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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Can Gun Control Work?

Is Eliminating Gun Ownership a Desirable Policy Goal?

Can Gun Control Work? is a first-rate addition to the literature on gun control. The book is not an attempt to advocate either side of the debate. Instead, it is an analysis of whether various types of control can achieve their stated objectives, especially reducing violence and crime. Jacobs concludes that gun control cannot work, by which he means it cannot effectively keep firearms out of the wrong hands or reduce crime to any significant degree.

This is an unusual piece of scholarship, especially in the literature on gun control. It argues strenuously that controls are unlikely to have the effects hoped for by their advocates. Yet Jacobs is not a gun devotee. It appears that he is saddened by his conclusions, that he would prefer to live in a world without guns, and that he perceives guns to have far more negatives than positives. However, Jacobs consistently concludes that essentially all currently envisaged types of gun control fail to have the desired effects.

The book begins by identifying the problem for which gun control might be the “solution.” Jacobs concludes that the key problem is violent crime, rather than suicides or accidents. Suicide is a quantitatively important issue, but suicides are not a critical factor creating a demand for gun control. Accidents with firearms are a cause for concern, but these incidents are rare and mainly affect persons who have “assumed the risk” of being around guns. Jacobs dismisses the notion that society should pass gun-control laws, knowing they will be minimally effective, simply for the sake of “doing something.”

After outlining the question to be addressed, Jacobs reviews the history of gun control in America. This is an excellent summary for those new to the subject and a useful review for others.

Jacobs then discusses the impediments to further gun control. One is the Second Amendment and the widespread belief among gun owners that it guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms. Jacobs suggests that even under an individualist interpretation of the amendment, there is still scope for regulation of firearms. But he sees the technical implications of the Constitution as less relevant than long-standing hostility to gun regulation on the part of a substantial fraction of the country.

A second critical difficulty that faces additional controls is the large number of guns in circulation. This fact, combined with the durability of most guns, implies that even if no new firearms were obtained by anyone in the United States from some point forward, there will still be a high rate of gun ownership for decades. Thus even perfectly effective controls on new ownership cannot address problems related to existing guns.

The third key impediment that Jacobs emphasizes is the multitude of mechanisms by which new and existing gun-control laws can be circumvented or evaded. Any restrictions on the sale of guns are undone to a substantial degree by straw purchases, fake IDs, gun thefts, and unscrupulous federal firearms licensees. Jacobs notes that all these avenues for circumventing control apply even if both primary and secondary purchases are subject to background checks and even if all guns are registered. The only possible mechanism for addressing the multiple opportunities for criminals to get guns is confiscation of existing guns combined with prohibition of all new guns. Jacobs dismisses that approach as utterly impractical, both because of the large existing stock of weapons that owners will give up only under duress and because prohibition will generate a black market.

Given the author’s conclusions, it might appear that gun-control opponents would welcome this book with open arms. That is not quite right, however.

Those opposed to controls will share most of Jacobs’s conclusions, and they will be pleased to see those conclusions coming from someone who is not a fan of guns. Nevertheless, opponents of gun control will find the book unsatisfying — because while Jacobs is thoughtful and persuasive in his criticism of most gun controls, his critiques are about the limits of controls rather than about the possible benefits of guns.

That approach leaves unaddressed a deeper question: would eliminating guns be desirable if the existing impediments were removed? Jacobs doesn’t answer that question, and the omission will give control opponents pause.

Can Gun Control Work? is the kind of calm, rational evaluation of public policies that is all too rare today.

  • Jeffrey Miron is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, as well as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.