« Freakonomics Radio

114. How to Think About Guns

2013-02-13 | 🔗
No one wants mass shootings. Unfortunately, no one has a workable plan to stop them either.
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Steve Lever. Is my free economics friend and co author he's an economist at the University of Chicago one topic that he studied for years from a lot of angles? Is crime he's trying to figure out which have many potential factors have a big impact on crime rates, more police and more prisons? That's a yes! The economy, mostly a no did. The legalization of abortion, help crime fall generation later. That is a yes he's, also studied guns, gun laws gun by backs Gun crime, Levin, and I were working together in Texas on the day back in December, that a twenty year old Guy Connecticut named
lands are killed. His mother and shot up an elementary school going, twenty little kids and six adults and finally shot himself as horrific is that was as incomprehensibly sad Steve given everything he knows about crime. He wasn't all that surprised. I think by reaction was probably different than other people's reactions, because the thing that I am always shocked by is how few insane people are out there doing mass murders. Not how many are? they're doing less breeders, and so I have sort of a sensitive foreboding? I always expect there to be crazy people out there doing more to send. So I guess I probably wasn't too surprised it's a lot of other people, while you're more surprised when
there isn't much. May him in the world as there is the opportunity for me him to occur. The other way I think about it, when there's one or two people out there year, who just go completely nuts and kill a bunch of people vineyards? but why is it only one or two out? Why is it not eight or ten or fifteen or twenty eight you once you get their fur and the tail it seems striking their them that their We know there are lots of people who were insane. We, We know there are lots of guns and that's a lethal combination. And had been
from W and Y see an ATM american public media. This is for economic, radio podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here's your host Stevens Abner, on today's show a conversation with my free economics, CO, author, Steve Levin, about guns. Now, the? U S has a lot of guns by most estimates at least one gun for every adult, and we have a lot of gun violence in a given here there, roughly eleven thousand gun murders and nearly twenty thousand guns suicides. And then there are the mass killings, like the one in new town Connecticut, makes every one rethink everything they ever thought about guns
how many such killings are there and are they on the rise of depends on how you count in whom you ask mother Jones Magazine recently built a database of mass shootings, four or more fatalities over the past thirty years. Not everyone likes this database that excludes, for instance, all gang shootings and armed robberies, but here are those numbers. Since nineteen eighty two there ve been sixty two mass shootings with a toad. five hundred and thirteen fatalities, or an average about to mass shootings and sixteen and a half fatalities a year now remember, keep in mind there about eleven thousand gun murders each year in total over the past ten years. Those numbers are bit higher about three shootings a year with twenty six fatalities, but two thousand twelve was a very bad years. Seven shootings with seventy two fatalities. More than four,
times the average number of victims in a year from mass shootings. So you can see why this topic has got everyone's attention: here's how Steve whether it makes sense of these numbers if it certainly appears to be the case that these isolated incidents of mass by again. Strangers is going up, but I think we also need to put in the context of the amazing gains we have had in the reduction of crime. Since a peak of homicide that homicide away down their down, almost fifty percent may be more than fifty percent from the peak, come down year after year after year, the number of people who are killed by guns is in the thousands, but the number of people who are killed in these sort of new town type event is really really a small piece of the overall gun violence, so much Morgan Vines is either drug dealers shooting one another spouses?
you're, killing each other friends and family killing each other more generally or he'd killing yourself by means of all the gun violence, would really at the topless suicides gun suicides. The fact is, though, that while gun violence isn't necessarily increasing overalls been relatively flat for the past ten or fifteen years after having fallen a good bit before that, the? U S is more violent than most other rich countries, at least there's more gun damage here than but other rich countries want it. Why do you think there is any thoughts who have more crime in general across the board than many other rich countries? And more specifically, though, we have a lot more guns and other countries, so it is not the slightest. Surprise that when you have as many guns as people in a country that your gun violence will be much higher than a place like the UK a were guns are incredibly spar size. So when you say that one, my immediate
say. Well, ok, if you want to get rid of the violence, you'd need to obviously get rid of guns, but there are some issues with that ray I mean. First of all, guns are not perishable. Unlike Coca COLA or a car, it doesn't deteriorate in any way so gun that exists ten years ago will still exist today. So how do you start to think about if your goal is less the amount of guns lessen the supply of guns. How do you think about doing that? If your goal is to limit the amount of damage done by guns, then, given the fact that guns are a durable goods that will stick around and if, if taken care of well will work for fifty or hundred years, then the first obvious thing you need to think about is that you can't to have policies that only affect new guns right. If you have a stock of three hundred million guns,
Does it really matter what you do with the new guns? If you don't do anything with the guns that are already out there? Okay, so what are the kinds of things that are typically done with the guns are out there, I'm thinking gun by backs? What's your view on the efficacy or lack thereof of a gun? By a gun by banks are one of the most ineffectual public policies that have ever been invented in the history of mankind, so the typical gun buy back. I will offer you know twenty five. Fifty dollars for a goner MA am beauty they offer some. You know we're is one where they offered the Sum fair p could even fair right. I was California Fournier Therapy, if you turned and again, but that the fact is, maybe a thousand guns we'll be turned in an incredibly successful gun by that programme ended successful in the sense that there is a really big.
Out of guns and the mayor or the governor, get to set that pile of guns on fire and it's a great media opportune, but that's two fundamental problems. The first one is that the only people who bring back these you think I'm by banks are people who don't want the guns. In the first place, most of the guns are inoperable their guns. People inherited, they just been NEO natural do them. These are not the guns there. Used to kill people pride. Anyone who has a gun and once it put it to a real purpose, doesn't bring their gun back for the buy back to get exactly the wrong kind of guns, but but more fundamentally, ain't people are confused with respect to how dangerous a particular gun is. If I've done my calculations right, any particular handgun in United States will kill a person about one
every ten thousand years. Okay. So, in order to do in order to prevent one homicide in a year, you would need to get ten thousand guns brought back in a gun buyback. But the thing is you: don't get ten thousand guns and not the guns and used to kill me so the typical gun buyback programme, I would guess, saves a proxy, maybe point.
Zero, zero, zero one lives and I think, that's being optimistic about the size of effect. One of the questions that we posed in our first spoken for economics was simply this: what's more dangerous if, let's say you're, the parent of of young children, what's more dangerous a house with a gun in it or a house with a swimming pool in the backyard. What's the answer that question to answer that question is incredibly easy in these swimming pool is far far more dangerous than the gun when it comes to young children.
So what we did is we looked at the number of child ass. It were due to swimming pools than ever child s. Who do the guns, and then we put it in terms of how often will giving swimming pool kill a child, for us is how often woolly particular gun kill it out, and it turns that the swimming pool is far more lethal in the gun that a given swimming pool is a hundred times more likely to lead to the death of a child. Then a particular guns did lead to the death of a child, and so, I know a lot of parents who would say I would never that my child go over the house of someone who has a gun in the house. But she never knew TAT. I will never let my child go over to the house of someone who has a swimming pool when in fact, that's completely reversed when it comes to the risk that the two products actually have as we have discussed the law on this programme and elsewhere? People are
terrible at risk assessment generally, and we understand why sometimes a math is hard, but also some things are scary than others, and a gun is inherently frightening to a lot of people, especially the kind of people who don't interact with guns at all. So so let me ask you this and were in regards to gun Do you think, then, that reducing gun violence is a goal that should be put front and centre on that say that Let it go agenda, or do you think it's really not as threatening as its being felt to be and made out to me? I think that gun violence is clue in important brought me look at the thousands of people who die you're from it. But the simple fact is that there are no viable political answers to it. I'm so in regard to your precise question
I don't know. I don't think gun values should be on the political agenda and I think it's so hopelessly convoluted and the kinds of policies at people suggest are so obviously not going to fundamentally affect the problem that, while there is The problem, I don't think, there's any way out, given the kind of minimalist suggestions were making, and so therefore, I think we should spend our time on another problems where I think we might have a chance to really make it. If I think about about motives go fatalities and we ve had an enormous impact on motor vehicle fatalities there, surely other policies say related to drunk driving that could seatbelt wearing? That could have a big effect on that
I think for the number of life you could save per my word out of a partisans mouth there dollar spent by politicians is probably a hundred times greater if we think about motor vehicle fatalities than if we think about gun vat, coming up, how optimistic should we be about gun legislation? Anyone with any sent looks at the current political climate thinks about the kinds of proposals that are being made and accepts the fact that none of these proposals are going to have any real impact. It's coming up on for economics,
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We will not work, but I think the policies that can work are once a tight heavy punishment to uses of guns that we dont like so, for instance, laws if you commit a crime- and you have a gun with you, regardless of whether the gun was used, then without any sort of other consideration. We add five years or ten years or twenty years or fifty years to the sentence that you get those kind of laws I guarantee you will work if the incentive system and they tell you dont use guns, then I guarantee you. We will see the number of gun homicides far and number of knife homicides rise, but not one for one that people will sell it. Whoever using guns to kill people using knives to kill people, but it won't be
one for one could knives just an iron is good of a tool for killing people as guns are that will work. I have no doubt that will work. It's worked in California in the past, when California put manner. where he sent him in time for felonies that were committed with guns, but I think the policy has to be one of that nature, where you're not tying it to the gun itself, your tying it to the use of guns that you don't want Levitt. Let me ask you this, so we ve talk before about the hidden costs of thing. Something simple is in a free parking, let's say which in fact generates a lot of hidden costs in terms of pollution and congestion, realist,
values on talk to me for a moment about the fact that you know Modern America is perhaps the freest society in the history of the world in which just about anybody has the right to go just about anywhere and do just about anything within some set boundaries, and that in this very, very free society that perhaps gun violence is simply one of the hidden costs of that freedom and perhaps a we shouldn't be so surprised by a and b it's a trade off that if we want a society like we ve got, it will continue to exist twenty three.
I actually dont completely agree with the part about the freedom, but I think the fact that there are all the guns around is really accidental its if, if guns were just being invented today in the treatment of guns, will be completely different than the treatment we have in this country saw. You know it's. It's part of the constitution has been interpreted very ways, but but I think that there are all sorts of things at you're you're not allowed to do you not allowed to drive really fast in your car and near and not to post a litter and under their many many things, you're not supposed to do, and I think it's really If I may give you another example of accident evening, but why is it that alcohol and cigarettes are go in and marijuana is not? That again is mostly accident. If, if p I have been smoking marijuana regularly for the last, a hundred years and an alcohol had just come
come along and men been on the fringes. There's no way. We say you know, o alcohol should be freely consumed by everyone all the time. So I'm not after making this country into a police state, but but I think that people are kind o act when they they act. Like there's something fundamental about, you know how guns should be part of society I think it's his car historical accident that you live with, but but I think it was deterministic what about from the other side, not people who are defending the right to have guns, but the other side. People who were defending their right to live in a society where other people dont have guns. I wonder how much you think that that's a kind of via a repugnance issue. You know that people who don't like guns, just not like them. They find them repugnant and so much so they now he did not want to engage with them, but they feel that no one should and that people who do or by association repugnant, do you think that's an issue here,
I agree with you AIDS, because people who don't have guns themselves, they tend not to hang out with other people, have guns and consequently, They really are extremely low risk for being the victim of accidental gun, shooting or gun violence, because such a trivial, trivial share of the gun des are of pure innocence, who are being slaughtered by people with guns, and so it is gives way to what you said, which is that there is something else said that either there misinformed about the risk that gun posed them or they feel the repugnance. But for people who don't hang around guns guns are almost certainly one of the least likely sources of death for them. So President Obama, in Spain,
by the really horrible killings in new town, Connecticut, came forward with a plan called now is the time which is meant to curtail gun violence and at its full of the kind of stuff tat. We ve been talking about here that that, according to you, pretty much more accomplish much. Let's say that the Obama administration invited you to become its anti violence tsar for the next few years asked you for ideas on how to cut down on gun homicides in particular. Where would you start What would you tell them in dumb? How would you think about breaking the impasse bird step, a saying? Oh thanks, oh captain, who much more productive things to do than to try to lead a committee like that. I mean I think, from the perspective of having either a big impact on the number of homicides or being cost effective. I think it's a really difficult problem to make any headway. I mean, I think, they're very spent,
two ways to try to have a small impacts offensive in terms of dollars. You mean earns you spend the dollars in time and everything but really dollar, so I mean. Let me give you one example so used to be that we locked up Norman numbers of people into mental institutions and had an over those right or wrong in, and it turned out, though, that we weren't so good at treating those patients and there's a lot of bad public in the end. It is really remark what we used to have more people and mental institutions in this country than we do prisoners, and that number has now swung autonomously ten to one race or twenty one ratio of more prisoners than people in mental institutions, and I think it's probably true that most of the people who carry out these tragic mass shootings are probably at least Ex post described as being mentally ill, and I'm not sure these are people who would have been in. the two most before they committed their act or not, I think, maybe not ours, but just in terms of a glimmer. Of hope- and I am not saying this would be at all cost effective- I think you could revisit the bars
There are other people who are so mentally ill that they cannot function and open society, and should those people be institutionalized, right now, very few of them are institutionalized. Many of them are in the streets. many of them are in a living with their parents, and I again, I don't need the gray palsy, but at least it would have some hope of reducing this kind of gun by
Let me ask you this: in New York State, where Governor Andrew Cuomo jumped out very quickly passed a new gun, LAR set of gonna call the secure ammunition in firearms enforcement act. One component of that is mental health reporting. It requires therapists and social workers to report dangerous patients to the county and the definition of dangerous being quite likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to him or herself or others, and then the county would help to build a database that cross checks. Those people with gun ownership so to summon seems to be a threat and has access to a gun. Then the state would get to know about it. What do you think of this idea? How do you see that playing out limit
in principle, I didn't seem like such a terrible idea, but it certainly seems like it's one of these things that could have unanticipated consequences. So, for instance, let's just say I'm one of these crazy people who has guns and and is thinking about committing a mass murder la I sure, as hell, I'm not gonna- tell my therapist now. If I tell my therapists again, take my gun awaiting a lock me up whatever. So you to the extent that you think that this sort of therapy is at all effective in solving people's problems, making them less likely to carry out these acts in this actually could have exactly the opposite effect. You want, which he sued closes off the ability of that mental health system to have any influence on people's lives, because they're gonna withhold the information that might have been exactly information and that a therapist not charged with telling the state about the problems would have worked through with the client, I remember when you and I first story working together, and we start talking about when you were
be writing about crime and therefore violence and therefore guns, and we start talking about Jeff. Canada's book fist stick knife gun and it led to this conversation. Where we wrote, I am going to read. You live in a couple senses that win that abrading. It might be worthwhile to take a step back and ask a rudimentary question: what is again it's a tool that can be used to kill someone, of course, but more significantly, a gun is a great disruptor of the natural order. I wonder if you could just talk about that for a minute when you think of a gun, disrupting changing the equation of the way that people interact with an fight each other. The way they did hundreds or thousands of years ago, at least how does that as a kind of genome intervening instrument, just change the whole dynamic of the way that people relate to each other or against each other. You might
think that having a lot of guns around would be great for reducing violence if the same theory that works with nuclear deterrent, when you have a weapon that incredibly powerful, no one wants to fight because the costs of fighting our so high they. But why is it in the context of guns? We dont think about guns. Its deterrence, we think about guns is causing the violence in and the idea here, Comes out of Canada's book Fisted knife gun, which answer said one of the best books of ever read in my life, was still in print out just encourage people to go to go, find his fantastically insightful and what Canada talks about is that in the old days in the fifties and Sixtys, when they went them guns run, disputes will be. We saw was fistfight, Sir Army with knives again. The thing is that when you feel it someone who's much bigger and stronger you. You know who's gonna way and if you already know he's gonna win, you don't need to fight, could have you know you gonna lose. Why bother Cato? Actually, in that setting when, when disputes are decided by fighting with your
you don't have to have many fights, because there's no uncertainty but guns have- and this is Canada's point guns really destroy that order, because any body with a gun can beat anybody without a gun right does matter how strong you are, whether your popular unpopular, the gun, basically makes it so that uncertainty of the outcome of the fight is is meant in that actually has the opposite effect of deterrence, because now, if anybody can win the fight, there can be more fights because it's not like you got a certain winner, certain loser, which would mean to you, don't have to fight in the first place. I think that that's a really powerful, I did too subtle idea, but but one that is really at the heart of why guns orally, the violence, but nuclear weapons have not been ever used, since we did at the first time when no one had among this other side to scarce off from using them.
I'd like to hear you leave people with a thought about gun violence general for whether they are gun owners and gun lovers or whether they think that guns are the most abominable thing that was ever invented, no matter what camp urine. When you look at the shooting at an elementary school or these five and six year old kids are killed. No one can be unaffected by that it's the kind of problem. That's got all kinds of tears and and levels and and incentives and all different kinds of peep with all kinds of agendas. What's the way that you would encourage people to think about violence and guns when something like that happens without resorting to the knee jerk positions that gun people on
all sides of the Isle typically resort to. I would just say that anyone with any sent looks at the current political climate thinks about the kinds of proposals that are being made and accepts the fact that none of these proposals are going to have any real impact at all. So if you want to have an impact, I think you have to go back deeper and you have to look at that then, if we're not gonna get rid of guns, but you want to get rid of gun violence. You gotta get rid of the people who are doing violence with guns and by get rid of, I don't mean you know the loud different ways to get rid of them made. One is due to parent better to have society in indoctrinate people into more ample. In one night. I think think those are the ultimate solution on meeting any them are easy. But fundamentally that's where the answer lies right. If you dont have people who have the desire to go, kill large, numbers of other people. Then you have a
my gun vat, and so consequently I that's dimension. If I were forced to start thinking about it, I would be operating on. Given the fact that the work we have three hundred million guns in this country today and my guess, is we're going more than three hundred million guns in this country a hundred years from now, and so you just gotta, live with that hand and substitute constrain.
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Transcript generated on 2021-03-15.