An Economic Analysis of the Costs and Benefits of Restrictive Gun Legislation in Addressing the Issue of School Shootings
Adam Posner, Class of 2015
Weis College House
October 5, 2014
Originally from the Philadelphia suburb of Haverford, PA, Adam is an entrepreneur, an avid investor, and a BOS Major. He plans to continue his ventures post-college, and is thrilled to have had the opportunity to write on a non-business related topic for the Junto Society.
In the ten or so seconds that it took for me to read the title of this paper, an average of seven background checks were processed for the purchase of a firearm in the United States.1 While not necessarily an exact measurement of gun purchases, this average of nearly twenty-five hundred background checks per hour, or almost sixty thousand checks per day, provides at least a rough estimate of the trend of gun purchases in America. These statistics, especially when combined with the estimated 270 to 310 million guns already on American streets2, paint the picture of a gun-forward American society.
While the above statistics certainly have implications and relevance to the vast expanse of gun-related issues in the United States, I wish to narrow my focus to the increasingly pressing topic of school shootings. Since the infamous 1999 Columbine High School shooting, thirteen “mass school shootings”, defined as having at least 3 or more fatalities, have occurred in the United States.3 Six of these shootings have occurred in the last two years alone. Despite the fact that mass shootings “account for one tenth of 1% of all firearm related homicides in the United States”4, they are frequently the source of the most media coverage5, and often spark the most notable levels of national debate. Members of the Franklin and Marshall community recently experienced a microcosm of the conflicts associated with guns in an academic environment during the year-long, campus-wide decision as to whether or not the F&M police should carry firearms. Debates such as those surrounding the F&M decision, especially when held on a national scale, generally present anecdotal evidence in an attempt to provoke an emotionally charged, or philosophically based, position on guns.
The images, for example, of the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, during which crazed youth Adam Lanza shot and killed twenty kindergarten-aged children and six adults, are enough to draw a strong emotional reaction from almost anyone, and potentially lead to a demand for an increase in restrictive gun legislation. At the same time, incidents such as the Pearl Mississippi High School shooting, during which a student’s shooting spree was brought to an end by a faculty member who fortunately had a handgun in his car6, might draw a different emotional response in favor of passing legislation to make it easier for civilians to have access to firearms.
As humans, it is in our nature to develop emotionally-charged reactions to events such as the ones described above in an attempt to seek a legislative solution to the tragedies of school shootings. As The New Yorker’s Andrew Solomon expressed, “our impulse to grasp for [these arguments] comes… from a more basic need… to make sense of what seems senseless.”7 As a strong proponent and advocate of gun rights and gun protection, I believe, from a purely philosophical perspective, that the Federal Government has no authority to institute gun legislation, and that State Legislators should strongly favor protecting gun rights. In economics, however, we are trained to treat emotional feelings such as these as irrelevant when attempting to evaluate a situation. Instead, we learn that we must assess decisions by considering both the economic costs and economic benefits of each outcome, and selecting the option that provides the greatest net benefit.
Even I, an active member of the National Rifle Association, do not pretend for even a moment that guns do not have tremendous costs on society. In each of the examples mentioned above, guns serve to provide both costs and benefits to the outcome of the situation. As an economic and quantitative thinker, however, my question, and the question that will drive the remainder of this essay, is whether restrictive gun legislation has a net benefit or a net cost on the frequency and severity of school shootings. To state clearly, my answer to this question, and consequential thesis for this essay, is twofold: first, restrictive gun control legislation fails to achieve the potential benefits that such legislation might provide, and second that access to firearms is an affective way to stop school shootings, and is prevented by restrictive gun control legislation. When combined, these two contentions reveal an overwhelming net cost associated with restrictive gun control legislation.
To begin, I will discuss the three primary categories of restrictive gun control legislation, namely purchaser-oriented, weapon-oriented, and behavior-oriented, and will explain how each one fails to provide its intended benefit. First, a core and fundamental flaw of purchaser-oriented gun control legislation, or legislation that attempts to dictate who can and cannot purchase a gun, is that it simply does not prevent intended shooters from obtaining a firearm. While many of the firearms used in past school shootings were legally purchased, someone other than the legal purchaser used them to commit the shooting. Adam Lanza, for instance, used guns that he stole from his mother’s cabinet to assault Sandy Hook Elementary School. Interestingly, even if he did not have access to these guns, Lanza would have been able to purchase the rifle that he used in the killings perfectly legally. As Washington Post columnist Emily Miller points out, even “if [Lanza] had tried to buy a rifle, he would have passed the… background check because there’s nothing in his records preventing him from owning a firearm.”8 In other words, even in Connecticut, a state that according to a detailed 2013 Guns and Ammo analysis is the fifth strictest US state in terms of gun control legislation, such legislation would not have prevented Lanza from obtaining a firearm capable of inflicting such devastation9.
Not only does purchaser-oriented restrictive gun control legislation not prevent school shooters from obtaining weapons, but legislation that focuses on restricting certain kinds of weapons yields similarly outstandingly useless results. As a high-school summer intern working in the Federal Public Defenders Office of Southeastern Pennsylvania, I was astonished by the fact that firearms that have been outlawed for many years (such as fully automatic pistols, fully automatic assault rifles, and military-style heavy machine guns; all of which are completely illegal in every state in the United States) were involved in nearly every case I observed. While this story undoubtedly falls into the category of small-sample, anecdotal evidence that I previously mentioned, large-scale statistics confirm the rampancy of my personal experiences. According to a 2012 report from the Attorney General of California, an estimated twenty percent of the guns used in violent crimes belong to a category of firearm that is illegal to purchase or own.10 In other words, even in California, a state that ranks as the third strictest state for gun control according to the previously cited Guns and Ammo study11, guns that are made illegal by restrictive gun control legislation are still owned and still used by violent criminals to commit violent crimes.
A third category of restrictive gun control legislation that is equally as ineffective as the first two, is legislation that attempts to govern the locations and ways in which guns are used. The most notable and applicable example is the fact that every single K through 12 learning institution, and almost every single institution of higher education in the country are all so-called “gun free zones”. To state this more plainly, every single school shooting that has occurred since 199012 has taken place in a physical area in which restrictive gun legislation does not allow guns. As economist and renowned gun expert John Lott proposes, “Consider a criminal who is intent on massacring people… he would unlikely be deterred by any penalties for violating… gun free zones… that only serve to deter law-abiding citizens.”13 Dr. Lott’s argument is clear: legally defined “gun free zones” are completely impotent as a deterrent for intended shooters from taking siege on schools because the consequences of such actions are simply irrelevant to a crazed killer. To restate, even when legislators pass gun control legislation that makes it illegal for anyone to use guns in certain areas, guns are still used in those areas by criminals.
At this point, I would like to briefly recap what we have seen so far. First, purchaser-oriented restrictive gun control does not prevent intended school shooters from obtaining weapons. Second, weapon-oriented restrictive gun control fails to keep guns that are deemed “illegal” from being used by criminals to commit crimes. And third, behavior-oriented restrictive gun control is completely useless at preventing killers from using guns in schools. In other words, restrictive gun control legislation simply does not provide the benefits that one would typically associate with addressing the frequency and severity of school shootings.
What, then, does restrictive gun control legislation do if it does not provide benefits? The answer is that such legislation has tremendous costs for school shootings. Each of the three types of restrictive gun control discussed above serves to prevent law abiding citizens from obtaining the means to defend against school shooting attacks.
Purchaser oriented restrictive gun legislation may hinder law abiding citizens from obtaining a firearm in a timely fashion, and therefore may deter them from obtaining a firearm at all. Weapon based restrictive gun control legislation prevents law abiding citizens from obtaining the same type of weaponry that criminals are able to acquire, and consequently prevents them from being adequately equipped to defend from attacks. Lastly, behavior oriented restrictive gun control legislation has the greatest cost on school shootings because such legislation ensures that only criminals will have access to firearms in places such as schools, and renders the law abiding citizen defenseless against such attacks. In short, restrictive gun control legislation undoubtedly keeps law-abiding citizens, or as I like to call them the “good guys”, from having access to firearms when they would be of best use.
At this point, while it would be convenient for me to transition into a conclusion and call it a day, I am quite confident that you are not convinced, not yet at least, of a fundamental cornerstone of my argument that has been an assumption thus far in addressing the costs of restrictive gun control legislation. Namely, that it is a good thing for the so-called “good guys” to have access to the same type of weapons, and be able to use these weapons in the same places as criminals. More specifically, do we really want law-abiding citizens to be able to do these things, and is the fact that restrictive gun control legislation prevents them a true cost? The answer to these questions is a clear and unquestionable ‘yes’. In order to prove this point, I will rely heavily on the extensive and well respected multi-decade long research of economist John Lott, as well as some of the conclusions in several of his technical books and reports.
An excellent reference for the effect of gun accessibility on school shootings is an examination of the passage of right-to-carry laws, or laws that allow approved citizens to carry a concealed firearm, and their affect on mass public shootings. In More Guns Less Crime, Dr. Lott discusses some of the findings of his research on this very topic, and explains:
Even after accounting for the factors that we have used in other estimates, when different states passed right-to-carry laws during the twenty-three years we studied, the number of multiple-victim public shootings declined by a whopping 67 percent. Deaths from all these shootings plummeted by 75 percent, and injuries by 81 percent.14 In other words, when states pass legislation that makes it easier for law-abiding citizens to have access to guns, both the frequency and severity of mass public shootings decline tremendously in those states. Not only did the number of mass shootings fall after the passage of such laws, but the mass shootings that did occur in those states saw significantly fewer victims in terms of both injury and fatality. Importantly, states that did not pass right-to-carry laws saw either an increase or a steady trend in the frequency and severity of mass public shootings during the same period.15
The question becomes why did the passage of such laws have these dramatic effects? First, the decline in the frequency of the attacks may be due to what economists call “the deterrent effect”. As Lott explains, “Say the probability that a victim has a permitted concealed handgun is 5 percent. That will raise the expected costs to the criminal and produce some deterrence. Yet,” Lott continues, “if one hundred adults are present,” as is the case in a mass shooting, “the probability that at least someone there has a permitted handgun is near 100 percent.”16 Put another way, when a criminal evaluates a potential mass shooting opportunity, he could be deterred by the fact that his intended victims might have the means to defend themselves with an item such as a concealed handgun. Interestingly, this argument is frequently cited as the reason why mass public shootings are conducted almost exclusively in “gun free zones”.17
The second potential source of the dramatically positive effects of the passage of right-to-carry laws is that armed citizens can stop a shooting attack long before police can arrive, and can consequently drastically limit the carnage that the shooter can inflict. According to a detailed 2010 FBI report on active shooter situations, the limits of police capabilities in many cases “make a 20- to 30-minute response time [to an active shooter situation] an optimistic best-case scenario; in reality, it may take 45 minutes to an hour before authorities arrive.”18 While these figures describe more extreme examples, the average response time is not far off19. In the amount of time that it may take for police to arrive at the scene of an active shooter situation, the shooter will already have caused a tremendous amount of damage. Instead, the severity of mass public shootings may have been reduced by the fact that armed citizens were more able to defend themselves against shooters after the passage of right-to-carry laws.
While the specific research that I have cited in the last few paragraphs uses data from mass public shootings in any venue, the key takeaways can be applied more narrowly to mass school shootings in particular. The fact is, when law-abiding, responsible citizens have easy access to firearms, the frequency and severity of school shootings will be reduced. Moreover, the fact that restrictive gun control legislation prevents, or at best limits, this from happening is a clear and unmistakable cost of such legislation.
I began this essay by contending that restrictive gun control legislation has an overwhelming net cost on the frequency and severity of school shootings. To do this, I first demonstrated that each one of the three categories of such legislation simply does not achieve its intended benefit, especially in the context of preventing school shootings. Next, I showed that gun control legislation has severe and distinct costs for school shootings. When combined, the absence of benefits and existence of costs reveals and concludes that restrictive gun control legislation has an undeniable and irrefutable net cost on the frequency and severity of school shootings.
With this conclusion in mind, what does this mean for society and legislators going forward? If I were in charge (and I’m sure many of you are thinking to yourselves “thank God he’s not”…), I would do the following. First, I would immediately lift the “gun free school zone” policy. Let me be clear, however, this is not to say that anyone and everyone gets to walk around schools with any gun they choose. Instead, it would simply mean that people of a certain age with approved and issued licenses to carry firearms, such as myself, would be able to conceal their weapons on a school campus as they already can elsewhere. I believe that allowing adults such as teachers and school administrators to exercise this responsibility would yield similar results for school shootings as right-to-carry laws yielded for other types of mass public shootings.
Second, I would avoid legislation that focused on tightening any of the three types of restrictive gun control, and would instead attempt to identify and address the reasons that could possibly lead to someone feeling motivated to open fire on a school. As explained in a report from the American Physiological Association titled Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy, “violence is associated with a confluence of individual, family, school, peer, community, and socio-cultural risk factors that interact over time during childhood and adolescence.”20 Taking a holistic approach to the issue would target these influencing factors, and might prevent potential shooters from getting to the point of taking action. More specifically, such legislation would aim to provide access to mental health care, would attempt to address issues such as parental education of violence in video games and pop-culture, and would seek to provide teachers and other school administrators with the resources to identify and address potential threats before they occurred.
Look, there are simply very few acts that are as heinous and devastating as the massacre of children, especially in a setting as unique and extraordinary as a school classroom. The bottom line is that school shootings are a real and pressing issue that we as a society face today. We must, however, be willing to set aside our tendencies to rely on emotional and philosophical arguments in solving this problem, and instead use the objective economic and quantitative data to seek a solution, and to ensure the safety of our nation’s children.
1 The Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2014). Total NICS Background Checks. Retrieved from: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/nics/reports/1998_2014_monthly_yearly_totals-070314.pdf
2 The Congressional Research Service. (2012). Gun Control Legislation.
4 American Psychological Association. (2013). Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy.
5 United States Secret Service. (2002). Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States.
6 Lott, J. R., (2003). The Bias Against Guns.
7 The New Yorker Magazine. (2014). The Reckoning: The Father of Sandy Hook Killer Searches for Answers. Retrieved from: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/03/17/140317fa_fact_solomon
8 The Washington Times. (2013). What Would Have Prevented Lanza from Mass Murder at Sandy Hook? Retrieved from: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/nov/25/adam-lanza-shooting-sandy-hook-elementary-school-n/?page=all
9 Guns & Ammo. (2013). Laws for Firearms: Best States for Gun Owners in 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.gunsandammo.com/2013/03/14/ga-ranks-the-best-states-for-gun-owners-in-2013/
10 California Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General. (2012). 2012 Firearms Used in the Commission of Crimes. Retrieved from: http://oag.ca.gov/sites/all/files/agweb/pdfs/publications/firearms_report_12.pdf
11 Guns & Ammo Magazine. (2013). Laws for Firearms: Best States for Gun Owners. Retrieved from: http://www.gunsandammo.com/2013/03/14/ga-ranks-the-best-states-for-gun-owners-in-2013/
12 Since the passage of the Gun Free school zones act of 1990
13 Lott, J. R., (2010). More Guns Less Crime. Page 323
14 Lott, J. R., (2010). More Guns Less Crime. Page 196
15 Lott, J. R., (2010). More Guns Less Crime. Page 196
16 Lott, J. R., (2010). More Guns Less Crime. Page 197
17 Lott, J. R., (2010). More Guns Less Crime. Page 322
18 The Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2014). Those Terrible First Few Minutes: Revisiting Active Shooter Protocols for Schools. Retrieved from: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/September-2010/shooting-feature
19 The Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2013). Addressing the Problem of the Active Shooter. Retrieved from: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/2013/May/active-shooter
20 American Psychological Association. (2013). Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy. Page 16.