splitting the gun control problem into its component parts

This post by Ezra Klein demonstrates a common problem with the gun control discussion: although it is ostensibly about the Newtown shooting, it actually presents possible solutions to several different gun violence problems all jumbled together.

I’d like us to be less careless and more precise when we suggest gun control measures — in part because the waters often get muddied by passion on both sides, and in part because certain partisan elements tend to confuse the public deliberately. The effect is, on the one hand, gun control that doesn’t function as advertised (leading to cynicism and despair), and on the other hand a failure to adopt gun control measure where they might be effective.

What I’d like to propose, then, is that we be careful about the problems we’re trying to solve. That way we’ll know what solutions are likely to be effective. I think gun violence can be broken into three rough categories, each of which will require separate solutions:

  • Crimes of Passion/Suicides of Despair
  • Professional Crime
  • Planned Killings/Mass Killings

Suicides by firearm are actually much more numerous than murders committed with firearms. Additionally, some large percentage of the murders committed each year are spontaneous — neither planned in advance nor committed in furtherance of an external criminal scheme like a robbery or gang warfare. Numbers on this category aren’t easy to come by, but we know, for example, that 78% of all murders are committed by non-strangers, and that 29% are committed by a family member, spouse, or significant other. And where the circumstances of the killing are known, “argument” is consistently the most common explanation. (Same source.)

The point is that for any relatively spontaneous type of violence — suicides committed while in a temporary valley of despair as well as murders arising out of arguments and other interpersonal stressors — anything we can do to make it a little harder to get guns may drive down the absolute number of deaths. Some people will be too impatient to achieve their goals, while many others will have time to reassess the cause of their despair/rage and think better of the ultimate solution.

The most common form of such deterrence is the waiting period. For example, the federal Brady Act of 1994 implemented (as a temporary measure) a 5-day waiting period for gun purchases, and California currently imposes a ten-day waiting period.

Whether or not such measures are actually effective is a subject of some academic debate. This study in JAMA, for example, suggests that the Brady Act may have done little, if anything, to reduce crime, but did find a small decrease in suicides among the elderly. On the other hand, a comprehensive meta-analysis of numerous gun control studies found inconsistent results and noted that some studies have found a partial “substitution effect” in suicide — decreases in gun suicides are partially matched by increases in other forms of suicide. And, of course, waiting periods can do nothing to hinder crimes of passion by people who already own guns. The overall effect thus seems marginal.

However, it should be noted that absolute bans may have an impact on both suicide and homicide rates. This study in The New England Journal of Medicine shows a precipitous drop in both homicides and suicides in Washington D.C. after the District’s effective ban on handgun sales in 1976. (The ban was overturned by 2008’s D.C. v. Heller decision.) This suggests that some percentage of gun violence, self-inflicted and otherwise, might well be preventable. The D.C. ban is a nice test case because (given D.C.’s tiny radius) it enables us to distinguish between professional criminals and careful planners on the one hand, who could easily have driven to Virginia to acquire a handgun, and more casual gun users who might be willing to endure a short waiting period, but who are unwilling to go seeking non-local sources for weapons.

There is another argument sometimes advanced against waiting periods — namely, that people who need guns for self-defense will be unable to acquire them. In an essay published in Guns: Who Should Have Them?, David Kopel tells the sad story of a woman killed by her abusive husband during Wisconsin’s 48-hour waiting period. (He also recounts several stories of threatened women who were able to respond with force.) This is, undoubtedly, a possible outcome — but even Kopel admits that this kind of event may be so rare that waiting periods are still a net good. I think this is purely an emotional appeal, not a statistically significant problem.


Professional criminals present a different problem. They are largely undeterred by things like waiting periods and are only minimally inconvenienced by things like local bans. The reason, of course, is that criminals need guns to carry out their operations, and they are, almost by definition, willing to break the law. This is why Mexican gangs pay straw purchasers to buy guns in Arizona and why Chicago gangs similarly get their weapons from nearby suburbs. And these are merely the guns bought under a pretense of legality — there are also black market and stolen guns. (The Chicago article also notes that many stolen guns actually end up in the gun shops.)

Given this, it may be that the best we can do is to carefully track the movement of guns, and attempt to interdict the most common streams of guns to professional criminals. Some techniques for doing so are rather obvious — close the private sale loophole (commonly known as the “gun show loophole“); create a national gun registration and tracking program; and up enforcement against straw purchasers.

This last was the intent behind the ATF’s ill-fated, but not intrinsically wrong-headed, “Fast and Furious” program. If the ATF can get past its political black eye surrounding that case, there’s actually a lot of merit to following straw purchasers and trying to find the bigger fish — i.e., gun dealers and smugglers. Gun registration has broad public support, although we should note that that poll asks about local gun registration. A national gun registry would be far more useful, since guns travel interstate, but 59% of NRA members and 42% of the general public oppose a national registry — presumably because they’re all still thinking about that ridiculous scene in Red Dawn. (Or maybe they imagine that a gun registry would be a first step toward gun confiscation… and they’d prefer that happen on the local level, I guess?) Finally, there’s broad support, even among NRA members, for closing the private sale loophole.

(I also noted a couple of days ago that there’s a movement afoot to make gun manufacturers build guns that actually stamp a traceable code on every bullet. It remains to be seen how technically feasible this is, and how easily defeated by the careful criminal. But it’s certainly interesting.)

There’s an argument, of course, that making things illegal doesn’t remove them from commerce — it just creates a black market for them. A comparison is usually made with drug prohibition and… oh, heck; why don’t I just let this cute baby explain the idea?

Let's just get this out of the way -- it's not cool to make fun of a baby for bad spelling.

Let’s just get this out of the way — it’s not cool to make fun of a baby for bad spelling.

Of course, this assumes that demand for guns behaves the same way that demand for drugs does. However, there’s a lot of evidence that demand for drugs is somewhat special — end users tend to be willing to buy no matter what the risks and even when price increases sharply. This willingness is known as inelastic demand, and it explains why drug prohibition doesn’t work. As long as junkies will do essentially anything, pay any price (including jail time) for the product, someone will find a way to sell it to them.

The question, then, is how inelastic demand for guns is. Guns are not addictive, of course — but then, there’s clearly a cultural and utilitarian aspect to demand as well. I’ve scoured the internet for quite a while and been unable to come up with clear empirical data on elasticity of demand for illegal guns — though I do find a lot of citations by the usual anti-gun control suspects asserting, a priori, that demand is highly inelastic. (See here, here, here, and here if factually unsupported assertions are your thing.) If I can get to school this week I’ll try to find some actual academic research on the subject, but the fact that it’s not easily googlable makes me think the research is scanty at best.

However, even if demand turns out to be fairly inelastic, we may well find it worthwhile to make guns much more difficult to obtain illegally. Assume that if some or all of the above measure were adopted, the price for the average illegal gun rose by 100%, but demand for illegal guns was only dented by, say, 15%. Nonetheless, if that drop in the market, though far from total, was enough to cause a concomitant drop in gun murders and other crime (say, a 5 or 10% decrease), we might say that the effort has been worthwhile — especially if such programs are constructed to be minimally intrusive on the market for legal weapons.

The effect of a total or near-total ban on guns is uncertain. The question of elasticity of demand becomes more relevant here, because we would be asking law-abiding citizens to give up the arms they currently rely on for self-defense. (Predictably, pro-gun researchers claim that guns are frequently used successfully for self-defense, though others have pointed out that their numbers are implausibly high.) Thus the ban would have to have significant effects on the supply of illegal guns in order to be perceived as worthwhile.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of a gun ban would likely depend on whether it was accompanied by a major cultural shift. One reason drug and alcohol prohibition doesn’t work, quite apart from demand elasticity, is that many people enjoy drugs and alcohol and don’t see anything wrong with using them. So enforcement is hampered by the general unwillingness of Americans to become the eyes and ears of the police. And David Kopel points out that one reason Japan’s gun ban has been so effective is that Japanese police have much broader search powers than American police, and even illegally obtained evidence is not kept out of court. Without radically changing our relationship with the Fourth Amendment (and our gun-toting neighbors), we may find it hard to effectively eliminate illegal weapons. So we may find it hardest to keep weapons out of the hands of professional criminals. (See, for example, Brazil, which has fairly strict gun control but much higher per capita gun homicide rates than the U.S.)


Finally, we come to mass shooters and others who plan their crimes but are not professional criminals. Here, for all the reasons discussed above as well as those discussed here and especially here, any form of mild gun control is likely to be ineffective. A mass shooter can afford to take his time, so licensing, registration, and waiting period requirements are not a problem. And unlike professional criminals, mass shooters usually do not have felony convictions that would bar them from purchasing guns.

Many mass shooters do evince some signs of mental illness or disability prior to the attacks, of course. But many do not, and in any event there are enormous problems with relying too heavily on the idea that we can somehow weed the mentally-ill out of the pool of gun purchasers.

The federal law that attempts to do so, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4), only bans those who have been adjudicated “as a mental defective” — i.e., found to be so by a court or other body authorized to make legal determinations. This is quite as it should be. NIMH estimates that some 26.2% of us suffer from a “diagnosable mental disorder” in any given year. If we are attempting to continue to allow law-abiding citizens access to guns, it simply won’t do to prevent them from making purchases any time they get a prescription filled for Zoloft or Xanax. Doctors and pharmacists should not be empowered to assign people permanent legal categories without the legal system’s oversight. Moreover, mental illness and disability tend to be much better predictors that someone will be a victim of violent crime than that they will commit acts of violence. But having someone adjudicated “as a mental defective” is actually a high bar, requiring that their behavior have actually reached a level requiring the intervention of the legal system. This is rarely the case with mass shooters prior to their rampages.

Here, however, a total or near-total ban on guns might well have a significant effect. Mass shooters, unlike professional criminals, are not necessarily tapped into black-market sources for weapons, and their attempts to reach that black market would likely be clumsy and amateurish. (Think of all the would-be terrorists who end up buying their “explosives” from the FBI.) The vast majority of weapons used in mass shootings are obtained legally. It’s not impossible to imagine a determined and capable mass shooter finding his way to black market guns, of course. But if we could achieve a 50-60% impact on mass shootings, that would translate to dozens of lives saved every year. Is that worth the loss of legal guns? Perhaps it isn’t. (Just ask the National Review.) But we at least have to ask ourselves Eric’s question: what are we “willing to give up in trade for those dead kids, for those dead moviegoers, for dead Federal judges and dead community volunteers and dead soldiers”?


In sum: making guns more difficult to get may deter some suicides and some unplanned crime. Licensing and tracking guns — and vigorously prosecuting straw purchasers — may help us keep guns out of the hands of professional criminals, and it’s certainly worth trying. Most of these measures have some public support, and some of them have broad support even among gun enthusiasts. But these limited measures are least likely to affect the kinds of crimes that garner the most attention.

A total ban — or even a dramatic reduction in the prevalence of guns — would likely be quite effective in reducing suicides, unplanned gun crimes by amateurs, and mass shootings. Australia reduced its overall number of guns by 20% and regulated guns much more carefully after a 1996 mass shooting, and it hasn’t seen another attack since. We should be careful of extrapolating too much from a single data point — Australia may have had fewer mass shootings to begin with, and it certainly had many fewer guns per capita. But look at Japan’s decades-old ban on nearly all weapons (and pervasive regulation of the few that remain): Japan generally has fewer than a dozen shooting deaths per year, in a population of some 127 million people.

However, Australian and Japanese leaders did not have to contend with the Second Amendment, a Congress that is hostile even to tort remedies that might limit gun availability, and a public that overwhelmingly believes that gun ownership is a fundamental right. And even if we could eliminate a great number of gun deaths through severe restrictions or a total ban, it’s not clear what the effect would be on professional criminals — who remain America’s go-to domestic bogeyman outside the rare occasions when we are focused on mass shootings. Given this, the political will for such a step approaches zero. But given that, we should be cautious about suggesting that these shootings are a reason to enact moderate forms of gun control legislation. As Alan Jacobs writes in The American Conservative,

I am generally in favor of stricter gun controls, but not because of what Adam Lanza did in Connecticut last Friday. Hard cases make bad law, and freakishly rare events prompt bad policies — as most Americans should be reminded every time they are forced to take off their shoes in airports. We should think about the role of guns in our society because of our day-in-and-day-out death toll, not the bizarre and horrific events in Newtown.

There are 9,000 gun homicides every year in the U.S. We should base our gun control policies on what is likely to eliminate some of those. But the Adam Lanzas and James Holmes of the world are, in the end, an inevitable by-product of the right to bear arms, and we won’t get rid of them by adopting waiting periods or gun registration, nor even by banning assault weapons and large-capacity mags. They are with us for good. We own them.


Some more reading:

A really fascinating blog post about the social and psychological pressures that create mass shooters, by a sociology prof at U Penn. And here’s a roundup of research on the subject. And we should be very skeptical about assigning blame for the Newtown shooting to Asperger’s or autism.

The Guardian has put together some cool interactive maps about gun ownership and gun violence, both worldwide and by state in the U.S. As I noted before in talking about Brazil, there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between gun control and a reduction in violence — and that holds on the state level, too: California has fairly strict gun control laws, but also quite a bit of gun homicide, while the Dakotas, Montana, Utah, and Vermont and New Hampshire all have extremely low gun homicide rates despite laxer gun control. This suggests that other factors are at least as important as gun control itself, even within a country that generally has a lot of guns. (Maybe people just don’t commit as many murders where it’s very cold?)

Harvard has some research showing that, generally, more guns lead to more gun crime.

I already quoted this above, but Alan Jacobs makes another good point:

I could write a very long blog post listing what’s wrong with the plan to arm teachers…. But what troubles me most about this suggestion — and the general More Guns approach to social ills — is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents…. Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, the person who wishes to live this way, to maintain order at universal gunpoint, has an absolute trust in his own ability to use weapons wisely and well: he never for a moment asks whether he can be trusted with a gun. Of course he can! (But in literature we call this hubris.)

Paul Bibeau would like to remind us that the idea of guns as a hedge against federal tyranny doesn’t have the best track record. But for the proposition that guns may be useful in warding off local tyranny by semi-official gangs like the Klan, see Cottrol and Diamond’s famous essay “The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration.”

Finally, here are the President’s remarks at a memorial service after the Newtown shooting — worth reading in their entirety.

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3 Responses to splitting the gun control problem into its component parts

  1. ezrahorne says:

    You are an excellent and reasoned writer. You express the things I’m thinking better then I ever could. Thanks!

  2. Eric says:

    Many interesting and thoughtful points, Seth. I don’t have much to say about the piece overall, but I did find the Alan Jacobs quote rather jarring:

    Hard cases make bad law, and freakishly rare events prompt bad policies — as most Americans should be reminded every time they are forced to take off their shoes in airports. We should think about the role of guns in our society because of our day-in-and-day-out death toll, not the bizarre and horrific events in Newtown.

    The problem with this comment being, unfortunately, that I’m not sure Newtown qualifies as a “freakishly rare event” anymore. Okay, so it’s the first time in a while that a shooting at an American school has involved kindergartners and a shooter who wasn’t a school student or employee (without research, I’m not sure how many times this has happened since 1979). But “mass shootings” are becoming a regular, every-few-months part of the news cycle, intentional and accidental gun homicides having already become such a part of the background noise of our culture that they aren’t even newsworthy anymore unless some odd fact stands out (e.g. a toddler’s death may still make page one above the fold, but a shootout between drug dealers will only do so on a slow news day).

    I’m increasingly compelled to the defeatist conclusion that American culture is broken at some fundamental, basic level, and that part of the problem is a Constitution that was brilliant two centuries ago but is now a kludgey, unworkable, ramshackle, obsolete, basically worthless document. Which might be less of a disaster if we were a smaller, more modern country with a few statesmen around who we could assign the task of leading a Constitutional convention, but I’m afraid there are basic, irreconcilable differences in Americans’ political, historical and geographic outlooks. Further, that we have saddled ourselves with a political tradition and system that almost guarantees we will continue get the politicians we deserve instead of the statesmen we need–that we have a system that favors idiot demagogues backed by plutocrats over honest and educated men and women too wise to subject themselves to a system that starts by stripping a candidate of dignity by forcing him or her to be a beggar of alms from selfish concerns caring for nothing but their pocketbooks on one side and a beggar of votes from a population that often appears to actually value ignorance and certainly seems more comfortable with received national myths over complicated and slippery truths.

    Fetishizing the Second Amendment is only another symptom of the larger problem. It’s clearly obsolete on its own terms–we just don’t have state militias anymore, unless you count the National Guards, and no modern military on Earth, however ad hoc and composed of citizen soldiers, would trust its members to bring their own tools to work; war has gotten more complicated on every level. (Actually, the suitability of citizen soldiers presumed by the Second Amendment was already dubious when it was ratified: irregular troops in the Revolution were notoriously terrible until trained by disciplined French and German professional soldiers like Lafayette and von Steuben, and the Americans surely would have lost to Britain’s superior professional soldiery and sail but for the intercession of the French and British domestic issues, including war-weariness. But anyway….) It’s a more than reasonable argument that all of the Bill Of Rights deserves a second look, and that it includes rights that don’t make much sense in the modern context (is quartering soldiers really a contemporary problem at all?) and excludes rights that most modern people would take as a given (is there anyone–possibly excepting some would-be sweatshop owners–who really opposes “equal pay for equal work” as a basic premise of equality in an industrial/postindustrial civilization, for instance?).

    But that won’t happen. And it shouldn’t, but only because of who and what we’re stuck with: as I’ve said before, if we had a Constitutional Convention today, we’d probably end up stuck with mandatory Jesus and guns, and debtors’ prisons for people who miss a credit card payment….

    Sorry, I didn’t mean this to turn into a rant about my ongoing political depression. Where I should have left this is by saying Jacobs appears to mean well but has an unfortunate naivete, and you, meanwhile, make some excellent points about how we might approach what are obviously problems with a framework that asks us to figure out what specific issues we mean to deal with in addressing the more general obvious problem.

  3. Pingback: some facts about guns, episode 1 | The Handsome Camel

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