blank.gif (51 bytes) Bill of Rights

Better Muggings
Through Gun Control

by Glen Tenney

recent spate of murders within our borders has prompted renewed discussions of gun prohibition and controls. It is clear that the prohibition crowd has gained strength in numbers and influence over the past decade or two. In fact, for many commentators it seems to be a foregone conclusion that more handguns cause more violence.

Opponents of gun control have traditionally used the Second Amendment to the Constitution as the basis of their justification for the right of everyone to bear arms. But we have found over the years that the Second Amendment can be, and in fact is, interpreted in different ways by different people. Without discounting or denying the importance of being guided by the Constitution in this matter, I would like to take a different approach in my argument against gun-control laws. Specifically, we might ask whether economics has anything of worth to say about the gun-control issue.

The answer to this question is yes. Guided by economic theory, and as a result of experience in the real world, economists understand a great deal about how illegal markets operate. An analysis of the gun-control issue from the economic point of view suggests that the popular "guns cause violence" hypothesis is misleading if not outright incorrect.

Gun-control laws are designed basically as scarcity-inducing laws. They seek to raise the cost of obtaining firearms. Knowing that people commit crimes because the benefits of doing so are perceived as greater than the costs, a higher cost of obtaining a gun will seemingly result in less guns being purchased. According to the gun-control mentality then, this will lead to less violent crimes being committed in society. But this conclusion is premature. A better understanding of the issue requires that we think about who in society can be expected to comply with gun-control laws as well as who cannot be expected to comply. This requires that we consider the incentives created by such laws.

It is obvious that handguns are primarily useful in allowing people to dominate hostile transactions with other people. Put in simpler terms, guns are useful in criminals' attempts to get what they want through the use of force. People vary in their desire to own guns. For those that do not see the need to ever "dominate hostile transactions" with other people, only a small increase in the cost of owning a gun (which is purposely caused by gun prohibition) will be enough to cause them to forego gun ownership in favor of other goods that compete for their dollars.

Criminals, on the other hand, who have the specific intent to use a handgun to ply their trade, will be willing to pay more for a gun than other people would. In economic terms we say that criminals would tend to have a very "inelastic" demand for guns: A large increase in cost will not affect the number purchased in the market very much.

And so we have a situation where the class of people we want to deprive of guns is the very class that will likely be willing to pay high prices to obtain guns. These high prices paid for guns are then externalized onto the rest of society through increased violent crimes of all kinds.

Law-abiding citizens, on the other hand, will tend to view the risk (both morally and practically) of disobeying the law as too high, and will tend to live without guns. This, of course, lessens the cost to criminals of using guns to intimidate and otherwise harm peaceful citizens. With lower costs involved with committing crimes, we would then expect more crimes to be committed.

The gun-control crowd often overlooks a subtle, but also very critical point. The amount of crime committed in society is influenced heavily by the costs associated with criminal action. One of the important costs involved in committing any given crime is the possibility that the criminal will not be able to dominate the situation through the use of force. The lower the number of victims a criminal assumes to be armed, the lower will be the cost of assaulting them.

Gun-control laws effectively lower the costs of committing crime by increasing the chances that criminals will be able to dominate any possible situation through coercive and even violent means. Under a gun-control environment, the ratio of armed criminals to unarmed law-abiding citizens will shift dramatically in the favor of criminals.

A popular phrase says that "if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." Perhaps this is more than just a cute phrase.

And to think that it all stems from an understanding of the "elasticity of demand for handguns." Isn't economics wonderful?  u

Glen Tenney teachers economics and accounting at Great Basin College in Elko. He can be reached at <tenney@scs.unr.edu>.


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