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Substituting Prices for Principles in the Gun Debate

How much would you pay to prevent the death of a child, or anyone else, from gun violence?

What can an economist say about stopping mass shootings?  Millions of Americans have views on guns that are deeply rooted in their philosophical, political, and moral principles.  But if we put the principles aside and ask what works from an economic perspective, we may have the beginnings of a practical policy with broader appeal. 

Let’s start with the basics.  People kill people… and when they use guns, they can kill a lot of people very quickly.  But people use guns for a lot of other things, too – potentially useful things, and things that give them pleasure.  So we need to balance the ways guns contribute to society’s wellbeing with the ways they detract.

One way economists try to answer this question is by figuring out how much things are worth to people in terms of money, so it’s easier to compare apples and oranges.  For example, how much would you pay every year for the option to buy an assault rifle legally?  And how much would you pay to prevent the death of a child, or anyone else, from gun violence?

Of course, banning assault rifles won’t stop all murders by gun violence, so we have to use probabilities instead: assuming a ban would be effective, how much would you pay to reduce the chance of death from gun violence from 3.7 in 100,000 to, say, 3.5 in 100,000?  It would have to be quite a lot, since just recouping the guns Americans already own would cost a ton of money.  We’d also have be pretty sure that the overall homicide rate would actually drop – that is, that homicides with assault weapons wouldn’t be replaced by some other kind.

At the general level, this is a pretty tangled issue that would require a lot of research to unravel.  But what if we narrow our focus to mass shootings?  Given the media coverage, people seem to care a lot more about them than about the regular drumbeat of homicides that continues throughout the year.  If we do attach an especially high cost to tragedies like the one in Newtown, Connecticut, then there may be some economic logic to banning weapons that have the power to kill many people in a short period of time.

Most mass murders are by people who have somehow managed to stay out of the institutions where they belong and get their hands on semi-automatic or automatic firearms.  Identifying all of these people before they commit horrific crimes is very difficult – if it weren’t, we would have solved the problem already.  What we can do is make it harder for them to get their hands on powerful weapons; the only catch is that you have to do the same to everyone else, too.

Few people in America seem to mind the fact that we can’t own nuclear weapons, so perhaps we wouldn’t mind if AK-47s were off limits, too.  But is this a price society is willing to pay to stop mass murder, if not murder in general?  Simply asking the question this way – as a specific, economic one rather than a general matter of principle – might help us to find some common ground.


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