Cool as McCumber: Understanding Risk

The heinous murder spree by a psychotic young man in Connecticut has thrust the issue of risk mitigation onto front pages across the country. Unfortunately, there is little, if any intelligent discussion of risk management; instead, those who supposedly report and interpret the news for us like to roll up such critical, complex issues into innocuous — and ultimately meaningless — sound bites.

For example, in the wake of this unspeakable crime (it wasn't a tragedy — look up the definition), we have been inundated with calls for new gun control measures. When the “new” gun control measures were shown to be “old” gun control measures, both politicians and media scribblers apparently decided the proper framework for this discussion was “gun safety,” as if the killer wouldn't have murdered those defenseless children had the government provided him with a firearms safety class.

In a related bit of ridiculous branding, the mayor of New York City heads up an organization he coined Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The name alone opens the door to the possibility there is a corollary group of mayors somewhere cheering on these undefined illegal guns.

When President Obama took to the microphone to make his gun safety plea, he famously stated, “If it saves only one life, it will be worth it.” This mantra has been used by the vice president, who chairs his task force on the problem, as well. Such an emotional appeal may tug at our hearts, but reflection should quickly show it to be a fatuous argument. Banning aspirin will likely save one life in a year — but at what cost?

Saving lives is a noble pursuit. We credit doctors, nurses, firemen, police, EMTs, and our military with saving lives — and they most certainly do. However, when we use the concept of saving lives in a broader risk management construct, it can be very misleading. A tobacco ban will not technically "save lives" — what it would do is help delay death for many people, and provide a more healthful old age. That's where the debate needs to focus. Not on emotion, but on facts.

A statistical study published at the turn of the century showed that swimming pools were 100 times more likely to kill a child than a firearm. Let's start the discussion there. Not because the answer is to ban swimming pools, but because we need a frank risk assessment based on statistical evidence, not emotional appeals.


John McCumber is a security and risk professional, and author of “Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology,” from Auerbach Publications. E-mail him at