What about event security?

Kevin Williamson
People run for cover at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival after apparent gun fire was heard.
Getty Images

In the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, everybody is talking about gun control. We should be talking about event planning.

With all due respect to Bret Stephens, who recently argued in the New York Times for repealing the Second Amendment and confiscating privately owned firearms as the only reasonable means of reducing violence perpetrated with firearms in the United States, nothing of the sort is likely to happen. Sentiment waxes and wanes in reaction to the events of the day, but Second Amendment rights are in fact widely and energetically supported today, and the prospect of the Second Amendment being undone — with a Republican Congress, Republican president, and a healthy Republican majority in the nation's state legislatures and governorships — is preposterous. The most ambitious gun-control measure with a serious chance of being enacted in the near future is a ban on "bump stocks" — never mind that bump-firing is a technique rather than a product, and that it can be done without any modification to the firearm: Here's a young man using his belt loop to bump-fire.

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It is a truism among developers and urban planners that crime is influenced by (among other factors) the physical environment, including the built environment, and the opportunities that environment does or does not provide for committing crimes. The simplest version of that principle is the presence of the arm-rests one typically sees on city park benches: They're nice for resting one's elbow on, but their real purpose is to keep those park benches from being used as beds by vagrants. You won't need police to roust dozing bums from the park benches if they can't lay down on them in the first place. Passing through Heathrow many years ago, in the purportedly more innocent pre-9/11 era, I overheard a young American woman complaining to an airport staffer about the lack of trash cans. "If we had trash bins," the attendant answered, "we would have bombs in our trash bins." Just as the wolves of Yellowstone have reshaped the physical geography of the park, the wolves of the Irish Republican Army reshaped the physical environment of much of public London. Islamic terrorists and, to a lesser extent, other mass-killers are slowly having the same effect on the United States.

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It isn't "blaming the victim" to recommend that people forgo walking through dangerous neighborhoods late at night. No, the victims are not morally responsible for the actions of criminals, but they can take affirmative steps to mitigate the risk of victimization. In a better world, we would not have to worry about whether a tightly packed crowd of 22,000 people attending a concert would make a tempting target to a murder-minded man in one of the surrounding high-rise hotels, but we do not live in that world. We live in this world, where security is a major concern when selecting a venue for a large public event.

What's 'reasonably predictable' has been shifting for years, and the question of whether a tightly packed crowd is vulnerable to sniper fire is not obviously unreasonable — especially in a city already known to be an attractive target for terrorism.

This already is commonplace in corporate security. There are many businesses that simply will not take office space in an iconic building such as One World Trade Center or the Empire State Building. Those firms may not be likely terrorism targets themselves, but the buildings are. And the insurance markets have taken that into account: If not for federal subsidies through the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act — a preemptive bailout program for insurance companies that kicks in when the damage from a terrorist attack exceeds $100 million — tenants in buildings that are likely terrorism targets would be paying much higher insurance premiums than they are, effectively devaluing a big chunk of the nation's most valuable commercial real estate.

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On top of that, there are specific building features that are red flags for security managers and insurers. For example, hotels with direct street access and those built on top of parking structures are considered high risk. (The issue in both cases is truck bombs.) In some situations, those features alone are enough to take a hotel or a convention center out of the running for security-sensitive events.

You would not think that a country-music festival would require the same kind of security planning as a meeting of the WTO ministers, and maybe it doesn't — but, increasingly, it requires something of the kind. That is not intended as a criticism of the organizers of the Las Vegas concert or of the authorities in Las Vegas; the usual standard in commercial law is that parties such as concert organizers or landlords have a responsibility to protect their customers from criminal acts that are "reasonably predictable." That means that if the locks on your apartment are broken, you complain to the landlord, he fails to fix them, and you get robbed, he's probably on the hook. Was the shooting in Las Vegas "reasonably predictable"? It would not have been 20 years ago. Today? What's "reasonably predictable" has been shifting for years, and the question of whether a tightly packed crowd is vulnerable to sniper fire is not obviously unreasonable — especially in a city already known to be an attractive target for terrorism. Consider how different the security arrangements would have been if it had been Donald Trump on that stage instead of Jason Aldean.

Concerns about terrorism and similar crimes already are incorporated into major commercial developments in the United States, affecting everything from obvious security issues to the design of buildings' environmental-control systems. In Asia and the Middle East, where new, sprawling urban developments have been under way since the 1990s and where terrorism may be more familiar, such considerations are implemented at the urban-planning and development level. That's harder to do in the United States and Europe, especially in older, built-up cities such as New York, London, or Paris. Most of the focus in this area, especially after the WTO riots in Seattle and elsewhere, has been on civic unrest, with firms such as Pinkerton developing specialized sub-practices dealing exclusively with that issue. Of course, mass-murderers with no obvious political agenda are by nature much more difficult to predict, and "lone wolves" acting independently of any network or organization do not have much in the way of communications to intercept or complex logistics to disrupt.

That isn't going to be an easy problem to get ahead of.

An open and liberal society will always have soft targets. But there are things we could be doing to make them harder. No, we don't want checking into a Las Vegas hotel or attending a country-music concert to be like getting on an airplane or visiting the Capitol. (On the other hand, my recollection is that the security screening before boxing matches at the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia was pretty comprehensive.) We might want to move large outdoor festivals to more defensible venues with more robust security. We probably should give some thought to Amtrak and the stations serving it.

Boring stuff? Sure. But better site selection and more intelligent security planning would be a lot more practical, a great deal less disruptive, and in the end almost certainly more effective than trying to seize the 357 million privately owned firearms in the United States, or even a substantial fraction of them. But like health care and economic growth, there is not going to be one big dramatic solution. If we're lucky, there will be 100 million little improvements. That's how real progress happens.

Commentary by Kevin Williamson, a roving correspondent at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @KevinNR.

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©2017 National Review. Used with permission.

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