The Economist: Economic arguments about gun control

I’m leaving the country for a month, so it seems like a good time to write on what must be the most controversial subject in the country today – gun control. Economists are supposed to present objective data, not look for facts to support preconceived value judgments. I’ll do my best.

I grew up in small town Arkansas, down near the Louisiana border. My uncle was an enthusiastic hunter and fisherman and we occasionally had the opportunity to eat fried squirrel, gamey venison and maybe an occasional possum. When I moved to Colorado I learned why Arkansas venison was so gamey. It was hunted by men (yep, always men) sitting along a game trail, swigging bourbon and waiting for the dogs to drive the deer by so they could blast away.

My Colorado hunter friend pointed out that if you don’t kill the deer with the first shot, it is frightened and releases musk (I think) into its body, which is what produces the gamey taste. Since his elk and venison were exquisite, I assume he knew what he was talking about.

My father wasn’t a hunter but he had lots of medals for his shooting prowess in his National Guard days. One night during the racial problems of the 1960s I was shocked when our car was involved in a traffic jam in a poor neighborhood and he unlocked the glove box and took out a loaded pistol. I don’t think he could have shot another human being, but I was appalled that he was prepared to do so.

He was also an avid gun collector. When he died I found myself the uncomfortable owner of a dozen or more rifles and pistols. I gave them all to a friend except for a Spanish American War pistol carried by a relative, and my father’s prized target practice pistol. They are both decommissioned, framed and hang in our living room.

I eat all kinds of meat – beef, lamb, pork, chicken. But, I tell my vegetarian grandchildren that my meat doesn’t come from cuddly lambs and cute little pigs and chickens. It only comes from plastic packages at the supermarket. They reply that if I’m not willing to kill the animal myself, I shouldn’t eat it. Fortunately, that isn’t a decision I have to make.

Enough personal background. Now for some facts.

• There are 300 million guns in private hands in the U.S., almost one for each of us.

• In the past 40 years, about 1 million Americans have been killed in gun violence – more than the combined U.S. deaths from all the wars it has fought since 1917.

• In the month following the murder of 20 children and six teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school, another 900 Americans were killed by guns.

• An average of 46 Americans a day commit suicide with a gun, accounting for 53 percent of all completed suicides.

• A gun in the home is associated with an increased risk of suicide and the increase in risk is large, typically two to 10 times that in homes without guns.

• Among OECD countries, only Mexico (18.1) and Estonia (5.2) have a higher intentional homicide rate than the U.S. with five per 100,000 population. Canada has 1.8, England has 1.1. Germany has 0.8. Japan has 0.5.

• Since the founding of our nation more than 200 years ago, there has been no occasion when we have had to use assault rifles and high capacity magazine clips to protect ourselves from our government.

The Second Amendment to our Constitution clearly ensures the right to keep and use guns. A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

It is for constitutional lawyers to argue whether “shall not be infringed” refers to assault rifles and high-capacity magazine clips. It is for the American people to decide, as we did with slavery (13th Amendment), the right to vote (15th and 19th Amendments) and prohibition (18th and 21st Amendments), if we believe an amendment about gun ownership and control is needed.

Correlation is not causation. But rational decisions are best made on the basis of the evidence.

Categories: Economy/Politics