TCS Daily

Guns and Economics

By Pierre Lemieux - February 11, 2003 12:00 AM

In 1998, the new Canadian gun-control legislation started coming into force. The term "force" is not a figure of style. Since January 2001, hundreds of thousands of Canadians have become paper criminals because they did not get the renewable and revocable gun license required to own even hunting shotguns. Since January 1, 2003, hundreds of thousands more, perhaps millions, have been criminalized because they neglected, or refused, to take the steps to register all their guns. A few resisters have already been arrested.

The Auditor General recently revealed that the gun and gunowner registry has cost nearly one billion (Canadian) dollars do date, and counting. Sales of hunting licenses are down, gun shops and shooting ranges are closing. But these are not the main reasons why economists are, or should be, interested in gun controls. The main reason is that economics is the science (or, at least, the discipline) of choice and social consequences.

Guns are an essential feature of the state. From 17th-century political theorist Thomas Hobbes to contemporary economist Mancur Olson, the standard economic justification for the state is that its armed agents can prevent endemic violence, thus making prosperity possible. Whether one likes the state or not, one thing is clear: a state would not be a state without armed agents to in-tervene at some point.

But economics is interested in guns for reasons more directly related to individual choice. Like any other economic good, guns are part of individual preferences. Some individuals want guns and are willing to pay for them. Anything scarce that brings utility (the technical word for satisfaction or pleasure) to, and is chosen by, some individuals falls within the domain of economics. Individuals may express a preference for the state and its armed agents, but these individuals, or other individuals, may also want to own private guns.

From an economic (as opposed to a moral) point of view, why an individual wants guns does not matter. He may like to hunt, to shoot, to plink, to collect guns, to be ready to defend himself, merely to feel secure, or whatever. Preferences are subjective, they vary among individuals, and there is no scientific means to weight one individual's utility against another's.

What about the criminal who wants a gun to rob or kill? Do his preferences also count? Violence is economically inefficient because the victim loses more than the aggressor gains, as shown by David Friedman in his Price Theory (1). Thus, preferences of violent criminals don't count, and we have good economic (besides moral) reasons to want to keep guns out of their hands.

The problem is that there is no way to keep guns out of the hands of criminals without preventing access by peaceful individuals. In fact, gun control imposes a higher cost to honest citizens than to criminals, since the latter already have criminal records and are risking other criminal penalties anyway when they use guns to commit crimes. Note that the full economic argument has two parts, each of which is conveniently neglected by pro- and anti-gun crusaders: on the one hand, gun control does increase the cost of having guns (including black market prices) and, therefore, does prevent some criminals from getting them; on the other hand, gun control increases the cost for honest citizens of protecting themselves with guns. Whether these costs and these benefits can be meaningfully measured and compared will always remain an open question, but both sides of the ledger have to be recognized, which is what the economist is interested in, and trained for.

John Lott's More Guns, Less Crimes provides much evidence for the hypothesis that gun control dampens self-defense and its disincentive effects more than it reduces the criminals' capacity to commit crimes. The (often unfair) attacks that Lott has been subjected to these days don't change the importance of his work. But even if they did, his critics must wrestle with the many other pieces of research reaching similar conclusions.

About the serious critics of Lott, like those who published papers in the Journal of Law and Economics, Don Kates, a Second Amendment scholar, says: "When they did the study over again without the same supposed errors, or using different, and supposedly better statistical techniques, they reached the same conclusions as Lott's as to the value of liberalizing concealed carry."

Anecdotic evidence is easy to come by. For example, after nearly a century of tightening gun controls, and after a few years of total handgun prohibition, the United Kingdom is now facing dramatic increases in gun crimes (+35% during the last year only) (2), and growing fear among its population -- including fear of reporting criminals.

Now, even if gun availability to criminals outweighed the disincentive effects of their potential victims, one would still wonder why forbidding victims to defend themselves should be preferred to a generally higher risk of becoming a victim. At any rate, different individuals may have different preferences.

There is another reason economists should be interested in the right to keep and bear arms. An armed citizenry increases the risk and cost to potential tyrants and, other things being equal, de-creases the probability of tyranny. This explains why all totalitarian regimes forbid, or strictly regulate, private ownership of guns. (3) Public Choice theory, if nothing else, has taught economists to consider the state as it is, not as it should be in a dream world: the state is as potential tyrant, not a benevolent God.

The author of 1984, George Orwell, cleverly wrote: "That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or laborer's cottage is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there."

Professor Pierre Lemieux is an economist and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute (Oakland, California).

1. See Chap. 20 of the webbed version, at

2. "Gun Crime Soars by 35%", BBC News, at

3. See Daniel D. Polsby and Don B. Kates, "Of Holocausts and Gun Control," Washington University Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Fall 1997); at

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