This week, the civil trial begins for the Aurora, Colorado movie theater where James Holmes murdered 12 people and injured 70 others.a
The plaintiffs in the case — the families of the victims — maintain that the theater’s owners should have provided better security at the venue. They point out, for example, that Holmes propped open the theater’s back door, walked out to his car, took his time putting on body armor, and then returned to the building carrying two long guns (plus handguns). None of this at any time was observed by the theater owners or security (or the owners of the parking lot), nor was there any attempt to control access to the theater or to keep an eye on people entering through back doors.
The theater’s owners naturally claim the theater has no responsibility at all, writing: “it is legally improper, and grossly unfair, to place on a private business entity operated by private citizens the legal obligation to foresee the patently unforeseeable conduct of the criminally unbalanced, most particularly where the criminal act is random and unprecedented in its business activities.”
I have no doubt there will be a lot of wrangling over the application of terms like “negligence” during this trial. There is also a lot of legal debate over whether or not Holmes’s actions were “foreseeable.”
As I am not a legal scholar, I’ll leave aside the application of the legal concepts in this particular case for someone else.
What I do want to address here, however, is the knee-jerk reaction among many commentators in which it is assumed to be obvious or outrageous that the theater could not possibly be held even partially responsible, morally speaking, for providing a reasonable amount of deterrence against murders that might take place on its own private property.
One such example is conservative pundit Ed Morrissey who claims the case is “simply absurd” while another right-wing blogger intones: “There has got to be some safe harbor against being responsible for bad outcomes that occur in the general vicinity of someone with deep pockets.”
Of course, the shooting didn’t take place in the “general vicinity” of “someone with deep pockets.” The shooting took place within a privately-owned facility where there was a reasonable expectation of safety, but there were, apparently, no attempts to keep track of entrances or efforts made to see if people were entering theaters carrying shotguns and semi-automatic rifles. Moreover, this particular private facility banned its patrons from providing for their own defense by prohibiting the carrying of private firearms on the premises.
In other words, the theater denied private citizens the option of defending themselves while simultaneously neglecting (apparently) to make any additional security measures to compensation for a disarmed population within its facility.
The defenders of the theater owners have focused laser-like on whether or not the theater owners could foresee that someone with a gun might enter the theater and begin shooting people. The consensus among the theater’s defenders seems to be that no one could ever possibly guess that someone might walk into a movie theater and start shooting. Never mind the fact that stabbings and shootings at movie theaters (often between strangers) were hardly a new thing in 2012.
Reason magazine has also 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.”
That’s a nice turn of phrase, but it’s incredibly naive and pie-in-the-sky thinking. If owners of private property are never supposed to thoughtfully consider worst case scenarios, then the alternative is what private security consultant Bo Dietl calls “panic, forget, repeat,” or the “security roller coaster.”
If owners don’t think about worst-case scenarios before they happen, then they’ll only think about them after they happen. And once they’re over, Dietl notes, we all forget about it and act as if everything is fine until the next crime happens, and the cycle begins again.
The Opportunity Cost of Security
Primarily, the “panic, forget, repeat” cycle stems from the fact that security is costly, so private owners simply bank on the probably that they won’t actually fall victim to active shooters and other real-world human-caused crises.
Contrary to what Skenazy at Reason thinks, prudence does require that people who are responsible for their own safety or the safety of others do consider the worst-case scenario. It’s why private homeowners often purchase firearms and learn how to use them. It’s why people have private security systems and homeowners insurance. People who consider the real possibility of home invasion don’t necessarily walk around in a constant state of panic. Nor do those people typically reduce their food, housing, transportation, and entertainment budgets to subsistence levels in order to devote nearly all their income to elaborate security and self-defense amenities.
They don’t do this because people generally know there is an opportunity cost to devoting large amounts of resources to events that are not likely to frequently occur.
Similarly, movie theater owners and other providers of entertainment services recognize it is not necessarily prudent to maximize security, since that comes with a large opportunity cost. Armed guards at every entrance and exit could possibly increase safety significantly. But, the cost would be very high. Skenazy has tried to cast this problem as a touchy-feely psychological issue of “paranoia,” but it’s really just a simple matter of calculating risks and costs.
On the other hand, prudence also requires that we not dismiss out of hand any claim that private security should be employed by private owners to substantially increase the safety of customers. This is especially true in places where the owners ban their patrons from seeing to their own last-resort defensive weaponry.
To be sure, a respect for private property demands that the private owners of a movie theater be able to ban whatever objects they wish on their own premises. And, one can make a very convincing claim that trained personnel from a private security firm are preferable when compared to the haphazard defense offered by possibly untrained private citizens — in case of an active shooter situation. It is very imprudent, however, to have neither private firearms nor trained private security available.
The fact that the theater owners banned defensive weapons for its own patrons while it couldn’t be bothered with even keeping tabs on its own exits and entrances could easily lead one to conclude that the theater owners were either naive or cheap. Or both.
It is also likely that the theater did at some point consider the worst case scenario of an active shooter situation, and concluded that the necessary security for dealing with such a situation was too costly. After all, it’s easy to see how a theater could conclude that the opportunity cost of security is very high when all the resources devoted to substantial security services could be spent instead on luxury seats, more staff, or on keeping ticket prices lower.
Moreover, in the year prior to the 2012 theater massacre there were only 9 murders in Aurora Colorado, which had a population of over 340,000 people at the time. In a time and place of relatively high safety levels, it’s not exactly irrational to simply trust to hope that no murders will take place on your premises.
Providing More Security May Be An Economic Risk
In addition, many private owners figure they can count on the public in general to engage in rationalizations about their own safety, or blame someone else — i.e., a lack of governmental gun control, “gun nuts,” psychologists, etc. — for active shooters operating unchecked in a movie theater.
Thus, private owners can simply count on the short memories and a prevailing sense of general safety on the part of the general public when it comes to choosing between higher ticket prices, more security guards, or a larger selection of candy at the concession counter. “Security” will normally come in last place in such calculations.
This sort of thinking is also no doubt reinforced by the fact that few businesses in the United States compete in terms of security. For example, it’s not at all clear that, were a movie theater to begin advertising its beefed up security, it would be able to cover the cost of the additional security via ticket sales. It’s entirely possible that many patrons will simply take their chances and choose their movie theaters based on location and price, rather than the the abundance of safety measures. Many consumers may trust to the fact that most American cities have very low crime rates, and will be unwilling to pay more for extra security.
Thus, it appears the “panic, forget, repeat” cycle is perpetuated as much by the consumers themselves as much as other factor, and this should not be surprising since service providers are in the business of providing what the public demands.
Americans Need to Be More Realistic about Private Security
Indeed, Americans overall seem to have a very odd relationship with private security. Many Americans get panicky about public safety every time there’s a shooting, but they appear to have no interest in real-world, practical security efforts that are likely increase safety in a very real and practical sense. It doesn’t take a whole lot of hard thinking to figure that a public place with well-trained and adequate private security is very unlikely to fall victim to shootings while a facility with a token 70-year-old security guard at the main entrance is far more likely to encounter active violent criminals.
Instead of demanding competent on-site security, though, consumers opt for fanciful ideas about crime prevention based on banning firearms or trusting to police offers who are mostly busy busting up small time pot-growing operation rather than tracking down violent criminals.
Also problematic is the suggestion that private security is not necessary if private citizens are walking about with guns under their jackets. This way of thinking assumes that amateur and uncoordinated security efforts can be just as effective as properly trained security personnel. That’s not a very plausible claim. This is why its best to think of private gun ownership as a last-resort strategy only.
The most effective first-resort answer to real security threats such as active shooters is not highly-dispersed and distracted government police force, or a haphazard defense on the part of private gun owners. Private security, since it offers the advantages of labor specialization, economies of scale, and immediately-available on-site services, is a much more practical and realistic response to violent crime than the alternatives.
How all this should be applied specifically to the Aurora theater case is something that will have to be left up to the government’s courts. It’s odd, though, why so many seem to assume that effective private security should not be a reasonable expectation for private establishments. It would seem that a prudent and pragmatic society would want to move toward widespread use of private security and the expectation that private owners are including adequate security measures in the general prices of their goods and services.