Guns: The Seen and the Unseen

The unspeakable horror in Newtown has understandably led to a surge in calls for greater gun control.  Which in turn calls for a response, as I am skeptical of most gun control, and have supported concealed carry.

It goes without saying that I would like to live in a world where Newtowns don’t occur.  But trying to bring that world into being requires addressing numerous practical difficulties, and taking seriously the unintended consequences and the trade-offs of any measure intended to achieve that end.  Intentions are one thing: results are another.  I am more interested in the latter.

At the outset, it is worthwhile to point out that there are two distinct problems with guns: mass shootings like Newtown and Aurora, and the daily toll of gun-related violence, which tends to be disproportionately concentrated in particular urban neighborhoods.  (Case in point: Chicago.  There have been 516 murders this year in Chicago, most with guns, and most in a handful of neighborhoods of the city).  There are approximately 11,000 firearms homicides in the US each year, of which a small fraction are the results of mass shootings.  Most are sad and grubby deaths that receive cursory attention.  A newspaper article or two, a report on the evening news, before disappearing into oblivion.

It is also essential to remember that there is considerable evidence (some of which is admittedly controversial) that firearms ownership by law abiding individuals, and permitting individuals to carry firearms outside their homes reduces crime, including violent and property crimes.

Insofar as mass murders  involving guns (a subset of all mass murders) are concerned, it is evident that the problem is an intersection between madness and guns.  Which raises the questions: How can the dangerously insane be prevented from accessing weapons?  What are the costs of doing so?

The difficulties of preventing the dangerously insane from obtaining weapons are severe, and the costs of doing so are likely to be extreme.  And by “costs” I do not mean merely the dollar costs of enforcement, but the hardships imposed on individuals that result from the inability to identify reliably who is a real danger of committing a mass murder.

In brief, we know that mass murderers are crazy, but very few crazy people are even potential mass murderers.  What’s more, we know that there is little ability to identify, ex ante, which individuals out of the population of the emotionally disturbed are true risks.  We are dealing with tail risks of a population that is already in the tails of the general population.  People whose behavior is irrational by definition, making it extremely difficult to identify just who from among the population of mentally disturbed individuals has a rare form of disturbance that makes them a higher risk to commit mass violence.

Perhaps some necessary conditions, or things approaching necessary conditions can be identified.  Loners.  Obsession with violent video games.  These individuals share some characteristics, but only a few people with those characteristics are risks.

Meaning that any attempt to identify those who pose the greatest risk is likely to be subject to very high rates of both false positives and false negatives, even if there was a concerted effort to evaluate the mental health of every gun purchaser.  Some of the high risks will go unidentified, and some of the low risks will be falsely considered high risk.

Both types of error are costly, and it is necessary to recognize that there is a trade-off.  If you try to reduce the risk of a false negative (a real threat that goes undetected) you increase the likelihood of false positives (those who pose no threat are prevented from obtaining a firearm, or even worse, are institutionalized or medicated against their will).

Making the best trade off depends on the costs of the two types of errors. Those advocating far more restrictive gun laws believe that the cost of a false negative is so high that we should accept a very high rate of false positives.  That is, that there is little cost of denying anyone who poses even the slightest risk from obtaining a weapon: what does anyone need a gun for, anyways?  And especially: what does anyone need a semi-automatic weapon for?

If you really believe that there is no benefits to owning a gun, but only costs, you would conclude that gun bans are justified: the cost of a false positive is zero, and there is no need even to attempt trying to identify who is a risk or not.   Psychological screening would be a waste.  If you believe the cost of a false positive is zero, any effort to try to identify is a risk is unjustified.

But that means that the question of the efficient response to the risk of mass shooting is inevitably tied to the potential benefits of gun ownership, and also to the efficacy of bans and their potential unintended consequences.

The evidence here is admittedly controversial, but my reading of that evidence is that it is highly likely that private gun ownership, and permitting people to carry firearms outside the home, does provide substantial benefits in terms of reduced violent and property crime.

Moreover, there is some evidence that private ownership and concealed carry deters some mass shooting episodes.  A paper by Lott and Landes presents evidence that “that the only policy factor to have a consistently significant influence on multiple victim public shootings is the passage of concealed handgun laws.”  Further, their evidence suggests that concealed carry reduces the death and injury rate in an attack; Lott and Landes explain this as the result of the ability of armed individuals to disrupt or end an attack before law enforcement can arrive to do so: one example is the principal in Pearl, MS, who stopped a mass shooter with the gun he retrieved from his car before police arrived.  They also present evidence that gun free zones actually increase the risk of mass shootings: would be mass killers deliberately choose to carry out their plans where the odds of facing armed opposition are the lowest.  Yes, they are insane in the sense that they relish taking human life, but that does not mean they are not calculating and rational in the sense of being able to devise means best suited to carry out their twisted aims.  Indeed, they can be hyper-rational in this respect, making elaborate plans to obtain weapons and to use them in ways that will maximize their kill counts.

Furthermore, bans are not likely to be very effective at keeping weapons out of the hands of those who are more likely to commit (non-mass) murder or other violent crimes.  Cities in the United States provide one example.  Cities with very draconian gun laws also tend to have very high murder rates.  Chicago is a prime example.  Of course there is a cause-and-effect issue here (i.e., draconian laws are more likely to be adopted in jurisdictions with high crime rates), but increasing restrictions on gun ownership in these does not clearly result in declines in murder, and as noted before, there is evidence that reducing restrictions leads to declines in murder rates.  Similar results are found in some international comparisons: high murder rates often go hand-in-hand with draconian restrictions on gun ownership (cf., Russia), meaning that bans are not sufficient to reduce murder rates to low levels.  (Russian murder rates are substantially higher than in the US, for instance, despite the fact that gun laws in Russia are far more restrictive.  Unfortunately, it appears that Russia does not break out firearms homicides, so a comparison of gun-related homicides in the US and Russia is not possible.)  Other states-notably Switzerland-have high rates of gun ownership, and very low murder rates.

Bans also do not necessarily eliminate mass shootings.  Norway and Germany, to mention but two examples, impose onerous restrictions on gun ownership, but have experienced mass shooting episodes.*  Those obsessed with killing wholesale find can find ways to satisfy their obsessions.

The co-existence of highly restrictive gun laws and high murder rates, and the occurrence of mass shootings in jurisdictions with such restrictive laws show that “ban” is an intended effect of such laws, rather than their actual effect.  This should not be surprising.  These laws are likely to have the smallest impact on those who are involved in criminal activity precisely because guns are particularly useful in such endeavors.   Restrictive laws tend to reduce substantially gun ownership by those who present a low risk of committing crimes, but whose ownership helps deter crime: they have much less of an impact on the possession of weapons by those who present a high risk of committing crimes.  Thus, bans have a lot of false positives (the law abiding choose not to own weapons) and a lot of false negatives (criminals get guns), and both the false positives and false negatives are costly.  They tend to disarm those who pose no danger, but not appreciably reduce the ability of the dangerous to obtain weapons.

Indeed, those deranged few who desire to commit mass murder are likely to be the least sensitive to increases in the cost of obtaining weapons that result from the adoption of more restrictive gun laws.  Those bent on mass slaughter are willing to go to great lengths to achieve their twisted destinies.  Their obsessions make them inelastic demanders, and drive them to find any way to circumvent restrictions on obtaining guns.

The numbers of weapons these individuals acquire is often taken as evidence of the laxity of gun laws.  But the very fact that these individuals acquire far more weaponry than they need to carry out their crimes or could even possibly use suggests that raising the cost of acquiring a weapon is unlikely to have much of an impact on their ability to commit mass murder.  Their purchases of weapons could be reduced substantially without reducing their ability to commit mayhem precisely because they tend to buy more weapons than they actually need for that purpose, or use in their crimes.   The accumulation of excessively large arsenals is a symptom of their disorder, but their disorder is such that even if restrictive laws curtailed their arsenals, they would still accumulate enough weapons to engage in mass slaughter.

The (empirically supported) likelihood that gun ownership has a deterrent effect on mass killings, and the likelihood that restrictions on gun ownership will not reduce the willingness and ability of mass murderers to obtain weapons, mean that more restrictive gun laws may not even reduce the frequency or severity of mass shootings.  Moreover, the (again empirically supported) likelihood that private ownership of guns and concealed carry laws have a deterrent effect on crimes (including murder) other than mass shooting, means that greater restrictions on gun ownership and use do come at a cost.

If this analysis is correct, more draconian gun laws motivated by a desire to ensure no Newtown ever happens again are unlikely to achieve their intended effect, and will have pernicious unintended effects.  The laws will not constrain or deter those bent on mass murder, and will result in increases in other crimes (including murder).

A couple of other points.

The first is that many Americans derive utility from guns, for reasons other than their value in self-defense.  For some it is hunting.  For others, it is just throwing lead at paper.  For others, gun ownership-and especially possession of assault rifles-is a statement of personal autonomy and individual liberty, and a connection with their heritage.

The Smart Set finds these attitudes-especially the last-totally alien and illegitimate, and unworthy of any consideration whatsoever.  That is an assertion of the superiority over one belief system over another.  It is interesting to see where those who go on endlessly about the importance of diversity draw the line, and just whom they put beyond the pale.

But if you respect the values of others, you cannot discount these attitudes when determining the trade-offs involved in restricting the rights of people to possess and use guns.

The second is that weapons do not pose unique issues.  With virtually everything there is a tradeoff involving lives on one arm of the balance. Automobiles and swimming pools and bathtubs and step-ladders and even buckets (in which approximately 20 children drown annually) kill people every year.  We accept this reality because the cost of further constraining our use of these things is greater than the value of the risk of death that necessarily accompanies their very existence.

The most vehement gun controllers view weapons differently from autos, to take one example, even though the number of people killed by autos per car in the US is about 3.6 times the number killed by guns for each firearm in the country.  They do so because they believe that autos provide benefits that exceed the costs resulting from auto-related deaths, but deny that guns offer any benefit  whatsoever.

I would grant that the benefits of guns are smaller, and more difficult to quantify, than the benefits of cars.  But a strong case can be made that the costs of restricting gun ownership exceed the benefits of such restrictions, and by a large margin.   Restrictions on gun ownership and use are unlikely to reduce the incidence of wholesale killing carried out primarily by the insane, and may indeed increase said incidence.  Restrictions on gun ownership have little demonstrable effect at reducing retail killing in places like the South Side or West Side of Chicago, and likely subject the law abiding to greater risk.  The denigration of the psychic utility of gun ownership is an act of cultural hegemony by an elite that would shriek in outrage at an attempt to impose Western values on Africans or Asians.

The desire to say “No More Newtowns!” is understandable.  But there are no easy ways to achieve that laudable goal. The most commonly advocated measures to restrict access to guns would likely not reduce the risk of mass killings, but would have unintended, and largely unseen, effects.   Most notably, they shift the balance of power between the criminal and the law abiding in favor of the former.  People will die as a result, but the connection between these deaths and the restrictive laws is largely unseen.

As a general rule, I am highly skeptical about public policies adopted as the result of highly visible tragedies.  The focus on the exceptional tends to distort judgment, and distract attention from the more diffuse-and hence less noticeable-effects of measures intended to prevent their recurrence.  The unseen is easy to ignore, but it is there.  It is imperative to look for it, and not overlook it in the glare of lurid tragedies.

This is especially true of events like those that transpired in Newtown.  The urge to do something-anything-is understandably strong, given the unspeakable pain of seeing innocent lives cut down.  But it is a sad fact that there is likely little that can be done that will reduce the risk of new Newtowns, and indeed, some measures may actually increase those risks.  And these measures also increase the odds that innocent people will die at the hands of criminals, but that increase in innocent deaths, occurring one at a time throughout the country, does not have the same impact as a single act of mass violence even if the number of lives lost is actually greater.

We live in a fallen world.  As much as we wish it were otherwise, there is no easy way to deter or prevent the depraved from committing their acts of depravity.  And we must always be cognizant that our attempts to do so may actually do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, I think that reality is likely to be ignored.

*In a comment on an earlier gun-related post, Green as Grass acknowledges that mass killings have taken place in the UK despite gun bans, but suggests that the lower frequency of such episodes in the UK may show that bans at least reduce their likelihood.  This may be true, but there are other differences between the US and the UK that could explain the difference.  The US has always exhibited higher rates of violence than European countries; the reasons for this are the subject of intense dispute, but it is an empirical fact.  In econometric terms, there is a country fixed effect, and once this is accounted for it is by no means obvious that the difference between the rates of mass killing in the US and the UK is explained by differences in gun laws.

About Craig Pirrong 228 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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