Thursday, January 10, 2013

Free Riding the Gun Owners

Just when I was about to tell you the second of two factors that leads me to believe many who vote for the Democrats are more conservative than they think they are, I left you hanging for over a month.  Work got busy, and then of course the holidays came along.  Now that I’m back, I’ll leave you hanging for another week while I digress on ye olde gun debate.

As is the Hatcher’s style, rather than re-hashing all of the standard arguments pro and con, I’d like to point out some factors that seem to go widely ignored, and which have more general application outside of this particular debate.  Full disclosure, I am not a gun guy – I only recently overcame my fear of power tools, and am proud to say that I now only tremble slightly when I need to use a chainsaw.  So I am not writing this while admiring my collection of firearms.  My mode of self-protection is to not be a drug dealer, and to make enough money to live in gated communities.
Prior to considering the issue of rights, I want to look at the issue on purely economic grounds.  Let’s define a few economic terms before getting started.  An externality can either be a cost (negative externality) or a benefit (positive externality) from a private activity borne or enjoyed by someone other than the guy engaging in that activity.  If a neighbor has outdoor speakers that blare the collected works of Vanilla Ice 24 hours a day, this would generate a negative externality (unless you are Vanilla Ice, and even then maybe).  In contrast, if a neighbor invests in landscaping that makes her yard look like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, enhancing the beauty of the street, there is a positive externality.

As a general principal, if some private activity generates a negative externality, in principal we would like the private actor to bear the externality cost in some form (a tax, for example), so that the full cost of the activity is considered by that actor relative to the benefit.   A tax that increases the cost of that activity will not in all cases eliminate that activity, but it will ensure that those who still engage in it are doing so because the private benefits they receive exceed the full cost to society; in principal (though rarely in practice), the tax revenues generated from those who still partake can be redistributed to those who suffer from the negative externality in such a way as to make them whole, and all is good.   Although some activity or purchase may generate a negative externality, we do not in general outlaw the activity or purchase.  The private benefit may exceed the sum of the production costs of the item and the externality cost, in which case we do not want to bar the activity entirely. On the flipside, for the those activities that generate a positive externality, because the private actor faces the full cost while receiving only the private benefit, you generally get an under-provision of such activity.  Policies that would somehow subsidize these activities would be good for increasing overall welfare. 
The Sandy Hook shooting is clearly an example of a negative externality of gun ownership – a legal gun owner does not protect her stash of guns, they are stolen, and terror ensues.  From my understanding, the killer was not able to obtain guns legally due to laws in place.  If no one other than the police (assuming they are able to prevent the theft of their guns) is in possession of a gun, there is no possibility for the killer to steal them, and the mass gun killing doesn’t occur, although it may have otherwise been achieved (a home made bomb, or some other method).  It follows that if gun ownership were banned, and all guns could be confiscated from the law abiding and non-law abiding alike, Sandy Hook doesn’t happen, or at least doesn’t happen with a gun.  For the sake of argument, let’s say it doesn’t happen at all.

Gun ownership for law abiding citizens can therefore in theory have a negative externality on society, and it is not limited to such guns being used with malicious intent.  Guns not properly secured or handled by their owner may be involved in accidental shootings and killings, as happens from time to time.  But the presence of a negative externality, as stated, is no rationale for banning gun ownership.  There is a private benefit to be considered for the gun owner, which is the feeling and reality of enhanced security for themselves and their families.  
Admittedly, the true probability of being the victim of a violent crime, for which one would rationally desire a gun, is probably very low for most people, and many who purchase guns may do so because they over-estimate that probability.  This comes from a combination of factors – there is the “availability cascade” – we are inundated in the news with stories of violent crime, which are preceded by prime time shows that revolve around violent crime, and so we naturally over-estimate the probability.  Perhaps, as according to Obama, some are irrationally driven to “cling” to their guns because they are adrift in the modern world, and are excessively risk averse. 

No matter whether a person severely over-estimates his probability of being assaulted, or whether his degree of risk aversion is excessive, it doesn’t really matter:  It is an indisputable fact that there is a private benefit of enhanced security.
As is so often the case, many gun control advocates themselves possess guns, or hire armed security, under the entitled perspective that the threat to them is real, whereas the threat to the average Joe gun owner is wholly imagined.  There was a local newspaper in New York state that published the addresses of all gun owners in a certain county in the aftermath of Sandy Hook (obtained via the Freedom of Information Act)  – such was the outrage over this editorial idiocy that the paper saw fit to hire armed security – guns for me, not for thee.  These people are making an implicit judgment – that either other people are over-estimating the probability of victimhood, or that they are excessively risk averse, and that for one or both of these reasons they are being irresponsible in owning a firearm, and perhaps should be restricted from doing so, but my right to do so should not be abridged because I face a real threat.

One Democratic politician living in the country covered by the gun-map stated that as a result of this publication he felt it necessary to buy a gun.  His logic - every criminal in the county now knows that his particular house is occupied by a guy like the Hatcher whose only method of defense is that used by Monty Python in the great skit on the Inquisition – making the criminal sit in the comfy chair and poking him with soft pillows.  Here, the knowledge of the criminal is key.  Prior to the publication, the criminal had no idea what households were or were not armed to the teeth, and therefore the criminal assumes that each house has some probability of gun ownership.   This acts as a general deterrent for all – gun owners and non-gun owners alike.  (Although my amateurish criminal mind would assume that any house with a Volvo parked in front of it would be occupied by an unarmed liberal who would blame his robbery on “society” and fret over the self-esteem issues of his assailant, surprisingly nearly as high a percentage of Democrats own guns as Republicans, so picking victims based on Volvos versus F-150s is not an effective strategy.)
And guess what?  The general deterrence afforded to non-gun owners from the knowledge on the part of criminals that many households own guns, but the lack of knowledge as to which particular households do, is a great example of  … drum roll please … a positive externality.  The non-gun owning dweebs like me who “use our words” are free riding on the paranoid delusions of the gun clingers!  We don’t have to pay for the gun, or learn to use it responsibly – we just sit back and enjoy a life devoid of violent crime.  A city like Chicago, which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, suffers from significant levels of violent crime – criminals there know that the law-abiding by definition will not own guns, and are easy marks.  Even the Batman massacre occurred at the only one of four or five movie theatres relatively equidistant from the killer that posted an explicit prohibition from bringing in a concealed weapon (which is allowed in the state in general).  Just as when the newspaper published the addresses of all gun owners (and thus non-gun owners), specific prohibitions against firearms provide the criminal full knowledge of where the easy target lay, and the general positive externality of gun ownership vanishes.

It follows that you don’t have to arm all schools in order to have some degree of prevention against another Sandy Hook – you just cannot make it obvious which schools are or are not armed.  In fact, if all schools voluntarily announced their policy vis-à-vis armed security, there is no positive externality – the gunman simply avoids those with armed security, and the threat to those without such goes up.  Right now every sicko knows for the most part none of them are.  In the wake of 9/11, for example, I believe it became policy to have marshals on commercial flights (not sure if they just stepped up resources for this or started doing it for the first time): while it is not feasible to have them on all flights, you get a general deterrent effect by not announcing which flights do and do not have them, and of course for the same reason the air marshals are trained to blend in – they’re not supposed to look like a cop.    
So there you have it – gun ownership has a negative externality, which in isolation suggests that you would want to tax it, but it also has a significant positive externality, which in isolation suggests that you would want to subsidize it.  So the economic logic of whether more or less gun control is beneficial or harmful even ignoring the private benefits to the gun owner himself is ambiguous – it could go either way as to whether the non gun-owners are better or worse off.  There is one economist, John Lott, who has done significant work on sorting out that question, and has concluded “more guns = less crime”, i.e. the positive externality trumps the negative externality (although some portion of that crime prevention is gun owners thwarting an assailant, which technically is a private benefit).  I believe most of his work has held up, although I can’t say I follow it too closely. 

How can I be so cavalier and not look further into the research to make sure he is right?  Because there is the question of what is right and wrong, which in some cases is completely independent from the economic question.  As an example I repeat over and over again, I do not think it is right for government to tax the income of a subset of people to transfer it to another set; I believe this whether or not the benefits to the recipients exceed the costs to those taxed.  (Beyond that, I think the benefits to the recipients are woefully small in comparison to the costs to those taxes, so even on the pure economics of the question it is a bad idea.)  Similarly, the right to protect yourself from violence is way too obvious to have to argue, and if some people believe doing so requires owning a firearm, they should be entitled to own a firearm.  Even if one person’s choice to do so leads on net to slightly increased danger for others, which I don’t believe it does, this does not trump your right to self-protection. 
Clearly we do draw a line at what we allow people to purchase for the purpose of self-protection – to my knowledge no one is legally entitled to purchase a working tank, an armed drone aircraft, or surface to air missiles.  Which brings us to the issue of assault weapons, where the gun control debate seems to always play out.  I confess to no extensive knowledge of the distinctions between assault and other more conventional weapons, but it seems to me we are kidding ourselves that a ban on such weapons would have any effect on massacres of this type – Sandy Hook didn’t rely on them to my knowledge, and even if it did, the killer had enough time strolling the school with no armed resistence to do the same damage with other types of guns.  Banning them doesn’t mean you’ve cut off a supply to those really looking to use them for violence. 

Most gun advocates think that the assault ban weapon is the Trojan horse – once achieved, they’ll come for the next category until finally they’ve reduced us all to defending ourselves with karate.  I think there is reason to suspect that, as many cities have gone that route.  But everyone understands that in rural areas hunting, and the guns necessary for hunters, provide important ecological benefits at no cost to the taxpayer.  That is the irony – in the relative safety of rural America, you can own all you like; in the crime-ridden city, they tell you you can’t.  So where you most arguably require a gun for self-protection, you are SOL.  Cities tend to be liberal in orientation, and as such many liberals are self-selecting to live in communities where they restrict their own rights to self-protection, but they also restrict those who may not live in the best part of town. While this is a shame, when you have a city like Washington D.C. that is 95 percent liberal, at least most people are supportive of the gun ban.
So why the big to-do over assault weapons?  The cynical view is that it’s great for business for both parties.  Each party, I think, probably understands that to ban or not to ban will probably have little to no effect either way, but its value as an “issue” to campaign on – and in particular to raise money on – is gold for each.  It’s the liberal that always picks this fight – which suggests it is one that plays particularly well to the “expressive” voting inclinations of their base.  It feels good to be on a certain side of this issue.  The flipside of that good feeling is the license it provides one the pure sport of scorning those they regard as gun nuts.  Sure, some of them probably believe it would have an effect, and are earnest about their scorn, but for the smarter among them it is an issue that allows them their favorite pastime of parading their tribal superiority.


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