Can firearms legislation ever work?

Some years ago I wrote a report on gun violence in the US. It was intended to discuss issues the pundits on both sides choose to avoid when speaking of gun control. Let me first say that I am at once a gun advocate and a reasonable gun control advocate. There is a way to marry the two if we understand and accept that the safety of all people is paramount because in as much as Americans have the right to “keep and bear arms” they also have, by Declaration, the right to life.

American rights are individual. The capacity one has to exercise those rights in any way deemed acceptable under law is necessarily limited when they interfere with the rights of others. Americans have an obligation to respect one another; to not unreasonably prevent others from enjoying a fulfilling life. Though no one group may inhibit any right without due process the need for restriction is greatly reduced when common respect is applied.

It is useful to understand laws as an expression of the agreement members of a society have about how they will live in harmony. They describe general concepts that make the understanding of prohibited behavior easier. Still, there is risk in simply applying laws in the social context. Often, theft is described as taking something without permission. However, that is too simplistic. If one borrows a ladder without permission but with the intention to return the property, is that theft? Obviously, there is an implication about representation of ownership in the law that may not be specifically stated. We may conclude that laws are simplistic representations of complex agreements. What is the implication of this understanding on the gun debate? Perhaps it is more complex than the special interests would have Americans believe.

Clearly understand that the rights described in the Declaration and the Constitution are fixed and unquestionable unless and until those contained in the latter are amended. Therefore, on the issue of gun ownership everyone with an opinion must accept that when the US Supreme Court upheld the “right” it ratified the Second Amendment effectively closing the debate as it is presented today. Gun ownership is a right while reasonable gun legislation is permissible, simple. The difficulty comes from the unreasonable positions held by special interests on both sides of the argument.

So with ground rules in place I would say that it is trite to make the assertion that, “Guns don’t kill people, people do” because at least during 2006, some 512 people were killed accidentally by guns in America. However, according to the FBI, 656 people were intentionally killed by blunt instruments. For this reason, it is equally simplistic to lay the blame for all homicides at the door of gun owners because again, according to the FBI, the crime statistics for 2011 homicide deaths break down as:  Firearms: 67.8%; Knives or other cutting instruments: 13.4%; Personal weapons (hands, fists, feet, etc.): 5.7%; Blunt objects (clubs, hammers, etc.): 3.9%; Other dangerous weapons: 9.2%. These statistics hide a difficult realization that intent is far more significant than means. For example, between 1976 and 2010 homicides committed by handguns fell by 30%. Homicides by other guns fell only 17% in the same period. The decline in handgun killings is matched or bettered by knives and blunt objects (45% and 34% respectively) whereas other objects, which includes fists, declined by only 15%.

One interpretation of these numbers may be that the difficulties associated with homicides resulting from long guns and person-to-person contact may indicate the true nature of intentional violent death. If this is true, then clearly certain impulsive responses suggested by the other statistics have much to answer for and reasonable controls should be considered to try to mitigate the obvious risks. I believe this was the original intention behind early federal gun legislation. Still, there remains the potential that the gun debate continues to compare “apples and oranges”. To be fair it would be useful to determine how many American households own for example a baseball bat. To avoid being closely comparable to all firearm deaths that number would need to be significantly less than 20.5 million bats and 65 million for “other gun” deaths.

In any case, in my report I argued that however well intentioned, gun control legislation does not work. It fails in large part because at its heart it ignores the reality that those intent upon committing crimes have little or no intention of complying with any law. An individual is a criminal because he or she broke a law not because he or she broke a gun law. It is a false assumption that laws make use safer. They simply make it easier to identify and prosecute criminal activities. To an extent, federal gun legislation is aimed at managing the risks associated with impulse not criminality but the special interests focus the argument on the emotional response to crime not the underlying problem of self-control.

As the following study suggests, this subject is bigger than political promises and moral posturing because in its present form the $3.60 financial penalty for killing an individual, something that may occur only once in a lifetime, is ludicrously small compared to the annual $183 each American household spends on firearms legislation and enforcement.

The Price of a Bullet Should Equal Its Cost

Copyright (C) 2009 David Breslin all rights reserved

Homicide is one to the ten leading causes of death in the United States[15]. In 2006, more than twelve thousand of those homicides were the result of gun violence[15] the implication being there are too many illegal guns available through the black market. The easy availability of guns has rendered current firearms legislation so marginally effective that Americans may receive more value for their justice dollars if the failed legislation were to be abandoned and those dollars spent instead on bullet control.

It is useful to begin by assessing the current situation using available data as well as an assessment of the effectiveness of existing gun control legislation. The enormity of the gun violence problem may be seen in the data describing firearms fatalities and other related injuries. Generally, there is an annual average of 30,000 firearms related deaths in America[9]. This includes approximately 9,000 homicides[14]. However, averages suggest annual variations. For example, during 2004, 11,344 people were killed by firearms in the U.S.[12] while in 2006 the number was 12,791[14]. Based on the current U.S. population, this average equates to a firearms death rate of 3.69 per 100,000 persons in the population. This compares unfavorably with countries such as: Australia (56 deaths), Canada (184 deaths), England (73 deaths), New Zealand (5 deaths), and Sweden (37 deaths), and demonstrates that the U.S. population is the most heavily armed population in the world. In fact, the combined death rate from firearms for the countries listed excluding the U.S. is only 0.30 per 100,000[12]. Importantly, it is estimated that 85 percent of all guns used in violent crimes were not used by their legal owners[14].

These data suggest that there are hidden and immeasurable criminal statistics relating to gun violence that the justice system can handle only through deterrence. Non-specific legislation enacted in response to violent incidents is expensive and potentially ineffective. Nevertheless, such legislation is routinely adopted because there is a so-called knee-jerk reaction to gun violence today that views increased anti-gun legislation as the solution to the threat of firearms related crime.

The extent to which gun control legislation may be ineffective is determinable from the amount of such legislation. The Federal Firearms Act of 1934 was the first federal law enacted. It was a response to the gun related crime waves of the 1920s and 1030s and imposed restrictions on the manufacture and sale of machine guns, silencers, sawed-off shotguns and the like[2]. The 1934 Act was followed four years later by the 1938 Act that added the requirement for dealers to be federally licensed[2]. There was little change until the 1960s when in response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968[10][2]. This was an effort to prevent the sale of guns to felons, drug addicts, insane persons, and similar groups. In 1986 the McClure-Volkmer Act weakened the existing legislation save for a late amendment banning the further manufacture and sale of machine guns[10]. The 1990s saw perhaps the most active period for gun control legislation. 1n 1993 the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act established a five-day waiting period between gun purchase and delivery[2]. In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act imposed a ten-year moratorium on the manufacture of assault weapons[2]. In 1996 the Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control act stopped the sale of guns to persons convicted of domestic violence[2]. Fundamentally, federal law currently prevents the sale of guns to juveniles, fugitives from justice, felons or those under felony indictment, drug abusers, mental patients, illegal aliens and those who have renounced U.S. citizenship, anyone dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, convicted of crimes involving domestic violence, or subject to court orders restraining them from stalking, harassing, or threatening an intimate a partner or child[10]. Interestingly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that the intense period of legislation in the 1990s was mirrored by an escalation in firearms related crime[15]. It is noteworthy however, that after a peak in 1996 the statistics returned to the average identified earlier.

According to the BJS, Americans paid $213.7 billion in 2005 for the criminal justice system at all levels of government[16]. With a population of 307 million, of which 79.8 percent are in the tax payer age range that equates to $871.58 annually for every person filing an income tax return that year. Based on the U.S. Census 2000’s estimate of 105.5 million households in the U.S.[17], this may be seen as an annual contribution to protection per household of $2,025.33. Firearms related crimes are estimated by the BJS to account for 9 percent of all U.S. violent crimes[14]. Therefore, the annual cost per household for the justice system in this category is $182.28.

Clearly, these numbers are astonishing yet they do not include the costs associated with gun violence that go beyond those of the justice system. According to Philip J. Cook and Jens O. Ludwig the estimated total cost of medical care of gunshot victims adds approximately $2.3 billion annually. There is however, no way to estimate the costs associated with lost incomes from victims and the personal emotional losses experienced. For these reasons it is necessary to accept the assumptions contained in Cook and Ludwig’s work in any assessment of cost benefit analysis of gun control legislation.

According to G. Burrows in “The No-Nonsense Guide to the Arms Trade” approximately 347 million firearms were produced between 1945 and 2000[8] of which an estimated 192 million are presently held privately in U.S. households[10]. It is important to note that this statistic does not include firearms owned legally by government entities, which adds another 150 million to the total[11]. It seems ironic that the total number of privately held firearms in America represents 55 percent of the total number of firearms manufactured during that 55-year period noted above.

Each year, approximately 14 billion bullets are manufactured worldwide[1]. The retail price for a 9mm round of ammunition in the U.S. is approximately 30¢[13] which is comparable to the black market price of a 7.62x54r AK-47 round[1]. It is noteworthy that the black market discounts against the U.S. retail price by up to sixty percent. Reasonably, it may be claimed that 30¢ is the average cost of any round of ammunition commonly used in criminal activities. Based on these estimates, the total retail value of all of the bullets available worldwide each year is $4.2 billion. Therefore, Americans gun owners potentially spend $12.03 on ammunition per gun per year.

Arguably, inasmuch as the average annualized gun related deaths have not varied in response to legislation that legislation, the bulk of which fundamentally targets legal gun owners, has failed to achieve its purpose. This failure would seem logical in that only 13 percent of gun related crimes involved weapons used by legal owners[14]. Legislating against the law abiding would seem redundant even if public opinion continues to cry out for more. This should be obvious because, “Criminals already get access to guns on the black market. Since criminals are scofflaws, and given the number of guns already in circulation, it is fair to conclude that no amount of new gun control laws would deny criminals access to illegal guns”[11]. If legislation is ineffective because criminals are typically intent upon ignoring the law, is there an alternative? Is there a way to make it less economically viable to commit crimes using firearms?

The Oxfam study suggests that it takes between four and twelve bullets to kill a person[1]. This yields a present cost in bullets of between $1.20 and $3.60. In 2006, the University of Utah quoting statistics from the BJS indicated that unintentional deaths from firearms crimes stood at four percent[12]. Therefore, the cost in equivalent bullet dollars of those deaths was $354 on the assumption that each victim was killed by only one stray bullet. In real terms, this means that the American public spends 72 percent more on firearms legislation per victim then it cost to kill those victims.

Arguably, if regulation of guns does not work, the regulation of bullets may offer greater opportunities for success. Obviously, bullets must be purchased to be used. Of course it is naïve to believe that criminals will legitimately purchase their ammunition at their local gun dealer but even assuming they opt for black market sources, they still must be purchased. Obviously, it would be difficult to identify the proportion of bullets acquired via this route. Therefore, any effort at bullet legislation must account for that market’s potential.

Key in establishing meaningful ammunition legislation is an understanding of why people commit crimes. Using social theory, it may be reasoned that it stems from an inability and/or unwillingness to see the benefits of adherence to conventional social behavior[4]. In simple terms, criminals seek better economic advantage through crime. This modality offers insight into a means to combat the default use of guns. Specifically, make it less economically beneficial to engage in firearms violence by vastly increasing the price of ammunition. Necessarily, this requires the government to continue to legislate against the law abiding. However, the automobile industry suggests a method of overcoming this trap. Commonly, sales of expensive automobile engine components like alternators, starter-motors, and cylinder heads benefit from a credit called the core value. The core credit is given in exchange for the damaged unit as a means to offset the price. This theory could conceivably be employed in the sale of ammunition.

Returning again to the amount paid annually by Americans to fund the justice system’s control of firearms gives a total of $19.23 billion[15][14]. Levying a surcharge at the wholesale price point that, adjusting for the black market discount, would at least equal this amount would raise the price of a single bullet to $4.59. Obviously, such an increase would be punitive on responsible citizens wishing to purchase ammunition for legal purposes but the core value model establishes relief. Crediting users a proportion of purchase price for returned round casings would encourage an accurate accounting of bullets used as well as a reduction in ammunition purchases not intended for immediate use. Clearly, it would be wise to employ a serial number system per round that also would be logged against the user in an ammunition database to ensure that bullets are maintained securely and only used casings that were purchased were returned. The creation of such an ammunition database would not violate the federal prohibition on the creation of a national firearms database.

The reinvention of firearms legislation in such a model would immediately shift the responsibility for prevention to the gun owner where it belongs. Failure to properly account for all purchased ammunition would instantly suspend the user’s firearms license and prevent that user’s future purchase of ammunition. Economically, the advantage is taken from the criminal as wasted rounds become expensive. Consider the worst case scenario identified by the Oxfam study. In such a case the price of the kill would be $4.59 while the price of the eleven misses would be as much as $50.50. Taking the economic advantage away from the criminal in this way may help to reduce or eliminate the four percent of gunshot deaths attributable to such wasted rounds.

Legislating against wrongful use of ammunition properly focuses the intent of firearms related laws. To echo earlier comments, criminals who are intent on disobeying the law will always find a way to obtain and use illegal weapons. However, by ensuring the price of each bullet is equal to its cost such legislation would discourage the opportunistic use of firearms in crimes.

References

 

 

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