While the overall trend in gun related violence has declined in the U.S. since the 1990s, it is not hyperbole to say gun violence is still a major public health epidemic. On average, 93 Americans are killed each day, 12,000 per year, and two more are injured for every one killed. While other countries have been able to muster the political will to enact major gun control legislation in the wake of a mass shooting, such as Australia in 1996 after the Port Arthur Massacre, the U.S. has been in a state of political paralysis. Not even incidents such as the Sandy Hook Massacre where 20 school children and 6 adults were gunned down have had any impact at the national level. Until the current political climate changes, significant gun control legislation is unlikely to pass anytime soon. This doesn’t mean we should give up, but rather be more creative.
Despite what your position may be on issue of abortion, you have to admit the cleverness of the Pro-life (anti-abortion) movement. While many gun rights advocates would have you believe an individual’s right to bear arms has always been enshrined in the constitution by the 2nd Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has only recently affirmed this right in 2008 in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller; which has made gun control legislation all the more difficult to pass locally and nationally. Anti-abortion activists have had to deal with a similar constitutional barrier since 1973, Roe v. Wade. Unable to restrict abortions directly, they develop legislation to institute waiting periods and counseling. In certain, notably Republican, states, counseling must be provided in-person, and require doctors to provide medically inaccurate information. They also go after abortion providers with unnecessary, restrictive regulations aimed at closing down clinics. While I disagree with their goal, I can’t help but admire their creativity. And I believe a similar strategy is applicable to help reduce gun circulation and violence.
Unfortunately, there is no single policy, short of abolition, that would significantly curb gun violence. The best we can hope for is marginal reduction given the right policies. The problem requires a multi-prong strategy which addresses the following: (1) Research funding. (2) Reduction in gun demand. (3) Instituting required training, waiting periods and universal background checks. Universal background checks have been attempted at the federal level, but have proven difficult to pass in this legislature despite Sandy Hook and a bi-partisan bill. The fact is any legislative attempt at the federal level is likely to fail, but more and more states are reforming gun laws on their own. While direct restrictions can be struck down by courts, states' rights to tax cannot.
The first and most important step we can take is funding research. To properly diagnose the epidemic of gun violence and evaluate appropriate policy measures, more extensive research is needed. The Center for Disease Control has not engaged in research funding on firearms and public health since 1996 when congress threatened to strip funding from the agency after it was accused of promoting gun control. This has produced a chilling effect through the social research community more broadly. While this is beginning to change as advocacy groups are pulling together resources to fund research, funding is still a major barrier to fully documenting the effects of gun violence in our society. Research grants to universities and institutions studying gun violence is the most important part of any legislative strategy. Without it, we’re unlikely to break through the circular arguments of gun rights activists. However, a clever policy may be able to fund research and reduce consumer demand for guns at the same time.
Purchasing a firearm is just like any other economic activity subject to the laws of demand and supply. There is little research on the elasticity of demand in the market for firearms, but one study by Bice and Hemley (2002) found that the demand for handguns is elastic, meaning it is sensitive to price changes. They report a 1 percent increase in the price of handguns decreases the quantity demanded by 2 to 3 percent. Furthermore, they find the supply of firearms is also elastic to price changes of production inputs. They estimate a 1 percent increase in unit costs reduces supply by 2 percent. The implication is that by increasing the price of firearms, either directly through a tax and or by increasing the cost of manufacturing will reduce the number of new firearms entering circulation.
Increasing costs on the supply side is an obstacle given that gun manufacturers are relocating to conservative states friendly to the industry. However, 15 states and the District of Columbia have adopted dealer license requirements in addition to the license requirement by the Department of Alcohol, Tabacco, and Firearms (ATF). States can increase the cost of these licenses to increase the market entry cost to gun dealers. Furthermore, past polls of Americans indicate majority support for regulations on dealers to complete inventory inspections, locking up guns to prevent theft, and camera surveillance. More granular regulation can be applied to make these precautions more expensive and cumbersome just as such regulation has been applied arbitrarily to abortion providers in conservative states.
On the demand side, there is currently an experiment underway in Seattle, Washington which introduced a sales tax on firearms and ammunition. The City Council intends to use the revenue to fund research on gun violence. Some news reports have focused on the shortfall in projected revenue (here, here, and here), but gun control advocates should focus on the fall in gun sales reported by retailers and the decrease in federal firearms retail licenses(from 40 to 35 since implementation); including the closure of the only two dedicated gun stores in the city. While these reports have suggested the policy is a failure because gun violence appears to be ticking up since the tax went into effect, such causal inferences are specious without empirical evidence. Others note Seattleans are choosing to purchase guns outside the city, but the result still demonstrates a decrease in sales for the jurisdiction the law was intended. If applied more broadly, a similar shift in demand should occur. guns purchased outside the state, assuming a registration system is in place, the retail location should be recorded on the registration as well as a interstate sale tax levied just as most states do for out of state vehicle purchases.
An additional effect of price changes is the substitution effect. When prices of goods increase, consumers look to cheaper substitutes. A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found most American gun owners, 67 percent, cited protection as the primary reason to own a gun. Handguns make up the majority of these purchases. While owning a handgun provides the illusion of security, research informs us otherwise. According to Kellerman et al.(1998), handguns are more likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting, criminal assault or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense. Eliminating the need to own a handgun is important to reducing gun injuries and violence in households. Therefore, a cheaper substitute is needed which can provide an equal or greater sense of protection. Home security systems are designed to do just that: protect your home and its inhabitants. There are a wide range of security systems and services available to deter intruders whether you are home or not, which a gun cannot do. Furthermore, a city-wide spatial analysis of Newark, New Jersey by Lee (2008) has shown that dense concentrations of households with alarms systems is associated with reduced incidents of burglaries relative to lesser dense areas. Therefore, it is in the interest of public welfare to find ways to reduce the price for such systems providing a plausible substitute for guns for low income households.
In conclusion, any legislative efforts to curb gun violence should include higher licensing costs for gun dealers and a tax on the sale of guns. Higher costs to gun dealers will make it harder to enter the market, and more regulation will further reduce margins and cost of operations of existing dealers. Increasing sales taxes on gun purchases will inflate the price and reduce overall demand. The revenue generated should fund research and tax credits on home security systems for lower income households as much as possible. Revenue from said tax will not be enough, but it will help. Although such efforts will not be enough due in part to a pervasive gun culture in America, even the smallest marginal reduction in gun violence will save lives.
Bice, Douglas and Hemley, David (2002), The Market for New Handguns: An Empirical Investigation, The Journal of Law & Economics, Vol. 45, No. 1 (April), pp. 251–265.
Hepburn, Lisa and Hemenway, David (2004), Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal. 2004; 9:417–40.
Kellerman, Arthur et al. (1998), Injuries and Deaths Due to Firearms in the Home, 45 J. Trauma 263, 263, 266.
Lee, Seungmug (2008), The Impact of Home Burglar Alarm Systems on Residential Burglaries, Rutgers University.
Aaron Medlin is a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying macroeconomics of private debt, monetary economics, international finance, and comparative economic systems.