3 Approaches to Curbing Gun Violence — Using Economics

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People pay their respects at a makeshift shrine to the victims of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 17, 2012.

Last week’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has done what many mass-shootings did not: reinvigorate the national debate over gun control. Advocates for restricting gun use in America have been on the retreat for almost two decades, as states across the country have scrapped restrictions on gun use and the federal ban on assault weapons — signed into law by President Clinton in 1994 — expired in 2004. But on Sunday we heard high-profile politicians like California Senator Diane Feinstein and New York Senator Chuck Schumer call for a renewal of the assault weapons ban, and even President Obama hinted at his desire to consider new legislation.

Of course, deciding that something must be done doesn’t even get you halfway there. The ultimate goal of any gun legislation is to decrease gun violence while at the same time limiting as little as possible access to firearms for legitimate uses like self-protection and sport. And a law like the 1994 assault-weapon ban wasn’t particularly effective in this regard. Though gun violence did decrease during the years in which the ban was in effect, a 2004 University of Pennsylvania study of the subject concluded that the ban couldn’t take much or any of the credit. This is mostly because the ban exempted guns and magazines that were made before 1994, leaving a huge stockpile which were legal to own or sell. The relative rarity of mass shootings makes it statistically difficult to analyze whether this ban had an effect on these sorts of incidents, although The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer points out that such incidences have increased since the ban was lifted in 2004.

(MORE: America’s Gun Economy, By the Numbers)

It’s this legacy of American gun ownership that has vexed reformers for years. Regardless of the restrictions that states, cities, or the federal government place on gun ownership, there already exists nearly enough guns in this country to arm every man, woman, and child in America. And many of these tools are simple and sturdy enough to remain accurate and functional for generations. Furthermore, gun ownership is too cherished in this country for its citizens to accept a forced round up of guns. In fact, it’s an irrational fear of this very scenario that makes gun owners wary of President Obama and so generous with campaign donations to candidates who support Second Amendment rights.

But these facts raise the question: What if anything can the government realistically do to decrease gun violence in America? We’ll surely hear a number of proposals this week, but here are three that attack the problem as an economist would: through incentives.

Tax the Bullets

One proposal — first floated nearly twenty years ago by New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan — is to just forget about the guns and instead go after bullets. Moynihan’s proposal would have taxed certain bullets upwards of 10,000 percent, and was aimed at removing some of the more dangerous bullets from the streets. Would a similar proposal help curb the sort of gang violence and mass shootings that gun control advocates today decry? Possibly. The logic behind a robust bullet tax is that it would make bullets prohibitively expensive if you planned to use a lot of them. Theoretically, a tax could be created that made all bullets expensive, except those sold to law enforcement organizations. There could even be a loophole enacted for shooting ranges, as long as those ranges were responsible for making sure the bullets didn’t leave their premises. This way it wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive to buy enough bullets to defend oneself, but it would make it more difficult for mass shooters to accumulate ammunition stockpiles like the one Aurora shooter James Holmes had.

Require Gun Owners to Purchase Liability Insurance

Another idea is to have the government treat guns much like it does cars: Require owners to purchase liability insurance. Such an idea was proposed in Illinois in 2009 but never passed into law. The first step to requiring this type of insurance would be to set up national or state-by-state gun registries and licensing mechanisms — a step Second Amendment absolutists oppose because they believe such measures would compromise their Constitutional rights. This step alone, were it to gain enough support, would probably do a lot to curb gun violence, as any gun in the country could be tracked by law enforcement to the person who should be responsible for it. But the next step of requiring gun owners to purchase liability insurance would create the incentive for insurers to determine which individuals are fit for gun ownership. It would also incentivize those insurers to require gun owners to store their property in a safe way, and to take other steps like undergoing gun safety training.

Gun Repurchase Programs

Following a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania, the Australian government instituted a mandatory buy-back program that forced Australian citizens to sell their automatic and semiautomatic rifles and shotguns. The program was very successful, removing nearly 700,000 guns from the population’s possession. Of course, this sort of mandatory round up of guns is completely inconceivable in America. Even if there were support in Washington for such a measure, the Supreme Court — which has recently recognized the individual right to own guns — would certainly strike it down. But cities across America, like San Francisco, New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles have experimented with voluntary gun buyback programs, with varying degrees of success. Critics however argue that these voluntary programs are much better PR for local politicians than they are effective at getting guns off of city streets. These programs may yield a few thousand guns, but do nothing to stop the continued flow of guns toward crime-ravaged urban areas.

(MORE: When Massacres Force Change: Lessons from the UK and Australia

Each of these proposals has its drawbacks. Those policies that have the least effect on responsible gun owners, like the voluntary repurchase programs, aren’t very effective at curbing gun violence. More heavy-handed approaches like the bullet tax or national registration coupled with liability insurance requirements put gun ownership out of the reach of some people through direct government action. And for Second Amendment absolutists, this is not acceptable.

Newtown, Connecticut was not the first mass shooting in America, and it won’t be the first time gun control advocates try to square their ideas with the American cultural and constitutional attachment to firearms. But we should all remember that if there were easy solutions to this problem, we probably would have figured them out by now.