Why a War on Guns Wouldn’t Work

Friday, February 16, 2018

This week in Florida, we saw another horrifying school shooting, this one taking the lives of 17 people. With it have come the usual calls to get rid of the guns, along with others urging us not to politicize the issue so soon after it happened. I say, politicize away. If there’s something our society can do to prevent or reduce these ghastly incidents, we need to be talking about it. The trouble is, I don’t think getting rid of the guns is possible.

A quick word about me: I didn’t grow up around guns, have never fired one, and am slightly phobic of them. If we ever need to defend ourselves from criminals, foreign invaders, or internal tyranny, you’ll likely find me hiding in a basement while my friends and family stand and fight. I understand American gun culture about as much as I understand, say, Confucian Chinese culture. I lack the visceral response some people have to protecting their gun rights, but I still think banning them or instituting any background checks with real teeth would be counterproductive.

At Thanksgiving this year, we somehow got on this topic. One of our guests said, “We at least need to get rid of those assault rifles.”

“How are we going to get rid of them?” I asked.

“By outlawing and confiscating them,” she said.

“How’s that working out with cocaine?” I asked.

The reason I think significantly tighter gun laws would be a fool’s errand can be summed up in four words: the War on Drugs. Many people who favor much more gun control also know the War on Drugs hasn’t worked. It’s cost huge sums of money, resulted in violence that has almost definitely killed more people than mass shootings, and resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of young black and Hispanic males. And it’s essentially failed: we can’t even keep heroin laced with the even more dangerous narcotic fentanyl off the street, and  these and other opioids have killed thousands of people. I fear that a war on guns would fare just as poorly.

What about background checks? Marijuana, becoming legal in state after state, can trigger a psychotic break in an extremely small percentage of the population. Sooner or later, someone will smoke legal pot, have such a break, and hurt themselves or others. Will there be calls for background checks to buy pot? How about alcohol? Such rules would just end up sustaining the black market in these goods, as they might also do for guns.

So if not tighter gun laws, what can be done about these shootings? I try to stay humble when asked this question: the causes are numerous and complex, and the results are unspeakably awful. But my guess is the solution, like so many others, must come from the bottom up rather than the top down. Social change might be even harder than effectively banning guns, but here we must try. We need stronger communities with deeper connections between people. Such a change would not be a perfect solution, but maybe someone would have known and helped the man who did this horrible thing. It’s disturbing to think there’s no policy that can stop these incidents, but maybe we can make a difference if we all open our eyes and hearts a little more.

Sign up here to be notified of new blogs from Max Gulker, PhD and AIER.

Max Gulker, PhD

Max Gulker joined AIER in 2015. His primary research areas are applied microeconomics and industrial organization. Max previously worked as an economist for Keystone Strategy, supporting expert testimony for antitrust and intellectual property litigation in high tech industries. Prior to that, he worked on financial litigation matters with NERA Economic Consulting. Max holds a PhD in economics from Stanford University and a BA in economics from the University of Michigan. Follow @maxgAIER.