that you throw away the country and start anew, I’m just saying that maybe other countries are doing something right, and the US should try copying their solutions. Clearly we do have crazy, angry people everywhere, but it seems that almost only in the US they go into murder sprees. Why? It cannot be only because of the widespread availability of guns, as this particular murderer shows.

    And it cannot be that hard to solve that either, given the almost universal success in doing it.

    Beefing up the police, on the other hand, doesn’t sound at all realistic to me. How do you get the response time below 2 minutes?

  19. Scott Says:

    Mateus #18: Yes, it’s striking to me how the rest of the developed world easily does things that the US struggles to replicate and can’t (relatively affordable healthcare, relatively competent public education, few or no mass murder sprees), even while conversely, the US does things that the rest of the developed world mostly tries and fails to replicate (Silicon Valley).

    Anyway, I’ll bite: besides gun control, what would you do to push down the murder rate, were you to succeed Trump as Second Autocrat of the US?

  20. John Sidles Says:

    (1) Ultra-narrowly, Dan Staley’s computational critique of the “Concealed Carry Is Nuts” Fermi Calculation (circal #14) is addressed by the corrective factor “1/10”, isn’t it?

    (2) Somewhat more broadly, Fermi calculations *do* accommodate probabilistic correlations — the Fermi art being, to arrange the deductive steps such that computational refinements will most likely act to strengthen the conclusion.

    More folks would appreciate the force of Fermi-style assessments of gun-violence — wouldn’t they? — if Donald Trump, the NRA, and the Republican did not politically collude in legislatively banning (!) scientific research that would elucidate the point.

    Is there any other point — aside from the deliberate cultivation of public ignorance — to the Trump/NRA/Republican ban on gun-violence research?

    (3) Most broadly, grotesque “alt.quibbling” in respect to the brutal realities of firearm-violence continues a “wrong-side-of-history” quibble-tradition whose type-specimen is Jefferson Davis’ grotesque “alt.quibbling” in respect to the brutal realities of slave-trading.

    For example, in Jefferson Davis’ self-authored A Short History of the Confederate States of America (1890) we read

    “In 1807 […] the slave-trade was finally abolished, and has never since had any legal existence in any of the States.  … Retiring from public life and occupied [from 1835-1860] with the peaceful pursuits of a planter … at my home at Briarfield, Mississippi …”

    Somehow, although in Davis’ personal view “the slave-trade was finally abolished”, Jefferson Davis himself acquired, during the years 1835-1860, no less than 139 slaves — over and beyond the single slave that Davis possessed as a manservant at the beginning of this period&nbsp.

    It was this wholly Jefferson-owned slave-community that was solely responsible for the construction of the plantation that Davis describes as “my home at Briarfield, Mississippi”, wasn’t it?

    By what “alt.quibbling” rhetorical tricks — aside from the most shamefully degrading abuse of language — could Davis describe his own large-scale slave-exploitation as a practice other than “slave-trading”?

    By what pathological traits of personality — aside from the DMS-5 Cluster B personality traits that Jefferson Davis himself objectively evidenced — could Davis continue, as late as 1890, to regard slaveholding as “the peaceful pursuit of a planter”?

    Are Jefferson-level Cluster B cognitive traits sufficiently in evidence among senior officials of the Republican Party, and at the highest levels of the White House, as to reasonably arouse profound and fast-evolving concerns among scientists in general, and cognitive scientists in particular?

    The objectively evident answers — for an overwhelming consensus of scientists, physicians, and historians at least — to all of the seven questions posed above, is simply “yes”, isn’t it?

  21. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Mateus #18:

    “Maybe the US is doing something wrong, and other countries are doing it right”.

    Maybe indeed.

    But as I said in a debate with a Marxist economist a couple decades ago, “Have you noticed in which direction people are climbing over the fence?”.

  22. John Sidles Says:

    Lol … Raoul Ohio’s remark suggests several forward-looking Fermi questions!

    Q How many American citizens presently live abroad?

      • 0.01 million
      • 0.1 million
      • 1 million
      • 10 million
      • 100 million

    Q How many of these citizens will marry abroad?

    Q How many will eventually return?

    Q Are these numbers increasing or decreasing?

    Q Is cultural isolationism sensible? Feasible?

  23. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Scott #18: Well, in the cases of affordable healthcare and gun control the reasons why the US cannot do it are rather clear. Not for me in the case of murder sprees. But I wasn’t trying to make some generic criticism about the country, but to point to a basic problem-solving strategy that seems to be completely ignored in the US.

    But to answer your question: I don’t know much about the US, so I’m not an adequate Second Autocrat. When I asked why do people go into murder sprees in the US much more often than elsewhere it was an honest question, not a rhetorical one. But there must be a way of solving the murder spree problem without losing Silicon Valley!

    Raoul Ohio #21: This is a non-sequitur. I’m just saying that a US without murder sprees would be better than a US with murder sprees. Or are you saying that if the murder spree problem is fixed there would be such catastrophic side effects that people would start fleeing the country?

  24. Bug hunter Says:

    Scott, you may want to temporarily disable the blog’s comment plugin temporarily as it appears to be leaking personal information. To wit, it has twice occurred recently that the name and email fields of the comment form were filled in when I opened a blog page. I know nothing about WordPress development, but a quick search suggests that it may be caused by the interaction of akismet comments and some kind of caching. Although, that page only discusses caching of the nonce (which I get every time I load the page), and not other fields (which have only been filled occasionally), so it may be a red herring. You can see a redacted example of the page source here (note lines 442 and 445). Apart from email leaks, the nonce caching also apparently causes spam filtering to work poorly.

  25. Michael Says:

    @Mateus- the problem is that the US murder rate is indeed much higher than other countries but in the majority of murders, the victim knows his or her killer. Murder sprees like this make up a relatively small portion of the total.

  26. Scott Says:

    Bug hunter #24: I’m sorry to hear about that.

    As it happens, I’ve noticed a bunch of other buggy behaviors in WordPress recently. These include:

    – New posts and comments taking a very long time, up to an hour, to actually show up (even after being published or approved)

    – My own login, to my WordPress Dashboard, not propagating to the rest of the browser — so when I’m leaving a comment like this one, it’s just as “a” Scott; the commenting system no longer recognizes me as “the” Scott 🙂

    – The blog simply not loading at all in Google Chrome on my laptop

    I can’t help but suspect that all these behaviors have the same cause, but I can’t figure out what it is. Can anyone suggest anything to try?

    You suggest temporarily disabling “the blog’s comment plugin,” but which comment plugin (I have several)? I’m not sure I understood what you meant by that, or how to do it.

  27. Douglas Knight Says:

    The problem of comments not appearing on this blog (when under load) is at least a year old. I suppose that might count as recent. It is also a caching problem; I can tell because when I modify the URL to create a new one, new comments do appear.

  28. Joshua Brule Says:

    @John Sidles

    > For scientists to embrace permissive gun-laws:
    > A necessary precondition is that the Republican Party, Donal Trump, and the NRA must immediately rescind America’s willfully ignorant, culturally disgraceful, and morally wrong prohibition of scientific research regarding gun violence.

    The short answer is that a few years back the director of the CDC got censured for using funds from the CDC’s budget for what amounted to political activism. CDC money was effectively being spent on partisan political lobbying.

    > The final nail in the coffin came in 1995 when the Injury Prevention Network Newsletter told its readers to “organize a picket at gun manufacturing sites” and to “work for campaign finance reform to weaken the gun lobby’s political clout.” Appearing on the same page as the article pointing the finger at gun owners for the Oklahoma City bombing were the words, “This newsletter was supported in part by Grant #R49/CCR903697-06 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

    There’s been a pretty long history of violence/firearms research… if not *fraud*, than at least *dishonesty*. I could probably dig up more examples – but (with all due respect, you seem like a pretty decent person!) I’m not sure how much effort I want to put into an internet debate.

    @Scott Aaronson

    > If there were even a few examples of campus murder sprees that were stopped by heroic students carrying concealed weapons, that would be evidence I’d need to weigh, alongside any evidence in the other direction

    I think this is very reasonable. And I’ll admit there is very little hard evidence either way. In general (not just on campus), mass shootings are almost never stopped by civilian concealed carry permit holders.

    The pro-gun control side says this is because concealed carry permit holders aren’t helping. The anti-gun control side says this is because concealed carry permit holders stop the would-be mass shooter before the incident could become a mass shooting. Note that “stop” does not necessarily mean shooting the perpetrator – in many cases, when confronted by armed opposition, the perpetrator will commit suicide. I consider this moderate evidence in favor of the pro-CCW side.

    The people I know, personally, are excellent shots and cool under pressure, but I can see how there would be concern that the average CCW permit holder doesn’t have anything resembling the training of the average police officer. I have a few counterarguments: First, it amazes me how *little* firearms training the average police officer gets – I maintain that a lot of the CCW permit holders are better than you think, in comparison. Second, civilians who are carrying are *not* meant to do everything that a police officer is meant to, the analogy I’ve heard (I forget the source) is that they are “speed bumps” not “roadblocks”. Finally, during a shooting, it’s not *hard* to tell the difference between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” – the good guys are the ones who have control over their firearm and are carefully looking around; the bad guys are the ones indiscriminately shooting at their fellow human beings.

    But you asked for specific incidents. My memory isn’t great on this one, but the highest-profile incident that comes to mind is the University of Texas tower shooting. The short summary is that an ex-Marine sharpshooter grabbed several rifles and began shooting people on campus from a tower.

    This happened before SWAT teams were a thing and the police were pretty caught off guard. A few notes of interest:

    – A student ended up providing the police a rifle, since the police were not equipped properly.

    – A retired veteran accompanied the police up the tower to cover them while they confronted (and ended up killing) the shooter

    – A combination of police officers and civilians provided cover fire from the ground while a small group – two police officers and the retired veteran – went up the tower.

    The biggest change after this was that SWAT teams were created. The police were (reasonably!) very uncomfortable with civilian shooters taking part in the conflict.

    I’m not sure that this is strong evidence for *concealed carry* – what was needed were rifles; pistols are basically useless against a shooter from a tower and you can’t concealed-carry a rifle. But I certainly think it’s *weak* evidence in favor of letting responsible civilians be armed.

  29. Daniel Says:

    >isn’t it overwhelmingly likelier that a gun-filled campus would lead to more such tragedies, and those on a larger scale?

    I’d be more worried about a knife-filled campus leading to more such tragedies, since this attack happened with a knife.

  30. Scott Says:

    Daniel #29: Well yes, this attack happened with a knife, but other campus attacks (including, infamously, at UT) have happened with guns, and been more deadly as a result.

  31. Cody Says:

    Joshua Brule #28,

    …it amazes me how *little* firearms training the average police officer gets – I maintain that a lot of the CCW permit holders are better than you think, in comparison.

    Are there any training/competency/knowledge requirements for a CCW? (Wait, I looked it up, in my state New Hampshire, the answer is no).

    I’m glad the people you know are good shots and train/practice, why not just require that before granting CCW privileges?

    In the spring of 2013 I was briefly in favor of a complete ban on firearms, after having seen multiple youtube videos of law enforcement agents discharging their firearms unintentionally. My reasoning was simple: if we can’t count on people who’s jobs depend on firearms (and presumably involve some level of training), to control their firearms what hope can we have that the average American gun owner, with no training (or knowledge) requirements can be trustworthy?

    Later I decided instead of a ban I’d just like to see increased regulation — basic knowledge of how firearms work (to help reduce this sort of idiocy), basic storage requirements (to reduce this sort of idiocy). And I think there are a lot of gun control advocates like myself, who just want to see improved standards to reduce the most upsetting examples of the harm done by firearms.

    Looking into that recent repeal of the ban on selling firearms to mentally ill people I found this article defending the move, claiming it wasn’t based on evidence (fair enough). But it’s also implying that people who’ve been declared unfit to manage their own money aren’t necessarily unfit to handle firearms, which kind of seems to imply that letting them manage their money is a less acceptable risk to society than letting them manage firearms.

    Beyond the health consequences of our liberal firearm laws, there’s also a staggering economic cost.

    Also, if the CDC’s actions were, in fact, political, that wouldn’t be a reason to prevent them from researching the effects of firearms, it’d be a reason to add mechanisms to prevent them from being partisan — interfering with CDC research into firearms was also politically motivated, and two wrongs didn’t make a right. They “threw the baby out with the bathwater”.