Thursday, 20 December 2012

Don't Ban Guns - Help Prevent People From Becoming Killers

I’ve had about half a dozen people ask my view on this – otherwise I probably wouldn't have blogged on it. After the recent shooting spree tragedy, President Obama wants to get tough on gun ownership and consider future policies to "help prevent more mass killings". Needless to say there are plenty of problems with this.  As tragic as the event was, I don’t think there is a way to legislate against it happening again – and I don’t think the proposed solution of reinstating the Clinton era law against assault weapons is going to be effective. 

The majority seem to be asking for a complete ban on guns, and the sceptics are asking how much good that will do. The sceptics are asking the wrong question – it’s not whether a complete ban on guns will do any good (it is bound to do some good), it is whether the cost of enforcing such a law outweighs the desires of the population and the good those costs could do elsewhere. 

In the first place, I don’t think a complete gun ban will do much good. Here’s why. Let’s first ask, on what grounds do people want guns banned? Is it because when disturbed and psychologically damaged people get hold of them they are dangerous and kill people with them? Many may say ‘yes’, but to me that’s fairly obviously misjudged.

Say we have a maniac intent on killing as many people as possible, but he has no gun. What can he do? He can go into his mother’s kitchen drawer, find the sharpest knife and go on a killing rampage. Are these people honestly saying that sharp kitchen knives should be illegal too? They'll have one objection; you can do a lot more damage with a gun than a knife. Even if that’s true, you can do more damage with a car or van or lorries or a box of matches and a can of petrol if you are that way inclined.

To legislate against the most maniacal killing sprees you would have to ban knives, cars, vans, lorries, matches and petrol if you take it to the limit. Heck, it is easy to kick a person to death with heavy boots – are we going to say that people on building sites have to by law walk around barefoot or with plimsolls on? Of course not. 

So the grounds that guns should be banned because when disturbed and psychologically damaged people get hold of them they are dangerous is not much of an argument at all. A disturbed killer in the making will find the tools with which to commit his or her murders irrespective of the law, just as has proved to be the case many times in the UK where guns actually are illegal. 

Next, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that guns are the only way to kill people – would it then be worth having a blanket ban in the shape of a federal law? That depends on how much people want them banned, which depends on whether they are prepared to pay the cost or whether they think the money could be better spent.

It is hard to get an accurate figure for law enforcement, but as a rough idea it is thought that drug laws in the USA cost between $50-100 billion. So how much would it cost to implement a gun law? I don’t know, but I know that any amount in excess of the minimal requirement for tackling persistent gun crime from recidivists would be too much, because any additional expenditure on gun laws would be better spent in helping to prevent people becoming killers. 

The other reason that the cost of the law would be economically inefficient is that most people causing trouble with guns are the sort of people who are likely to be taking up most of the police’s time anyway, so the costs of targeting the rest of the relatively safe gun owners across the country will be vastly disproportionate to the good any such law will do (remember, I said we can't legislate against maniacs outside the police's radar). Put it this way; would you want the police spending lots of their time and resources going after a large sample group who constitute only 1-5% of the threat, or would you rather that majority group kept their guns with virtually no threat of using them? I know what I’d rather see – particularly as valuable police time will be taken away from more pressing and persistent daily crimes. 

The point is, even with a blanket ban, guns will still be traded on the black market, and someone who is desperate to go on a shooting spree will find a gun from someone, whether guns are legal or illegal. And secondly, given the amount of people that own a firearm, it is obvious that lots of people wilfully choose to own one for protection. This is important for one reason; if you solicit public opinion, you may well find that most people don’t want a gun ban.

So what? you may say – guns play a part in deaths, and the anti-gun folk should get their way. But it’s not that simple; given that it costs (even by a conservative estimate) over 100 billion a year to implement such a gun law, it can be argued that those costs may come at the expense of good law and enforcement in other areas, and in spending money that could be used more wisely for prevention, and confidence building, and restoring self-worth in young people's lives. 

Here's another reason why the economics doesn't favour the gun law. Let’s be generous and say it costs only $60 billion for a gun law enforcement – the costs of enforcement must drain the police force to the tune of $60 billion (unless you want to foot the bill for more police, in which case the cost goes up again). The cost of the law at $60 billion works out to about $200 dollars per person, which is $800 per year for a family of four.

Given the vanishingly small chance that you or your family are going to be the victims of a shooting spree (even if you’re excessive in allowing for 100 deaths in an isolated shooting spree every year*, it’s only one in three million), do you think the family would rather have the money and the one in three million chance of dying, or the probability vanished (don’t forget, threats never vanish anyway)?

I’ll bet most families would choose $800 dollars and a one in three million chance of death, because they already demonstrate similar behaviour every day in what they will or not fork out for safety equipment and risk reduction. If anyone decided they preferred to avoid a one in three million chance of death rather than a certain $200, you’ll know they don’t understand risk or probability.  Most Americans don’t earn $200 per day, and each of them has much less than a one in three million chance of dying when they drive or cycle to their place of work. 

While I have sympathy with people’s call to see guns banned, I think it doesn’t make much economic or practical sense. America needs to learn how to irrigate deserts, not wave axes around looking for trees to chop down. I think what is needed is not a focus on guns – it is a focus on getting to the root of the psychological damage that inflicts so many young people. If you want to do good, focus not on guns but on helping people.

It is tragic that we live in a world in which these isolated incidents come along and wreck entire families. But I can see no way to legislate against these things happening – not without imposing a law that will be almost entirely ineffective, and one that imposes tens of billions of costs that will impinge on other police duties, and do nothing to stop isolated incidents. Shakespeare understood more eloquently than most that you cannot legislatively remove human anomalies out of the system of being human:

Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to?
* And that certainly doesn’t happen