Thursday, February 21, 2008

Controlling gun ownership using economics

Gary Becker pursues a consistent market-driven approach to gun control in the US in the face of recent massacres – increase taxes on guns sold legally and increase penalties on black market purchases of guns and on criminal activities involving gun use. This would mean that most guns would tend to be sold via legal markets and reduced quantities demanded would have feedback effects of further reducing demands because of reduced ‘arms race’ pressures.

John Lott comments on the proposal arguing that it assumes a negative externality to owning weapons. He claims there is a positive externality since gun ownership limits crime. This claim will be controversial but it reflects the 'arms race' idea - ordinary citizens buy guns to protect themselves from criminals with guns.

Richard Posner argues politely - though I think in opposition to Becker’s message - that gun ownership in the US is primarily a cultural not an economically-driven phenomenon best dealt with by means of public information campaigns.

My own view is that both information and tax policies need to address the issue of gun use just as they are appropriate for managing licit drugs such as alcohol which have harmful external effects in terms of domestic violence and innocent car accident deaths. One suggestion, made in relation to alcohol policies, is to penalise strongly the activities that occur because of the use of alcohol rather than taxing alcohol itself heavily. In terms of the gun debate this suggests supporting Becker’s idea for hefty penalties on crimes involving use of firearms.


conrad said...

At least for massacres (versus, say, shooting your wife -- the most common form of gun crime), I can't see why anyone would even bother about the economics of it in the US. Aside from the fact that there are already hundreds of millions of guns in the US, I find it hard to believe that any price increase is really going to deter someone crazy enough to cause a massacre. As long as you can either steal the gun you want or get the money that you never have to actually pay back or worry about from cash converters (or wherever), the price is going to make no difference. I think this is a case of the misapplication of economics over common sense.

Anonymous said...

They already have the death penalty for murder in 40 odd states and extremely long jail sentences for other crimes.

How much heavier can the penalties get?

There's no political will in the US to take on the gun lobby, because doing so would be extremely unpopular. (Have Obama or Clinton said anything that is anti-gun? I'll bet not.)

They love their guns. It's both culture and fear. The red necks boast about it; the polite middle classes are quiet about it, but keep guns in their homes out of fear.

Another massacre at a school, a university or a shopping centre? They shrug their shoulders and convince themselves that it's even more important for them to have guns.


derrida derider said...

Spiros is right - Becker should know that a huge body of empiric work following his original theoretical ideas has shown that deterrence is related much more strongly to the likelihood of punishment than the severity of punishment; expected utility is not a simple linear combination of risk times consequence. Harsh punishment of crimes of opportunity - precisely those which guns make more likely - just fills prisons without reducing the incidence (of course, putting habitual criminals in jail does work by keeping them off the streets, but that's a different argument).

And how will heavily taxing legal guns make it more likely that people will buy them legally rather than illegally? The reverse seems more likely.

As for Lott, for anyone who's followed the "Mary Rosh" and similar controversies he and his work should be totally discredited. You can't engage with someone who lacks the most basic good faith.

hc said...

I think all these comments have a point but so too does Becker. He is trying to make it more expensive to own guns and illegal guns in particular. The point about taxes on legal guns encouraging illicit purchases is recognised - hence the reason for big penalties on illegal guns.

Spiros, The calls for guns to be legalised on campus given random killings there makes some sense given the random killings there. it is part of the 'arms race' issue.

I think Becker's taxes coupled with Posner's moral suasion arguments are the best policy mix you can come up with.

It is a tough call.

AkavaR said...

it is a tough call but i really dont think there is much that can even be done about it... if someone has the willpower to plan an attack or massacre, they are going to find a way somehow. i think a better way to prevent this is to have a couple of armed gaurds stationed on campuses, assuming such a thing could be afforded.

Anonymous said...

For massacres, we have a couple of additional issues.

1) Gun-free zones are defined either by the institution - school or university - or be US Federal law (Schools). There is a strong incentive created to carry out massacres where other people will not carry guns. Given that in the USA the 'hot' burglary rate is about 14% compared with about 70% in the UK, we have empirical proof that criminals rationally choose not to risk armed confrontations in the US, but in the UK have no such fear.

But massacres are a different type of event to burglaries. They are a variety of suicidal behaviour, and they are heavily dependent on behaviour models transmitted by the media. It is recognised that the Port Arthur massacre was a copycat event, triggered by the Dunbablane news reporting.

Contagion theory is accepted for suicides and other fashion-related events, but news media act as enablers for terrorism and massacres. Time for change.