Gun Control: An American Economist’s Viewpoint

By Professor David Cooper

As you read this blog entry, there are three things you ought to know about me. First, I am an American. While I have never owned a gun, I have known and know many people who do. These aren’t just casual acquaintances; I have friends and family members who own guns. I don’t find the idea strange. The people I know who own guns all have rational reasons for buying them. Some want them for sport, some for hunting, some for protection, and some because they feel armed citizens limit the power of the government. You may think some of these are poor reasons for owning a gun, but they are not crazy. Living in a country where gun ownership is common and deeply entwined with the culture, it seems neither unusual nor irrational that somebody should want to own a gun.

The preceding may have some readers convinced that I am a quisling for the NRA. In reality, I know the costs of gun violence more than most people can imagine. This is the second thing you need to know about me.  On May 9, 2003, I was sitting in my office at Case Western Reserve University when an email came from the Dean’s assistant. There was a shooter in the building. In spite of a restraining order, a deeply disturbed former student, Biswanath Halder, had legally obtained a number of guns and broken into the building. The first person he saw was an MBA student, Norman Wallace, who tried to calm him and get him to put down the guns. Halder shot and killed him. Over the next few hours, Halder engaged in a running gun battle with police, much of it taking place in the hallway outside my door. I spent hours hiding under the desk in my office, talking to my family on the phone and worrying about what would happen to my wife and children if something happened to me.

Eventually a Cleveland SWAT team cornered Halder and got all of the people trapped in the building to safety. We were lucky. Halder was surprisingly old, in his 60s, and lost his glasses early on. The final toll was only one person killed and two wounded. There are parts that I will never forget. The sound of the gunfire. The sound of phones ringing in empty offices as the media looked for people to interview. Seeing dozens of shell casings on the floor by the receptionist’s desk as the SWAT team escorted me to safety. How strange it felt to be out, and how strange it felt to go home. I remember seeing Halder at the trial and thinking how ordinary he looked.

I had nightmares for months afterwards, and still often have nightmares when there is a school shooting. I still panic at loud noises, mistaking them for gun fire. It happens at the oddest times, when somebody drops a table or a child pops a balloon. There are people who have been through far worse than I, but trust me when I say I deeply understand the cost of gun violence.

The third thing you should know about me, and the reason I was asked to write this blog post, is that I am an economist. Economists are social scientists. It is easy to react to gun violence and gun control in the United States on a wholly emotional plane. For somebody who lived through an experience like mine, it is hard not to jump to the easy conclusion than tragedies like the shootings at CWRU prove beyond a doubt that the US needs stricter gun laws. I have friends who are equally passionate in defending their right to own a gun without restrictions as a fundamental liberty. I take the scientist part of being a social scientist seriously. When my opinion and the data disagree, the data should always win.

This is where things get very difficult. In part because of an active campaign by the NRA and the GOP to limit research on gun violence, there is relatively little good quality research on the effects of gun control on crime and violence. In evaluating research on a controversial topic like gun control, there are two things I look for. First, is the author a scientist or an advocate? For example, John Lott has built a career as the go-to academic for opponents of gun control. He is an effective advocate, but hardly a credible source of scientific research.  Google “John Lott” and “Mary Rosh” if you need to be persuaded on this point. Second, has the research established causality? This is the critical issue from a scientific point of view. Showing that variable A and variable B are correlated does not prove that A caused B. For example, I can provide numerous statistics showing that students in well-funded school districts have higher test scores. Does this prove that higher school funding leads to better academic performance? Not necessarily. Wealthy parents tend to buy houses in areas that have well-funded schools. They pay for all sorts of things beyond the schools that help their children’s performance. Even if they didn’t care about their kids’ school performance, there would still exist enormous correlation (for obvious causal reasons) between parents’ and childrens’ academic achievement. Higher school funding might cause better academic performance, but showing that the two variables are correlated does not establish a causal link.

It isn’t hard to find beautiful graphs suggesting lack of gun control causes gun violence in the United States. It is often pointed out that the US has much higher levels of violence than European countries that have strict gun control laws. The problem is that none of this evidence is causal. The United States is different from Europe on numerous dimensions, and it is plausible that one of these differences causes the difference in homicide rates. Sadly, there exists little research on gun control that meets my two criteria. Probably the best existing piece of work is “More Guns, More Crime,” published by Mark Duggan in the Journal of Political Economy, a leading economics journal, in 2001. Using meticulous statistical analysis, he finds that increased gun ownership leads to more crime. This is a critical issue since opponents of gun control argue that allowing guns decreases crime by enabling potential victims to defend themselves. The increase in crime with more gun ownership takes place entirely through increased gun homicides. In another well executed study, published in the Journal of Public Economics in 2006 (“The social costs of gun ownership”), Cook and Ludwig also find a strong relationship between gun ownership and homicides.

As a professor, I often tell my students that policy evaluation is no better than the assumptions and information that underlie it. Gun control is a life or death policy issue in the United States. As an economist, the most striking thing is how little good quality research there is on such an important policy issue. Rather than shying away from the possibility that science may discover facts they don’t like, American politicians need to act responsibly and encourage research so they can make well-informed policy decisions. To the extent that useful evidence existence, there is clear positive link between guns and murders. Americans have to make a choice. Guns are deeply embedded in American culture. The reasons for supporting gun ownership are not irrational, but how many deaths are a reasonable cost for an unrestricted right to own guns?

For most liberals, the obvious answer is zero. This is facile. There are real benefits to gun ownership, and we routinely allow activities that lead to fatalities because the benefits are judged to be greater than the costs (e.g. alcohol and tobacco use). For the NRA and their allies in the GOP, the correct answer is infinity. This too is unreasonable, ignoring the costs of gun ownership. Economists are trained to weigh costs versus benefits.  This is difficult in the absence of good information, but nonetheless necessary. Leaders in the United States need to stop posturing and talking past each other, and instead have a reasoned, constructive dialogue on how to best balance the benefits and costs of gun ownership. As an American, I hope this will happen. As a realist, I would be shocked if it occurs within my lifetime.

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3 thoughts on “Gun Control: An American Economist’s Viewpoint

  1. A point possibly of interest to economists is that of fat-tail risks, which in this case entails genocides: quite rare events which are, nevertheless, devastatingly significant. Indeed, they are the largest nonnatural cause of human deaths in the last 100 years, far outstripping soldiers killed in war, or even general crime.

    It is easy enough to hear pro-gun groups talk about deterring tyranny and about preventing genocide. While it might not be obvious how men with mere rifles could resist a modern military, nevertheless, the fact remains that recent genocides have all been preceded by disarmament efforts made against the target population.

    Something I have not seen from the anti-gun side is an analysis of the expectation value of the cost, measured in lives, of genocide, combining both the death toll and the probability of occurrence. This is not only an academic point, because even a relatively ‘small’ genocide (in historical terms, say, of a few million people) would take a few centuries of firearms homicide rates to match, even at America’s admittedly high rate, and this even considering all firearms homicide to be criminal, which they aren’t.

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  2. Another point of interest from a gun rights/gun control perspective is that Case Western Reserve was and remains a so-called “gun-free zone”, where the carrying of guns for one’s own protection is strictly prohibited. It was so at the time of the OP’s shooting, according to this article: http://www.toledoblade.com/State/2003/05/15/Case-Western-killing-inflames-gun-opponents.html and it remains so today, according to CWRU’s stated policy: https://students.case.edu/handbook/policy/safety/weapons.html

    I submit that those who seek to further restrict firearms ownership or possession from otherwise law-abiding citizens should not cite shootings which happened where such possession is already prohibited. If anything, such shootings should weigh on the side *against* such prohibitions.

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  3. The obvious answer is zero because it is correct, I’m afraid. The premise is how many deaths are reasonable from unrestricted gun ownership. You go from saying it is facile because gun have their benefits but this is not on point from your own question. If gun ownership has its benefit then the right to acquire one should be restricted to ensure that the acquisition shall be for the purpose required. Any deaths caused by lawful ownership in that situation then you can say X amount of deaths are reasonable when assessed against the benefits of gun ownership. The same can be said for car ownership. But to say there is a reasonable number of deaths higher than zero where gun ownership is unrestricted is just nonsense. Guns kill people and are made to do so. That is causation. Unrestricted access is just not an option and tighter controls are needed.

    Equally, I’d add that the analogy the other way for tobacco and alcohol does not work. Such harm is, predominately, self inflicted. Liberals do not have too much of a problem with self inflicted harm. Guns directly interfere with others in nearly all cases where there is harm. If cars, alcohol and tobacco start being used and made as a weapon in the majority of situations then tighter ownership controls are necessary.

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