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American Gun Laws and the Tragedy of the False Negative

Assuming an armed person is harmless when he is, in fact, dangerous, could well be the last mistake someone ever makes. But the default setting for gun laws in the United States assumes just that.
(Photo: Niyazz/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Niyazz/Shutterstock)

This video was making the rounds last spring. The creator wants to make two points:

  1. Cops are racist. They are respectful of the white guy carrying the AR-15. The black guy gets less comfortable treatment.
  2. The police treatment of the white guy is the proper way for police to deal with someone carrying an assault rifle.

I had two somewhat different reactions.

  1. This video was made in Oregon. Under Oregon’s open-carry law, what both the white and black guy are doing is perfectly legal. And when the white guy refuses to provide ID, that’s legal too. If this had happened in Roseburg, and the carrier had been strolling to Umpqua Community College, there was nothing the police could have legally done, other than what is shown in the video, until the guy walked onto campus, opened fire, and started killing people.
  2. Guns are dangerous, and the police know it. In the second video, the cop assumes that the person carrying an AR-15 is potentially dangerous—very dangerous. The officer’s fear is palpable. He prefers to err on the side of caution—the false positive of thinking someone is dangerous when he is really OK. The false negative—assuming an armed person is harmless when he is, in fact, dangerous—could well be the last mistake a cop ever makes.

But the default setting for gun laws in the United States is just the opposite—better a false negative. This is especially true in Oregon and states with similar gun laws. These laws assume that people with guns are harmless. In fact, they assume that all people, with a few exceptions, are harmless. Let them buy and carry as much weaponry and ammunition as they like.

Most of the time, that assumption is valid. Most gun owners, at least those who got their guns legitimately, are responsible people. The trouble is that the cost of the rare false negative is very, very high. Lawmakers in these states and in Congress are saying, in effect, that they are willing to pay that price. Or rather, they are willing to have other people—the students at Umpqua, or Newtown, or Santa Monica, or scores of other places, and their parents—pay that price.

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “American Gun Laws and the Tragedy of the False Negative."