I was on vacation with limited access to the Internet or television when the tragic Aurora shooting occurred. Hearing about the incident from afar didn’t dampen the shock in the slightest, especially since it was so close to my home in Denver. Since I was out of town, I missed much of the local conversation surrounding the shooting. However, when a tragic event like this occurs, it’s inevitable that the national conversation about guns and gun control will resurface. I was only in high school when the 1999 Columbine tragedy occurred (again, relatively close to my high school in Colorado Springs). It seems the gun debate just won’t go away.
Before I share my opinion on gun control, I feel compelled to air any potential biases that affect my beliefs. First off, I’m not particularly fond of guns (I don’t currently own one), but I’ve recently considered purchasing one for safety reasons. I must admit that I find guns intimidating and I don’t like the loud noise they make when fired (especially if I don’t have earplugs). Over the course of my life I have been to several shooting ranges and I have even been pheasant hunting too. However, shooting guns just for the fun of it doesn’t really have much appeal to me. There are countless other things I’d rather be doing with my free time.
I can’t remember exactly what prompted me to read it, but at one point during my freshmen year of college I read John Lott’s book More Guns, Less Crime. At the time, I found Lott’s overall argument very compelling, particularly his empirical work. Admittedly, I think I was, at least partly, also attracted to the contrarian conclusion he presented. More guns, less crime — it’s so counterintuitive and such a fun point to argue! To call my college ‘self’ sophomoric is perhaps an understatement.
Years later I learned that there are also academics who have pored over the same crime and gun data, but have come to the exact opposition conclusion. How can this be? Well, my initial thought is that at least one of our political parties (but perhaps both) doesn’t have an interest in the truth. Rather, they simply want to find evidence to confirm what they want to believe. In other words, they are guilty of committing confirmation bias, i.e., they have a conclusion in mind that they want to reach (e.g., guns cause less crime) and they look for data to confirm their belief and shun any evidence that goes against that belief. Given my predilection for liberty, I’m a fan of the second amendment, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was naturally and initially drawn to Lott’s work and unfairly dismissive of the counter arguments and evidence. In other words, I was guilty of confirmation bias.
So, do gun control laws reduce crime? It appears to me that there are three possibilities: they produce the intended effect, they produce an unintended effect, or they don’t produce an effect at all. The trouble is that I don’t know what the right answer is and I don’t think anyone else does either. I’m willing to bet that the people who claim to scientifically know the answer to this question have an idealogical axe to grind. Have you ever met anyone who is a passionate gun owner yet finds the scientific evidence against guns compelling? I didn’t think so and the same thing can be said of anti-gun folks as well.
On the surface of it, the gun control question appears to be a scientific one. But before we waste all this time quibbling over the statistical techniques “the other side” is using, we probably first ought to ask ourselves an important epistemological question. Is it really possible to scientifically know if gun control laws (or the number of concealed weapon permits issued) reduce crime? I just happen to think the answer is ‘no.’ There are far too many complexities and variables to account for when doing econometric work on crime, guns, and gun control laws.
If I’m correct, then where does that leave us? Well, I think it leaves us with economic logic and if there’s one thing I’m pretty confident is true, it’s that incentives matter, even to criminals. When the cost (or potential cost) of committing a crime is high, we expect to see less crime. Regardless of what one thinks about the current federal and state marijuana laws, imagine what would happen if being caught in possession of marijuana came with a minimum of a twenty year prison sentence and was strictly enforced (meaning that a police officer could randomly come to your home at any time to check on you). Many of us would find this type of infringement on our personal liberty unpalatable (a cost), but if you think that the number of people that would possess marijuana would decrease significantly (a benefit?), then you understand how incentives work.
Another interesting thing to note about marijuana is that the fact that it’s illegal hasn’t made it any more difficult for people to obtain. Again, making something illegal doesn’t necessarily make it costly. I suspect that today’s American teenagers may actually have an easier time scoring illegal drugs, like marijuana, than they do alcohol which is legal for a certain demographic of the population. It’s also worth remembering that there is a black market for illegal things and laws don’t magically stop criminals from engaging in commercial activity on the black market. Also, lest we forget, guns don’t mysteriously kill people, people do. Accordingly, I find the argument some people make for banning all guns to be absurd, but I also find the argument for the unimpeded right to own whatever type of firearms one wants equally absurd. I don’t think that Americans have a right to own rocket launchers (I agree with Michael’s point in his recent post about finding middle ground.)
So one way to reduce crime, according to economic logic, is to make the cost of committing a crime high. There are multiple ways of doing this and they don’t necessarily involve creating or enforcing laws — incentives actually work in many ways. Consider the following thought experiment: imagine you are a burglar and have the choice of going to a house where you know the homeowner doesn’t own a gun or the choice of going to one in which you know the homeowner has a gun. Which one would you choose to burglarize? If the answer isn’t obvious please don’t consider a career in crime. But would this line of reasoning really work with the likes of the Aurora shooter? Yes, even the Aurora shooter, lunatic that he is, responds to incentives. If he knew that there was a high probability that a moviegoer in one particular theater was armed and willing to shoot him, I bet he would have reconsidered his decision. He was crazy and evil, but apparently he wasn’t suicidal.
A natural follow-up question is: Why can’t stricter laws alone deter crimes by increasing the costs of crime? The answer, I think, is that they can, if only we were able to enforce them properly. Life, however, is full of trade-offs. If the punishment for committing a burglary were more severe and if there were a police officer assigned to patrol each and every street in America, then I suspect we would rarely ever see burglaries. This, however, would be pretty costly for the government, which brings up another interesting economics-related lesson, i.e., there is a cost to enforcing laws too and we must decide which costs are worth incurring and which are not. This may sound strange, but from a societal and economic perspective, the optimal number of burglaries is probably not zero (I think shootings are different due to the value of human life, but I’m sure some economist, somewhere, has extended the argument here before).
Here’s what I know: if I had been unfortunate enough to be in the audience the night of the Aurora shooting, I would have desperately hoped that one of my fellow moviegoers had been armed. Similarly, had I been in the library at Columbine High School on the day of the shooting, I would have desperately hoped that the librarian was packing heat. The reason I’m generally not in favor of stricter gun control laws is a logical one, i.e., because I think criminals respond to incentives outside of the law.
It’s an indisputable fact that most legal gun owners never commit a crime with their weapon. Making guns outright illegal won’t necessarily stop the problem America is facing. Laws don’t stop evil people from doing evil things. The increasing mass violence in our culture is the symptom of a much larger problem, one which is simply outside the scope of this essay. But please, let’s stop blaming it entirely on guns.