The San Bernardino massacre unleashed an all-too-common phenomenon: literally (and I am using the word properly) before the bodies were even cold, politicians, pundits, and the hoi polloi (especially on Twitter) were using the atrocity to advance their own preferred narrative. The most common of these on the left was the gun control narrative. Hillary Clinton was one of the first off the mark to use San Bernardino to call for more stringent gun control measures. You know, before anyone–most notably one Hillary Rodham Clinton–knew anything about what had happened, beyond the fact that more than a dozen people had died. Obama was actually somewhat reserved, by his standards on this issue, and unexpectedly soft-pedaled his gun control message in his Oval Office speech on Sunday. But on the left the gun control drum was pounded for all it was worth, notably in a New York Times front page editorial.
Mass shootings like San Bernardino and Colorado Springs catalyze a flurry of calls for further restrictions on gun ownership, though these calls are frequently lacking in specifics, and are often more like ritual acts and political signaling of right-thinking (or should I say left-thinking?) views than concrete proposals. Moreover, mass shootings also unleash a volley of bad and misleading statistics. So bad, in fact, that those using them are almost certainly doing so in bad faith.
This phenomenon is not limited to activists, or the left generally. Even allegedly reputable mainstream publications like The Economist also peddle agitprop. The MO is to claim that mass shootings occur almost daily in the US: when brought up in the context of a Newtown or Aurora, the clear intent is to suggest that these types of mass shootings are representative. But even a cursory look shows that this is definitely not the case.
The mass-shooting-a-day statistics are based on a very expansive definition of mass shooting, such as three or more victims (not necessarily fatalities). Moreover, they lump together a very heterogeneous collection of episodes, which differ materially from the mass shooting events like those that have occurred in San Bernardino and Colorado Springs. For instance, they include gang drive by shootings or the likely gang-related shooting at a park in New Orleans 3 weeks ago. They also include a brawls at biker bars and other such criminal mayhem involving more than two people.
The one-size-fits-all term “mass shooting” doesn’t fit such varied phenomena, and one-size-fits-all-policies are unlikely to work either. Indeed, even the most deadly mass shootings that get the most attention, are highly idiosyncratic. Newtown is very different from Colorado Springs is very different from San Bernardino is very different from Charleston is different from Fort Hood in terms of the perpetrators, methods, and targets.
Contrary The Economist’s risible claim that “such atrocities are still drastically underreported,” the attention that they get may arguably overstates their importance. The Newtown-type attacks kill about as many Americans in a year as the average daily homicide toll. The United States does have a high murder rate (both gun and non-gun) compared to other high-income nations, although the rate has about halved in the last two decades.
Furthermore, murder, including murder with firearms, is not uniformly distributed across the US. To the contrary, it is highly concentrated geographically, and demographically. The statistics are quite shocking.
About 75 percent of murders occur in 3 percent of the counties in the US. Demographically, the concentration is even more pronounced. It is not exclusively, but overwhelmingly, a young, black, male phenomenon. The white murder rate is about 2.5 per 100,000. That’s roughly double of European rates, but not nearly as anomalous as the US rate overall. Indeed, white murder rates outside the South and Southwest are pretty much the same as European rates.
The truly horrific rates are among young black urban males, with especially high rates in Southern cities. Whereas the US firearms homicide rate is about 4/100,000, among African American men 20-24, it is almost 90. Yes: more than 22 times higher. Even black women in that age cohort have a high rate, 7 per 100,000, or about 5 times the white female murder rate.
In sum, gun laws are fairly uniform across the United States, and gun ownership is widespread, but gun murder is not: if anything gun laws are most restrictive in places where gun crime is most rampant. Therefore, relatively easy access to guns is not sufficient to explain America’s elevated (compared to other OECD countries) murder rate. The regional and demographic variation shows that cultural and socioeconomic factors are important drivers. (The fact that non-firearm murder rates in the US are high compared to other countries, and also exhibit similar geographic and demographic variations reinforces this point.) Again contrary to The Economist, it is not true that “the link between guns and gun violence” is obvious. There are a lot of guns where there’s not a lot of violence. Guns don’t exercise a malign mesmeric effect on anyone who touches them. There is a mixture of social and cultural factors and guns that produce violence.
This tends to undercut the proposition that increasing restrictions on gun ownership will have much of an impact on murder rates. That said, even if other factors drive murder rates, greater restrictions on guns could still be beneficial: guns are complements to these other factors in the production of violence, including mortal violence, and the taxation of complements can be a way of reducing the frequency and severity of bad conduct produced using them.
But it is highly doubtful whether any remotely politically possible law–that is a law that would not have large effects on the hundred million-plus law-abiding gun owners in America, many of whom are very politically active–will have a meaningful impact on the pathologies that inflict many communities in the US.
In brief, it is evident that those who commit crimes with guns are highly inelastic demanders. Most of the high-murder rate localities already have draconian gun control laws, which include substantial penalties for violations. Furthermore, those most likely to kill (and be killed) with firearms are engaged in illegal conduct (e.g., drug dealing) that is subject to severe legal sanctions, and believe that guns are necessary for them to engage in this conduct. Thus, those most likely to kill with a firearm possess them despite the fact that they incur a large cost to do so. Further restrictions are unlikely to induce them to adjust on either the intensive or extensive margin (e.g., by changing “careers”), because they will lead to only small increases in the cost they incur to possess and use weapons.*
(Those bent on mass mayhem, be they terrorists, or psychotics, or narcissists looking for fame, or racist losers looking to spark a race war, are also likely to be inelastic demanders. These acts are the productive of obsessions that will drive those in their grip to go to great lengths to circumvent any attempt to prevent them.)
And we know prohibitionism doesn’t work. It didn’t work with alcohol in the 20s and 30s. It hasn’t worked with narcotics for decades. It doesn’t work with guns now, even in places like France, where terrorists clearly have had no problem obtaining deadly arsenals. (Take a look at reports of how many guns French and Belgian police seized in raids in the days after Friday, November 13.) The world is awash in guns. Guns that are quite functional for criminals are quite easy to manufacture. (Anybody remember the days when “Saturday Night Specials,” not Glocks or AKs were the bane of society–back when murder rates were far higher, by the way?) Those who think that passing laws against guns, including outright bans, will keep them out of the hands of those most likely to commit crimes with them–including mass murder–has their eyes closed to reality.
It is also ironic that many of those who are most vocal in calling for draconian restrictions on guns are also loudest in their condemnations of how the burdens of drug prohibitionism fall most heavily on minorities, who are imprisoned at high rates for drug crimes. Whom, pray tell, do they expect will be most frequently imprisoned for gun possession or trafficking, given that the same demographic is responsible for a greatly disproportionate fraction of gun crimes?
It should also be noted that minority communities are not enthusiastic about gun control, and for understandable reasons. Gun laws in cities like Chicago and DC are (a) almost wholly ineffective in curbing gun crime, and (b) render law-abiding people, mainly minority, defenseless against the (illegally) armed predators that live among them.
Americans recognize all this for the most part. Even though Obama and Hillary and others on the left furiously attempt to exploit any mass slaying to advance the gun control agenda, a solid (and growing) majority of Americans disagree. Indeed, they tend to vote with their wallets: a mass shooting, and political posturing about gun control, is followed by a spike in gun sales as surely as day follows night. Some wags have suggested that Obama must own shares in Ruger and Smith & Wesson, because he is so good for business.
The gun debate has become repetitive and sterile, more of a political Punch & Judy show than a constructive conversation. It is particularly appalling that innocent victims are seldom no more than political props in these debates.
Gun murders, which range from crimes of passion to political terrorism, are too diverse and complex to be addressed with simplistic, one-size-fits-all solutions. Prohibitionism, or draconian restrictions that approach prohibition–to the law abiding–despite (or is it because of?) its popularity on the left, is particularly counterproductive.
Murder, including murder by firearms, has declined substantially in the past 20 years. We should be grateful for that, and focus on ways to extend that decline: revising drug laws and punishments is likely to be a more productive way to do this than revising gun laws. But progress will at best be incremental. And the most difficult area to make progress will be mass shootings, given the extreme motivation of the perpetrators, and the diversity of their motives.
* This is related to the “Mickey Mouse Monopoly” effect that Walter Oi wrote about years ago. Oi noted that the demand for tickets to Disneyland was highly inelastic because the ticket itself contributed a relatively modest amount to the total cost of going to Disneyland. For everyone but locals, trip to the park required extensive travel (e.g., a plane trip or long car trip), lodging for several nights, dining out, etc. If the price of a ticket represented say 10 percent of the total cost of the trip, doubling the cost of a ticket only increased the cost of the entire trip by 10 percent. This made the demand for tickets inelastic. If the demand for a visit to Disneyland had an elasticity of 1, the demand for tickets had an elasticity equal to 1 times the share of a trip represented by the ticket. So if that share was 10 percent, the elasticity for tickets was only .1, meaning that Disney could raise ticket prices substantially without reducing the number of visitors much at all.