In the wake of the Connecticut tragedy, I’ve been troubled by a host of tweets and Facebook posts by many colleagues, all of which share this essential gist: How much more of this is it going to take before you gun-loving US morons take sensible action?! I say “troubling” because embedded in this sentiment are two fatal flaws that serious social scientists should strive to avoid.

The first issue is the desire to draw conclusions with respect to public safety policy from a single, emotionally-charged incident. To many of my colleagues, it seems “obvious” that banning or introducing tight restrictions on gun ownership will improve public safety. Yet, economists (perhaps better than practitioners in any other branch of social science) know that what seems obvious to many at first glance, very rarely is. And, indeed, when we look carefully (as Joshua does in his post), we find that what we know with respect to gun policy and public safety is indeterminate.

For example, while the number of gun-related homicides have gone down in Australia since the gun ban, the overall number of homicides has not changed (and is now increasing). The same is true in the UK and Canada. Oddly, as the number of gun owners has increased in the US, the number of gun-related deaths has actually dropped. These are only stylized facts – no causal relationships are identified. Still, they suggest the story is not as obvious as intuition suggests – which should come as no surprise to economists (whose skepticism toward common intuition is legendary).

There remains, however, a second issue — namely, pasting one’s own preferences on people from another country with a different culture. (In fairness to Josh, he is very up-front about this.) Because he is afraid of people with guns (and, hence, would prefer to live somewhere with strict gun laws), Josh concludes that people in the US have a greater tolerance for fear. This must imply, therefore, that  Americans have simply fallen into a “bad” equilibrium (his term). Here, my only fear is that he’s succumbed to issue #2 …

First, I grew up around guns. On my thirteenth birthday, I was given my own rifle. It was a coming-of-age present that symbolized the expectation and trust of my community that I henceforth be responsible, serious and adult-like. All of my friends had guns. None were accidentally shot or committed suicide. Friends with guns don’t scare me. Indeed, I would feel very safe in a class knowing that a couple of armed students with concealed carry permits were attending. Alternatively, leaving a law-abiding population defenseless and prey to random street thugs – even if the latter’s weapons “only” include clubs, bottles and knives – strikes me as a policy more deserving of the “fear tolerant” moniker.

Second, at some point during my five years in Australia, it began to dawn on me that it was a place where the governance system moved from having social bosses selected via inheritance to one in which they get selected via elections. From the traditional US point-of-view, this is bizarre – why would anyone not prefer to be their own boss? The US, system – set up by people with a vivid, recent experience of state-sanctioned persecution by the majority – maxed-out on the individual rights dimension. Greater freedom comes with many benefits. It also comes with costs – freedom to fail, freedom to use poor judgment, and so on. How one weights those benefits versus costs is a personal call.

Joshua’s post is almost perfect. He is right on the money in emphasizing calm, dispassionate assessment of public policy in the wake of this terrible tragedy and in presenting an even-handed review of the extant social science on the issue. His intellectual honesty with respect to not getting US culture is also commendable. Where he slips is in suggesting that the choices of those whose preferences he openly admits to not understanding are “bad” relative to his own.  My preference is to live in a community where my neighbors and I are granted maximal leeway to make our own decisions – with eyes wide open to the accompanying costs. That’s not bad, irrational, immoral or even hard to understand. It’s just different.

35 Responses to Or, liberty tolerant, depending upon your preferences

  1. Zebee says:

    It is definitely a cultural thing. For example you say ” I would feel very safe in a class knowing that a couple of armed students with concealed carry permits were attending. Alternatively, leaving a law-abiding population defenseless and prey to random street thugs” and I think eh? Random street thugs?

    I have never been attacked by such, I don’t know people who have been, I’ve lived in some fairly difficult places. It doesn’t occur to me to be so afraid of such that I’d feel good someone in a university classroom was carrying a weapon.

    When I was a kid my mother’s family were graziers so they had rifles and we went rabbit shooting. And target shooting. I have owned guns myself and been a member of a gun club, one of my best friends is a competitive sporting shooter of rifles and handguns. So to me guns are tools and sporting items, the idea of using them against people is unthinkable. To be in a room with someone who has one on them specifically for that job, well that would scare me heaps, not make me feel safe. I can walk through Kings Cross on a Saturday night and not be scared of being knifed, but being next to someone who was intending to kill someone who they thought was going to attack them? That’s a mindset I don’t want to be near. Because how do I know it isn’t me they decide is the bad guy? Or how do I know they won’t hit me when they do go off? Given that presumably trained police in America can hit a large number of innocent bystanders, it’s not a silly question. To me, carrying a gun just in case is a silly answer to a non-question.

    I also find the bosses thing interesting. The Americans invaded a country with massive natural resources where it was sortof possible to do your own thing. Only sortof, no one survives without community. Australians invaded a country where going off on your own was a death sentence. So yes, different.

    I also think there might be some blinders there on American culture. You have PATRIOT, you have TSA, you have Home Owners Associations and councils forbidding vegetable gardens. There seems to be a lot of bossing going on in the USA. Just as there is everywhere else. You aren’t free from it at all. In fact you embrace it by valuing bosses so massively over workers.

    When it comes to the problems a culture has, it does have to be fixed in that culture but seems to me you are saying that it can’t be fixed without doing violence to the culture? That shooting rampages are an inevitable result of the things you value and so must be accepted? The way that developed nations accept the road toll?

  2. Note also Megan McArdle’s warning that there may be no path to a better equilibrium – sometimes, nothing can be done.
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/17/there-s-little-we-can-do-to-prevent-another-massacre.html

  3. CraigM says:

    Michael I agree with your basic premise on personal preference, because this is what we observe from people’s choices. But it is natural to question and compare such choices, particularly those that are seen to have broader affects. And so particularly here. On issue #2, there may be a dimension to the comparisons being made that you are missing. You say that gun related homicides have declined in Australia, while others have increased. But such a comparison may ignore how many people do not view homicides as all the same. Such views are consistent with the very strong reactions to these recent homicides. Obviously it is because they were mostly children. In this way, people may judge a society as less desirable if it permits personal choices that may contribute to more homicides that are less acceptable than others. This should not seem surprising when we note how many societies have, in one way or another, deep concerns about the means and timing of death.

  4. @mdryall says:

    @Zebee I completely respect your view. The last year we lived in Melbourne, about 3 years ago, vicious beatings of innocent people by drunken hooligans was becoming an epidemic. Not only were they common, but people often died. My wife definitely wouldn’t go out alone on a weekend night. The point is, I just don’t share your preferences. It’s important to be honest about that and, when we put on our social scientist hats, not to confuse our own preferences with all that is right and good.

    Of course, I completely agree with you about the exploding role of government in the US. And, as you would expect, I don’t like it.

    The point of Josh’s post and the first part of mine is that the connection between restrictiveness of gun policy and public safety is indeterminate. It really is. So, you are incorrect to assert that the things I value imply the inevitability of shooting rampages or, more generally, negative effects on public safety overall.

    • alister says:

      “@Zebee I completely respect your view. The last year we lived in Melbourne, about 3 years ago, vicious beatings of innocent people by drunken hooligans was becoming an epidemic. Not only were they common, but people often died.”

      To use the words “epidemic”, “common”, and “often died” is bafflingly nonsensical. None of what I’ve quoted you saying above can be described as true.

  5. @mdryall says:

    @CraigM Yes, you could very well be right. I imagine that if we asked people which they prefer: A) a gun ban that would guarantee no shooting rampages forevermore, or B) loose gun laws that resulted in a statistically significant improvement in overall public safety — many would choose A.

    Again, folks are free to have whatever preferences they want. I am very clear on the fact that my preferences are only best for me. I’d pick (B) and, if the science on that was indeterminate, I’d default to the let-people-make-their-own-decisions policy.

  6. Sam Wylie says:

    Mike, its good to hear a well argued libertarian perspective.

  7. @mdryall says:

    Thanks, Sam. I recall our discussions about individualism versus collectivism with great fondness. Have a wonderful holiday season.

  8. CraigM says:

    Yes, I agree this is a great insight on the libertarian perspective. I think an interesting bit of daylight opens up if we note that, the libertarian default seems to suggest the mistake of continued rampages, but preserving people’s right to decide something, is the superior mistake to make. Whereas the non-libertarian prefers to make the mistake of taking away the right to decide something, but risk continued statistically significantly lower overall public safety. If most people chose A, then they would be agreeing to risk the non-libertarian mistake. Unless we don’t trust people to express their choice wisely, such a majority would be a collective value-judgement about the risk-adjusted return from the two choices, would it not? As a non-libertarian, I guess I don’t weigh that particular personal choice very heavily; like seat belts, it seems like it’s worth it. But I am happy that others out there care so much about such things, because I think the risk of creeping collectivism is real.

  9. Tom says:

    “For example, while the number of gun-related homicides have gone down in Australia since the gun ban, the overall number of homicides has not changed (and is now increasing).”

    But the number of intentional homicides in Australia remains more than four times less per capita than that in the United States. I’m not sure why trends are discussed over and above underlying rates here.

    “My preference is to live in a community where my neighbors and I are granted maximal leeway to make our own decisions – with eyes wide open to the accompanying costs.”

    The accompanying cost of this leeway appears to be a considerably increased murder rate, even if we only attribute some fraction of the difference between the US and other OECD countries to lax gun laws.

    What are the benefits of “gun rights” to US citizens? Beyond the symbolic decision to own a gun, what are the decisions that gun ownership enables for you or your neighbours?

    While I found this post interesting, it still read as argument by anecdote. Having owned a gun, or known others to have owned guns, without killing is irrelevant – even less so than the plausible hypothesis that the Newtown massacre wouldn’t have happened if the killer hadn’t had ready access to assault weapons.

    • @mdryall says:

      @Tom You seem to have completely missed the point of the anecdotes. They are examples of my own preferences, not arguments in favor of unrestricted gun ownership. Indeed, I am saying the opposite of what you appear to have inferred – i.e., that statements of personal preference have no place in scientific arguments with respect to social policy.

      The benefits one gets from gun ownership are not symbolic. For me, again speaking only for myself, it is the peace of mind it provides in knowing I have the ability to defend against people who may wish to do violence to myself, my family, my property, my students, etc. You are, of course, free to feel differently.

      In terms of the science, what the data say is that when guns are confiscated from people, other forms of homicide go up (and, as well, other violence and property-related crime). The net effect on average public safety is zero. So, you are simply incorrect to assert that the accompanying cost of allowing people more leeway in gun ownership is a “considerably increased murder rate.” The data do not support that.

      Comparisons of US crime level with levels in other countries don’t permit us to conclude what you seem to think they do. Unlike Australia, the US is diverse beyond imagination – the levels of heterogeneity in income, education, culture, race, etc. is simply immense. Thus, there is no guarantee whatsoever that a gun ban would close the violence gap – it may simply be that the US is structurally prone to lots of violent crime with or without guns. That’s why the change in rate comparisons are interesting.

      • Tom says:

        Thanks for your response, Michael.

        The UNODC Global Study on Homicide 2011 reveals that two key underlying factors in homicide rates are development and economic inequality.

        Adjust for these and I’m sure that some of the complexity you cite (and that BillS, below cites concerning Switzerland, Brazil, South Africa and Russia) will be cleared away.

        Regarding your peace of mind, I have found several peer-reviewed articles concluding that gun ownership is a net risk to personal safety.

        http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/160/10/929
        http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2008.143099
        http://ajl.sagepub.com/content/5/6/502

        Clearly, the current level of public safety in the US and the factors that appear to correlate with the level of safety of different groups (specifically, gun owners) is not any guaranteed indicator of how that level may change in response to legislative change.

        So I acknowledge that “there is no guarantee whatsoever that a gun ban would close the violence gap – it may simply be that the US is structurally prone to lots of violent crime with or without guns”.

        However, it must be said that there is, equally, no guarantee whatsoever that a gun ban would not close the violence gap. The best evidence you’ve produced is that there might be zero net improvement to average public safety.

        What I’d conclude from this is that a gun ban would be a politically troublesome, but practically cautious policy, backed by considerable peer-reviewed research and not refuted by any (that I’ve found), with a lot of potential upside.

        What do you conclude?

        • @mdryall says:

          Tom, this point, I think, exemplifies the thesis in my post. Intellectually honest, coldly objective social scientists must agree that the data on this issue is inconclusive. You and I both agree on this point. I wish I could point to some conclusive evidence that guns improve public safety. While there is evidence consistent with that, it is not conclusive. The same for the other side of the argument. For now, we’re done with what the science says — it says nothing one way or the other.

          Once we hit “evidence inconclusive” all we are left to argue over is our preferences. This was the point of my post. You can’t agree that the evidence is inconclusive, understand what that means, and then go on to say that a gun ban has “a lot of potential upside.” What you are really doing at that point is asserting your preference: in spite of the inconclusive evidence, you would feel better in a community where the government used its coercive power to confiscate everyone’s guns. Hey, that’s perfectly fine. No one can say you shouldn’t feel that way any more than they can tell you you shouldn’t like to consume lamingtons.

          Apparently, your utility function places much less weight on personal liberty than mine does. I like living in a society in which people are given wide berth to make their own decisions. I understand that this comes at a price because some people will inevitably make bad decisions. In particular, a society that provides everyone the right to adopt the most effective means possible to protect themselves, their families and their property is one that lives up to that ideal in a very meaningful way. I’m not trying to argue you should share this view, I’m just explaining how I feel about it.

          • Tom says:

            “Apparently, your utility function places much less weight on personal liberty than mine does.”

            I regard that as untrue. I have no desire to own a gun – the ‘freedom’ to do so is meaningless to me – but the gun ownership of others reduces my personal liberty.

            I was recently assaulted by two men, one of whom threatened me with a glass bottle, and it’s easy to imagine how terrified I would have been had this man been holding a gun. The argument that I could, in these circumstances, ‘empower’ myself by also carrying a gun is absurd. I would be bullied by my own fears into doing so.

            For the most part, the restrictions placed on citizens by the law do not curtail liberty – they protect it.

            I grudgingly accept your assertion that there’s no absolute certainty a gun ban would reduce the homicide rate, either in the US as a whole (unlikely) or on a state by state basis (possible, but probably undermined by trafficking across state borders). Of course, there are some strong reasons to think that specific incidents would not have occurred if a gun ban was in place.

            However, I most certainly don’t accept your philosophical stance on this issue. I see it as a sharply different – culturally different – interpretation of the nature of liberty. I suspect that there may be ‘freedoms’ I would choose to defend, where you might argue in favour of regulation.

            In short, I suspect there is no overriding, wide-ranging ideal of liberty to be defended here.

            “I understand that this comes at a price because some people will inevitably make bad decisions. In particular, a society that provides everyone the right to adopt the most effective means possible to protect themselves, their families and their property is one that lives up to that ideal in a very meaningful way.”

            While I agree the data are inconclusive as to the question of whether a gun ban would reduce the homicide rate, they seem quite conclusive as to whether gun ownership increases or reduces personal safety. I did provide you with three reputable studies each of which concluded that on average, gun ownership is correlated with reduced personal safety, including adjustments for geography and demographics.

            So while you may be better able to protect yourself and your family with a weapon on hand – it’s hard to know for sure – it’s surely unwise to recommend this course of action too widely.

          • @mdryall says:

            @Tom Dec 20: At this point, I’m afraid I’m just going to start repeating myself. So, a couple of closing comments on my part.

            You are correct in concluding that our notions of liberty are unreconcilable. Up until recently anyway, most Americans would find the claim that society needs to limit individual liberty in order to preserve liberty to be preposterous on its face. Most Europeans, Canadians and Australians would hold an opposite, collectivist view, such the one you put forth. As I said in my post, there is little point in arguing over which is better. People’s preferences over forms of social governance are what they are.

            Second, I am well aware of the papers the findings of which appear to support gun control, including the ones you cite. At the same time, I am aware of their serious limitations and, as well, of the numerous studies whose findings appear to support liberal gun ownership laws. My advice is that you do a search for papers of latter type rather than only those that help you advocate in favor of your own preferences.

            Although the gist the majority of the comments here is to challenge my own preference for greater individual liberty, the original post was primarily about the conduct of effective social science and intellectually honest public policy debate. A broad and objective review of the literature on gun control indicates that, not only is there no “absolute” certainty (as you put it) that a gun ban would improve public safety, there is no certainty whatsoever.

  10. BillS says:

    Intentional homicide rates

    Switzerland: 0.7 per 100,000 population
    Australia: 1.0 per 100,000 population

    Switzerland has anywhere from 3 to 4 times more civilian guns per capita compared to Australia.

    Brazil, South Africa, and Russia are all estimated to have fewer guns per capita than Australia. Violent crime is not exactly low in those countries. Estimates of guns per capital in Mexico are similar to Australia.

    I know that it seems very intuitive to think that gun ownership is the major contributor to violence, but a crime usually does not result from one factor alone. Poor economic circumstances, ethnic tensions, and broken family structures may actually play a much larger role than we might think.

    The starting point of honest debate about gun ownership should not take place under these circumstances while we are still overwhelmed by the emotions of a recent human tragedy. The use the feelings generated by a particular tragedy to push a particular agenda seems a bit tactless, even if that agenda is a noble one. The tragedy itself is but one data point (and one that has not even been fully observed yet) and I think that all reasonable people who think logically can agree that one data point by itself does not change the discussion on gun control in any meaningful way. That would mean that a logical debate for/against gun control can take place without the immediacy of this human tragedy in the background.

  11. Sancho says:

    The usual talking points have been covered, so I want to home in a couple of neglected elements in this debate.

    SUICIDE

    The matter of suicide has so far been passed by with one statement from Michael that none of his gun-owning friends shot themselves deliberately.

    That anecdote doesn’t change the fact that access to guns correlates strongly with successful suicide attempts and that accidental and self-inflicted gun deaths outnumber firearm homicides in the US by a factor of three.

    Unlike the tiresome red herrings the gun lobby likes to throw around about mass-murderers using bombs or knives to achieve their goals if they can’t buy guns, the link between gun access and suicide is logical and well-established.

    Not only is a bullet in the brain a far more reliable method of suicide than wrist-cutting, jumping or overdosing, but it gives no chance for reflection or a change of mind. All the people – and there are many – who got to the brink of death but couldn’t continue using slow methods of suicide would be dead if they had access to a gun.

    Even though the focus is on murders, the real life-saving benefit of gun control is in preventing people ending their lives in one moment of acute distress.

    Unsurprisingly, the research demonstrates that gun control reduces suicide rates:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10706163
    http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/1736081/reload=0;jsessionid=PpfxZLykHYsCJIk92P72.12

    FEAR

    Michael’s comments about fear of guns reflect the profound lack of self-awareness behind the gun lobby’s arguments and actions, because they require us to believe that someone who needs a gun to feel safe is less timid and fearful than someone who is aware of the same risks but doesn’t want bullets added to the mix.

    The trope assumes that supporters of gun control are foolishly unaware that violence exists and would want guns if they understood how dangerous the world is; as though people who object to gun proliferation aren’t informed by the same newspapers and television that so effectively convinces conservatives that they’re living in the End Times.

    The Tea Party Nation recently published an article about the Newtown massacre advising that “had George Zimmerman been at the front door instead of some mechanical card reader those children would still be alive”.

    Yes. George Zimmerman. That’s the gun lobby’s model for a calm, regular citizen who can sensibly assess threats and provide a reasonable response.

    In 2002 I was out late with two friends when a couple of cars pulled up and a group of men got out to attack us – no warnings or threats or demands. There was a fight and I ended up with a broken finger, two black eyes, a busted tooth and a lot of bruising. The police said we were lucky not to have been stabbed.

    Michael Ryall would regret not having a gun in that situation. I’m glad the attackers didn’t.

  12. @mdryall says:

    Happy to respond to a serious post without the preachifying and invective.

  13. Sancho says:

    Yes, you can ignore facts and evidence if you don’t like the way they’re phrased.

    Didn’t take long for the pro-gun side of the argument to collapse into huffy sanctimoniousness.

    • @mdryall says:

      Correct. I am free to ignore the arguments of those who I deem unserious about carrying on a balanced, dispassionate discussion about a serious issue. As for huffy sanctimony, you might want to go back and take a look at your original post.

      Most of the responses here have been negative with respect to my view and I have responded to almost all of them, trying to seriously engage their facts & logic. Those folks clearly posted in the spirit of exploration and honest exchange of views in both directions. Your post fails that test.

      Post your thesis in a thoughtful, dispassionate form that suggests an openness to other people’s point of view, and I will happily engage you. Otherwise … speak to the hand :)

  14. msar22 says:

    My partner teaches at a public school in the rough outer West. Trust me, you do not want these kids carrying concealed weapons.

  15. msar22 says:

    Just re-read that sentence: “I would feel very safe in a class knowing that a couple of armed students with concealed carry permits were attending.”

    To qualify my previous statement I do not think they should have guns on their desks with a permit in their pocket either. The argument in favour of against teens having access to guns in class would also suggest that more mentally ill people having them is a good thing. Teens share poor impulse control and emotional regulation with people with the kinds of mental illness prone to violence. I seriously hope that comment was facetious.

    • @mdryall says:

      I should have indicated that I teach at a graduate school of business where the average age is late 20’s. Concealed carry permits are not issued to teenagers or mentally ill people.

  16. msar22 says:

    Thank you for clarifying – in the context of a Senator arguing that the Principal should have gone ninja with an AK, and the fact that this statement was in a paragraph describing your experience getting a gun when you were 13, and then growing up around guns this was unclear.

  17. msar22 says:

    Also I think the debate here is about school shootings moreso than elite graduate school shootings.

  18. BillS says:

    I am personally very afraid of guns and gun-carrying people. However, I am reminded of a military study by an American general named Marshall in World War II. He found that only 15 to 20% of soldiers would fire their weapons at enemies in combat. Even more surprising was that this firing rate remained constant over long periods of time. Think about that for a second. These soldiers were in situations where they had to protect their own lives and the lives of their friends. Their enemies were shooting at them. The conclusion was that there is a very strong natural human aversion to shooting guns at other human beings even when their own lives are threatened.

    This led to the evolution of military training techniques that involved something close to operant conditioning. The soldiers began to train by firing at targets shaped like human beings that would fall down upon being hit. The firing rates continued to improve until they reached something close to 90% in the Vietnam War. Similar studies have been done on the rate at which police officers fire their weapons and training techniques.

    As much as I would personally like all guns to disappear, I wonder what percentage of people would be willing to shoot me. If I were a Nazi soldier who had been shooting at them for a few months, approximately 15% of their parents would have fired back at me. As a regular law-abiding guy with a bad haircut, I am not nearly as big a threat to their lives. I would hope that the number would be more microscopic. Then again, we do live in a society that has been greatly desensitized to violence, so perhaps that firing rate would be much higher in today’s America. If this is true, then perhaps increased gun control is the answer. But to which question? If gun control truly is a necessary step to curb violence, then I think that society has deeper fundamental issues than just guns.

    I will admit that I am quickly losing faith in humanity, so perhaps the day is coming when I will advocate gun control. Until then, I will personally choose to obsess over other fears, such as the loss of the principle of mens rea in the courts.

  19. Chris Lloyd says:

    Mike. I can understand why Americans might want guns, given that most of their fellow citizens also own guns. But you seem to imply in your post that the violence around clubs in King Street could be somehow mitigated if we Aussies all carried guns. Or are you saying that you personally would feel less threatened walking down King Street?

    Allowing citizens to carry guns is not an issue of personal preference as you suggest. It is a public policy decision, like making crystal meth illegal. While pointing out that the econometrics is unclear on the relationship between guns and murder/injury rates, you then resort to a cultural defense of your preference.

    The point you do not mention is why the automatic weapons are necessary. Would you feel safer in class if one of your class mates had one of these???

    You also do not mention the more common argument that Americans make in favour of guns, namely defending themselves from oppressive government. Americans seem to be brain-washed into thinking the Government is their enemy. I have many American cousins and they all spout this paranoid guff. In your time in Australia did you ever think we could have had better government if we carried guns?

  20. I’m not sure I really understand your post Michael. You make a number of critical points, and I take the following a indicative quotes.

    1. “The first issue is the desire to draw conclusions with respect to public safety policy from a single, emotionally-charged incident”
    2. “When we look carefully (as Joshua does in his post), we find that what we know with respect to gun policy and public safety is indeterminate”
    3. “I would feel very safe in a class knowing that a couple of armed students with concealed carry permits were attending. Alternatively, leaving a law-abiding population defenseless and prey to random street thugs – even if the latter’s weapons “only” include clubs, bottles and knives – strikes me as a policy more deserving of the “fear tolerant” moniker.”
    4. ” My preference is to live in a community where my neighbors and I are granted maximal leeway to make our own decisions – with eyes wide open to the accompanying costs. That’s not bad, irrational, immoral or even hard to understand. It’s just different.” Which I read as a somewhat sugar-coated way “I have a personal preference for no firearms regulation”.

    On point 1. I agree, although there is no shortage of these emotionally-charged incidents, which together make an interesting data set (see here for example http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map?page=2)

    On point 2, this is simply a classic problem faced by economists analysing policy in the real world – lack of controlled experiments. But by itself it is not an argument against gun control.

    In fact point 2 is really critical (and I assume the main point of your post). So we don’t know with 100% certainty that a particular type of firearms regulation would increase ‘public safety’ compared to another degree of firearms regulation. Nor do we really know what the costs of firearms regulation in terms of utility (which depends on preferences).

    So either the effect will be positive, negative or there will be none at all. We are pretty certain that the effect of tightening firearms regulation will not have a negative effect on public safety. However we are uncertain whether how positive it will be (how far from 0 effect).

    What to do in this circumstance? Wait for conclusive evidence? If it is so hard to come by, exactly how would anyone ever actually achieve this level of scientific perfection you seek before making changes to regulation?

    Or should we take a chance that tightening firearms regulation might help reduce murder rates, suicides, accidental deaths, and generally increase public safety, even if there are some offsetting uses of other weapons?

    Because if you really believe the evidence is inconclusive, you should be very open to the possibility that the public provision of a semi-automatic pistol to every person on their 18th birthday would be a good public policy, because it would decrease crime, murder, and accidental deaths. And I mean every person, not just the people in an imaginary world that know right from wrong perfectly and would intervene appropriately with their own weapon.

    If you think that is an outrageous, then you essentially believe that tight firearms regulation would be an effective measure to improve public safety.

    Point 3 is completely illogical. For the simple reason that the students carrying concealed weapons are equally likely to be the ones who intent to massacre their classmates. Also, as BillS points out, the odds of someone actually trying to shoot their assailant is low, and the odds of them actually preventing deaths by incapacitating the killer, without causing accidental deaths themselves, is minute. We are not all Jason Bournes in disguise.

    Or, the same argument would be that all countries should have nuclear weapons, because only then we would be safe. Or do you think only the ‘good guys’ should have them? In which case you would logically agree with tight firearms regulation, where only police, military etc have the firepower.

    Point 4 essentially gives away your ideology and makes a mockery of your point 2, and the rule of law in general. Laws, by nature, are limitations on personal freedom for the good of society as a whole. There is, theoretically, no difference between the law that allows you to own private property and exclude others (reducing their freedom), a law that arbitrarily prohibits certain drugs, and a law that prohibits certain firearms. By sugar-coating I mean you use the phrase “maximal leeway to make our own decisions”, which has no relevance here, since the debate itself is an argument over what this maximal point is, that corresponds to the best interests of others.

    Finally, I have no idea what your second last paragraph means.

    1. “The first issue is the desire to draw conclusions with respect to public safety policy from a single, emotionally-charged incident”
    2. “When we look carefully (as Joshua does in his post), we find that what we know with respect to gun policy and public safety is indeterminate”
    3. “I would feel very safe in a class knowing that a couple of armed students with concealed carry permits were attending. Alternatively, leaving a law-abiding population defenseless and prey to random street thugs – even if the latter’s weapons “only” include clubs, bottles and knives – strikes me as a policy more deserving of the “fear tolerant” moniker.”
    4. ” My preference is to live in a community where my neighbors and I are granted maximal leeway to make our own decisions – with eyes wide open to the accompanying costs. That’s not bad, irrational, immoral or even hard to understand. It’s just different.” Which I read as a somewhat sugar-coated way “I have a personal preference for no firearms regulation”.

    On point 1. I agree, although there is no shortage of these emotionally-charged incidents, which together make an interesting data set (see here for example http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map?page=2)

    On point 2, this is simply a classic problem faced by economists analysing policy in the real world – lack of controlled experiments. But by itself it is not an argument against gun control.

    In fact point 2 is really critical (and I assume the main point of your post). So we don’t know with 100% certainty that a particular type of firearms regulation would increase ‘public safety’ compared to another degree of firearms regulation. Nor do we really know what the costs of firearms regulation in terms of utility (which depends on preferences).

    So either the effect will be positive, negative or there will be none at all. We are pretty certain that the effect of tightening firearms regulation will not have a negative effect on public safety. However we are uncertain whether how positive it will be (how far from 0 effect).

    What to do in this circumstance? Wait for conclusive evidence? If it is so hard to come by, exactly how would anyone ever actually achieve this level of scientific perfection you seek before making changes to regulation?

    Or should we take a chance that tightening firearms regulation might help reduce murder rates, suicides, accidental deaths, and generally increase public safety, even if there are some offsetting uses of other weapons?

    Because if you really believe the evidence is inconclusive, you should be very open to the possibility that the public provision of a semi-automatic pistol to every person on their 18th birthday would be a good public policy, because it would decrease crime, murder, and accidental deaths.

    If you think that is an outrageous, then you essentially believe that tight firearms regulation would be an effective measure to improve public safety.

    Point 3 is completely illogical. For the simple reason that the students carrying concealed weapons are equally likely to be the ones who intent to massacre their classmates. Also, as BillS points out, the odds of someone actually trying to shoot their assailant is low, and the odds of them actually preventing deaths by incapacitating the killer, without causing accidental deaths themselves, is minute. We are not all Jason Bournes in disguise.

    You seems to bring an assumption that only perfect law-abiding well trained people would have guns in your scenario, but street thugs and so forth would have knives, clubs and bottles. You were prefer a shoot out on the street over a knife fight, glassing or clubbing?

    I would love to see the statistics on gun crimes prevented by bystanders or victims with guns.

    Or, the same argument would be that all countries should have nuclear weapons, because only then we would be safe. Or do you think only the ‘good guys’ should have them? In which case you would logically agree with tight firearms regulation, where only police, military etc have the firepower.

    Point 4 essentially gives away your ideology and makes a mockery of your point 2, and the rule of law in general. Laws, by nature, are limitations on personal freedom for the good of society as a whole. There is, theoretically, no difference between the law that allows you to own private property and exclude others (reducing their freedom), a law that arbitrarily prohibits certain drugs, and a law that prohibits certain firearms. By sugar-coating I mean you use the phrase “maximal leeway to make our own decisions”, which has no relevance here, since the debate itself is an argument over what this maximal point is, that corresponds to the best interests of others.

    Finally, I have no idea what your second last paragraph means.

  21. @mdryall says:

    Thanks to all who posted. The discussion has been enjoyable and made me miss Australia. Normally, I think of myself as a reasonably clear writer, but a number of the people posting here seem to have misunderstood the point of my post. Therefore, please allow me to make a couple of clarifying comments. Happy to read additional replies from readers but, after this, I’m done here.

    First, the purpose of my post was not to push my preferences for gun policy. Rather, it was to advocate the practice of good social science. As such, the post consists of two parts.

    In Part I, I commend Gans (whose personal views are opposite my own) for being honest about the social science with respect to gun policy. To repeat myself, what a dispassionate review of the data indicates is that restrictions on gun ownership appear to have no effect on the overall rate of violence in society. I realize this flies in the face of common intuition. However, as an economist trained to be skeptical of common intuition, these findings are not surprising. Indeed, it is not hard to think up several hypotheses as to why this might be true.

    This means that, to the best of our present knowledge, the stark public safety choice is essentially whether homicide victims should be stabbed or shot to death.

    In Part II, I say that, therefore, we are down to pointless arguments over preferences. I openly reveal my view that law-abiding citizens should have access to the best technology available to protect themselves, their families and their property from those who wish to harm them. This revelation is *not* intended as an argument against gun restrictions. Most readers here do not agree with me on this, nor do I expect them to. Rather, it illustrates by example that gun bans are not costless. They involve taking rights away from people who actually value those rights.

    On this dimensions, good social scientists avoid either intentionally or inadvertently dismissing, ignoring or denigrating the preferences of some subset of people with whom they personally disagree. Doing so does not make the aforementioned costs go away and, therefore, nor does it make for sound public policy.

    Safe and happy holidays to all my Australian friends!

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