What the NRA is Assuming (and Why They are Wrong)

Filed Under (Other Topics, Uncategorized) by Jeffrey Brown on Dec 21, 2012

Like millions of Americans, I was deeply shaken by the horrible tragedy that unfolded at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown Connecticut one week ago today.  As a father, as an American – simply, as a human being – I was horrified by the thought that anyone could be capable of gunning down innocent and helpless children.  My rage toward the killer was outweighed only by the terrible sadness for the children and deep sympathy for their families.

As the hours and days have gone by, however, my raw emotional response has slowly – if not fully successfully – made some room for my inner economist to begin to examine the situation from an analytical perspective.

Today, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, stated that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This is a provocative statement, so I thought it was time to examine this issue more closely.

So let me ask a simple question: “Would America’s children be safer if we had more guns, or fewer guns?”

I would like to assume that, with the exception of a few sociopaths, everyone wants our children to be safer.  I do not subscribe to the extremist rhetoric from either side that assumes they are the only ones with the moral high ground and that the “other side” is somehow anti-kids.  Rather, I think both sides agree on the goal – to keep our kids safe – but have a very different view of how to get there.

But who is right?  Would our children be safer with more guns or fewer guns?

To provide some insight, I would like to adapt a simple model that is used to discuss tax policy (stay with me here!) – the “Laffer curve.” (Click here for information on the Laffer curve). 

If there were zero guns available in the U.S., then by definition there would be zero gun-related deaths.  Starting from zero, as the number of guns increases, the frequency of gun related deaths would surely rise, at least initially.  But it probably would not rise forever as shown in this graph.

gun graph

Why?  Consider the other extreme – the vision of the NRA – where virtually every citizen was armed.  Teachers, professors, airline pilots, nurses, truck drivers, accountants … everyone.

According to the NRA, in such a world, criminals would be reluctant to commit a crime because they know that they would be putting themselves in grave danger.  Or even if they did, an armed good guy would stop them.

What this means is that if gun violence is low at low levels of gun ownership, and also low at high levels of gun ownership, then there must be a horrible “peak” in between where the number of gun-related deaths is at its highest (the peak).

We have over a quarter of a billion guns in the U.S. The question is whether this is above or below the peak.  If it is below the peak, then more guns cause more gun-related deaths, and deaths would decline if we had more effective gun control laws.  In contrast, if we are above the Peak, then small decreases in the number of guns can actually cause more deaths.  Relatedly, if we are above the Peak, then increasing the number of guns can reduce the number of gun-related deaths.  This is what the NRA seems to believe.

This is a simplistic model.  But it does provide an important insight: theoretically, gun control could make us safer or it could make us less safe.  Gun control advocates are implicitly assuming we are to the left of the peak.  Gun rights advocates are implicitly assuming we are to the right of the peak.

So, what does the evidence say?

The good news is that it is possible to test this.  The bad news is that it is very hard to do it well.  One cannot simply assert that “in country X, they have tighter gun control laws and also fewer gun deaths, so therefore fewer guns causes fewer deaths.”  To do so would be to ignore countless other factors – cultural, religious, legal, economic, demographic – that might cause country X to have fewer deaths and also cause them to pass more stringent gun control laws.

Fortunately, some economists have written good papers on gun control.  (Sadly, other economists have written bad papers on gun control, meaning that they are sloppy, confuse correlation with causation, and therefore should not be used to guide policy debates.)

University of Chicago economist John Lott is the most well-known researcher on the issue.  His findings are easily summarized by the name of his book “More guns, less crime.”  In other words, Lott believes we are way past the peak and that people would likely be safer if we had fewer restrictions on guns.  As is often the case when someone writes something so provocative, Lott’s research has come under attack.  A summary of the controversies and criticisms can be found here.

Aside from just attacking Lott’s work, others have tried to examine this issue on their own.  In my opinion, the single best study on this topic was conducted by Prof. Mark Duggan, a Harvard-trained Ph.D. in economics who is now a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  His paper, “More Guns, More Crime” was published in one of the most elite peer-reviewed economics journals in the world.  He finds that “changes in homicide and gun ownership are significantly positively related” (thus, his title – more guns lead to more crime.)  Importantly, he also finds that “this relationship is almost entirely driven by the relationship between lagged changes in gun ownership and current changes in homicide.”  This is really important because it is evidence that this correlation comes about because guns lead to more homicides, rather than an increase in homicides leading more people to buy guns.

The Duggan study also specifically examines the Lott study.  He agrees that, theoretically, concealed carry laws could increase the likelihood that potential victims could carry a gun, and thus reduce the homicide rate (my simple model above).  However, he concludes that he finds “no evidence that counties with above-average rates of gun ownership within CCW states experienced larger declines in crime than low-ownership counties did, suggesting either that gun owners did not increase the frequency with which they carried their guns or that criminals were not being deterred.”  In other words, there is no evidence to support the NRA’s view.

I came into this debate over the past week with an open mind.  My reading of the evidence, however, suggests that more guns cause more crime, and that concealed carry laws would not reduce crime.

Our nation may still decide not to restrict guns because of the Second Amendment.  But if so, let’s at least do it with our eyes open.  We should not be pretending that we are helping kids by promoting gun ownership.