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The Gun Debate

J Brauer | © Stone Garden Economics

Two weeks ago, there was a 2-day-long shooting at a local college where I live, in Augusta, GA. A few days ago, there was a larger-scale college-related knifing and shooting in Santa Barbara, CA, a much more gun-restrictive state than is Georgia. Once again, a mass shooting in the United States makes worldwide headlines. Predictably, there will be yet another nation-wide discussion: The gun rights folks will repeat the pros, and the gun control people will repeat the cons.

Equally predictably, nothing much at all will happen, or so Philip J. Cook and Kristin A. Goss argue in their excellent new book, The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2014). Since surveys show that vast numbers of U.S. Americans do favor more gun control, why is so little done in practice? What explains the puzzle? Cook and Goss, professors at Duke University in Durham, NC, offer a number of reasons. One is that gun-rights advocates are far better financed and organized at the local, state, and federal level than are their opposition. Another is that it is far easier to be generally in favor of more gun control than to rally around any specific gun control proposal. A third reason is that surveys can be hard to interpret. They often measure the emotive moment, for instance, rather than sustained, reasoned attention to gun control issues.

The Gun Debate is written in an admirably neutral tone. Produced in a question and answer format, it consists of 12 chapters and covers the economics, politics, and culture of the gun in the United States. It is remarkably wide-ranging, informative, and even-handed, drawing on the decades-long observations of its authors. I emailed some of my colleagues in the field, saying that every gun store should package a copy of this book with every new gun sold. Gun owners and gun rights advocates will find their position presented, and often defended, fairly and thoughtfully. Newer gun owners, especially, will enjoy the historical and legal and regulatory chapters, which often turn out sympathetic to their new-found cause.

Many a fair-minded gun owner and gun rights-advocate, however, will also come to concede one or the other “con” point, or raise an eyebrow at some of the historical points made, for example, that even a Wild West “frontier cow town like Dodge City [Kansas] banned firearms within city limits.” The supposedly liberal gun-era of the 1800s and early 1900s was often more restrictive than even today’s gun-control advocates envision.

Summarizing results from hundreds of studies, the book makes a hugely positive contribution toward sensitive and sensible evidence-based evaluation of what has worked, and what hasn’t, in gun control – and why. The language is straightforward English, not econ-speak or reams of tables and statistics. There is something for everyone to take away from this book.

While not attempting a direct cost-benefit analysis, it does seem that on balance the social cost of gun misuse exceeds the benefits of gun ownership, such as those derived from hunting to sport-shooting and from collecting to self-defense. The remaining net cost must be attributed to what society-at-large is willing to pay for its right to bear arms and forces readers to consider how this net cost can be reduced further.

The authors make a persuasive case to keep gun rights, but also recognize that such rights are not unlimited – not in history, not in law, and not even after the 2008 and 2010 U.S. Supreme Court rulings in favor of a personal right to keep and bear arms. Thus, the issue is not about gun rights versus gun control. That is a false dichotomy. Instead, the issue is which controls work, and which do not, to prevent firearms misuse and this should be the main focus of policy deliberation at the local, state, and federal levels.

Cook and Goss suggest that “smart gun” technology – e.g., biometrics-activated guns and similar ideas – could prevent misuse by unauthorized persons, such as a criminal turning a policeman’s gun on the law officer, a child finding a gun in the parents’ bedside table, or a suicidal youngster grabbing daddy’s hunting rifle. Such technology would also greatly reduce the incentive to steal guns in burglaries. Thousands of deaths annually could be avoided this way. Gun rights-advocates are, rightly one feels, opposed to a smart guns mandate (the technology might not be perfectly reliable in an emergency) but that should not prevent an individual or family from voluntarily purchasing a smart-technology equipped gun if they so wish. In fact, such technology might well broaden the market.

In regard to law enforcement, the evidence shows that some policing techniques work, and others do not, to reduce the number of guns on the street, particularly in “bad” neighborhoods. Judges should more rigorously deal with illicit gun-carrying (carrying without proper carry license). Judges have learned no longer to treat drunk driving offenses as victimless; likewise, no longer should they treat illicit gun carrying as victimless: Eventually, that drunk driver may hit someone and, eventually, the illicit carrier may shoot someone.

In regard to mental health, the authors report that people with mental illness are three to five more likely to engage in violent behavior than others. They are also far more likely to engage in violent behavior against themselves (suicides). But presently the law prohibits a firearms purchase only to someone who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution,” thus excluding the vast majority of mentally ill people who either have not been found by a court mentally defective or are under treatment voluntarily. This was the case for the Santa Barbara shooter: Although mentally ill by the family’s own reckoning (severe enough to report him to the police), he legally acquired the guns to shoot and kill.

All in all, a wonderfully informed and inspiring book. Read it.

J Brauer is Professor of Economics, James M. Hull College of Business, Georgia Regents University, Augusta, Georgia, USA.

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