Good Guys and Bad Guys: The Trouble With Gun Control

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By Eleanor Tsai

Few issues are as loaded as gun control is in the United States today. Each mass shooting--frighteningly frequent within the past five years--is as divisive as it is painful: what can and should the government do to prevent deaths at the hands of would-be gunmen?

Those on the left make impassioned calls on Congress to pass stricter laws regulating who can own guns. Among other proposals, they favor assault weapons bans and expanding and mandating background checks that would make it more difficult to buy weapons in the first place. Everyone is safer when there are fewer guns on the streets, the argument goes. Those on the right insist such restrictions would infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners, without commensurate efficacy in stopping gun violence. They point to the fact that killers often acquire their weapons illegally, rather than legally, and refer to a long-standing claim that more guns deters crime. In the words of Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Wayne LaPierre’s reasoning appeals to the old economic fallback of cost-benefit analysis. It suggests if a gunman believes he is able to act before law enforcement can respond or punish him, the risk and hence expected cost of the crime to him is lower relative to his payoff. However, if everyone else were to carry guns and be able to retaliate against him immediately after he opened fire, the risk of dying in the act would increase; and anticipating this, he would be more likely to refrain from shooting. Generalizing beyond the potential shooter implies game theoretic behavior--each person decides whether or not to carry a gun based on whether or not those around them do. If one person buys a gun, the others become vulnerable unless they, too, take up guns to signal they are credible threats and keep him from shooting. In equilibrium, no one will own a gun, or everyone will. The same logic has been applied in international relations theory to explain arms races between countries.

It is hard to refute that a world without weapons is safer than a world in which everyone owns them. After all, even if all gun owners were mentally stable “good guys,” accidents could set off deadly shootings. But the reality is not, in fact, dichotomous; blanket assault weapons bans have been politically unfeasible, so across the country there are people who own guns and people who do not, and the prevalence of gun ownership varies considerably by community. While it is intuitive that in this case government regulation should focus on identifying and targeting likely killers, there are no “one-size-fits-all” policy prescriptions due to location-specific factors. For example, states have differentially adopted “shall-issue” laws, which stipulate that they must grant gun owners licenses to carry concealed weapons, as long as certain criteria are met (that is, no justification is required).

Heterogeneity begs an examination of the empirical relationships between gun ownership, concealed carry, and public safety. Two papers have studied these issues directly: Duggan (2000) and Ayres and Donohue (2002). Duggan (2002) finds “increases in gun ownership lead to substantial increases in the overall homicide rate,” but have small or statistically insignificant effects on other types of crimes. Ayres and Donohue (2002) assert, “No longer can any plausible case be made on statistical grounds that shall-issue laws are likely to reduce crime for all or even most states.” What do you think? Given the theory and the data, should the United States increase limits on gun ownership? If so, how might shall-issue and other existing laws be reformed to draw closer to a social optimum that balances public safety with civil liberties?

Further reading:

CNN: Senate Rejects Gun Control Measures

Washington Post: The Economics of Gun Control

CQ Researcher: Should Lawmakers Tighten Firearm Restrictions?

The Social Cost of Gun Ownership (Cook & Ludwig, 2006)

A Game Theoretic Model of Gun Control (Taylor, 1993)