All Commentary
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gun Control: An Economic Analysis

Gun Control Will Only Lead Would-Be Killers to Use Substitutes

In Economics 101 we teach students about several fundamental concepts, including the relationship between means and ends, forward-looking behavior, the use of substitutes, opportunity cost, and the role of moral hazard. Further, we insist that these concepts can be used to help understand the world around us and have applicability far beyond the classroom.

Yet, all too often, students fail to apply these lessons to serious policy issues. Instead of applying economics, they get blinded by knee-jerk reactions, hysteria, or ideology, reducing serious issues to bumper-sticker slogans. Gun control is one such issue in which a serious economic analysis can provide an important perspective.

The public debate over gun control flares up following horrific incidents such as the 1999 Columbine High School shooting (15 victims), the 2005 Red Lake High School shooting (ten victims), or the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting (33 victims). Gun-control advocates immediately call for tighter restrictions or outright bans, while gun-ownership advocates begin quoting the Second Amendment to the Constitution or making claims about prying guns from their cold, dead fingers. The same arguments are rehashed, but no one applies basic economics to the issue.

Ends and Means

Let’s recognize that in all of these cases, the killers have ends, or things they wish to accomplish. Those ends are generally obvious: they want to kill people. To accomplish those ends, they begin acquiring means in advance. They buy guns, bullets, chains, locks, flak jackets, and so forth. Further, they frequently begin documenting their plans well in advance. In other words, the killers engage in forward-looking behavior.

After these events gun-control advocates generally decry the role played by guns and insist that had the shooters not owned guns, they could not have shot their victims. This is undeniably true. However, that is a far cry from claiming that without guns they would not have been able to kill their victims. These well-intentioned gun-control advocates never consider the common-sense economic concept of substitutes.

Substitutes are goods that can replace each other, or alternate means to achieve the same ends. On a cold morning I can drink hot coffee or hot tea. To get to work I can drive a car or take public transportation. For entertainment I can watch television or go out to a movie. If government were to ban coffee I could still satisfy my desire for a hot beverage in the morning. If there were no public transportation I could still get to work. If all movie theaters were torn down I would still have entertainment choices. Eliminating a single means does not eliminate the end. Further, when there are myriad substitutes to the same end—driving, taking the bus, taking the subway, riding a bike, walking, running, hitchhiking, skateboarding, roller skating, riding a motorcycle, riding a horse—eliminating a single means does not preclude the acting individual from achieving that end.

So it is with gun control and mass killing. The killers at Columbine and Virginia Tech all planned their activities in advance, acquiring resources and determining where, when, and how to strike. Had one method of killing been foreclosed to them, they could simply have found substitutes. In other words, even had they been unable to acquire guns, they still could have achieved their ends of killing their classmates and teachers.

So what are possible substitute goods available to these killers? For starters, they could have used machetes. Now, such weapons may sound exotic or hard to acquire, but they’re not. One of us grew up in a small town in Iowa, and every summer he would “walk beans.” This field labor involves several teenagers walking up and down the rows of a bean field with a “corn knife”—a wooden handle with an 18-inch blade. The boys would hack at any corn that grew in the bean field. Every teenage boy (and many girls) in the area had a corn knife.

So imagine a would-be killer armed with that kind of weapon. It would be harder for him to walk into a roomful of people, since others could overpower him. But it would be easy enough to use it and kill people in isolated circumstances—for example, in the laundry room, in the bathroom, in a library carrel. An assailant could rack up a large number of victims before anyone found out that he was on the rampage. The lack of a gun would not be sufficient to prevent a dozen or more deaths.

On a school campus a forward-looking potential mass killer could figure out a way to deliver poison into the water system, murdering a large number of people without having to resort to guns. Perhaps the easiest option involves a high-speed car. Occasionally, we read about some person who loses control of a car and hits a crowd of pedestrians, injuring or killing them. It is no great stretch of the imagination to consider that a would-be killer could do this on purpose. In fact, this could be done several times in short order, driving at high speed into a crowd outside one building and then leaving the scene in order to do it again outside another building. Campus pedestrian flows are predictable; it would be easy to injure or kill dozens of people in this manner.

Further, it is not unusual to read about car bombs and other terrorist activities all over the world. Such things occur on a regular basis, killing or wounding dozens of people. In fact, this type of mass killing occurs so frequently that we are nearly immune to news of it. By contrast, mass shootings are so unusual that we are always affected by them.

Substitutes occur not just in goods, but also in government policies. In 1981 Morton Grove, Illinois, passed a handgun ban. Partly in response, in 1982 the city council of Kennesaw, Georgia, passed an ordinance requiring every home to have at least one gun. The town substituted a mandatory-gun policy for a no-gun policy. Currently, the crime rate in Kennesaw is lower than the crime rate for its neighbors that do not have similar policies.

Given the reduction in crime in Kennesaw, it seems that criminals also recognize the role played by substitutes. When choosing where to engage in crime, criminals are apparently substituting neighboring towns, such as Marietta, Smyrna, and Alpharetta, for Kennesaw.

Underlying Concepts

Many schools have policies against firearms on campus. These policies exemplify another pair of key economics concepts: moral hazard and information asymmetry. Moral hazard occurs when one party is not fully liable for negative consequences of his actions. For example, if you have car insurance that does not cover theft, you are likely to be diligent about locking your car, parking in a safe area, or using Lojack or some other theft-recovery system. But if your car insurance covers theft, you may be less diligent, since you will get a new car if the current one is stolen.

When a school has an anti-firearm policy, the policymakers are not the ones who must suffer the negative consequences. If a would-be killer arrives at school and discovers everyone else unarmed—students, faculty, and staff—the would-be killer is likely to be successful at creating mayhem and death. Yet the policymakers are not the ones at risk. The school board passes the policy, but the school board is not on the front lines next to the students, faculty, and staff when the would-be killer arrives. This is an example of moral hazard.

Information asymmetry occurs when one party to a transaction has more information than the other party and uses the difference to exploit the other party. Suppose, for example, I have a house for sale. I want to sell it because every time it rains, the basement fills with 3 feet of water. However, no one else knows this fact, and when you make an offer on the house I neglect to inform you of the problem. Had you been aware of it you would have acted differently in our negotiation, or perhaps you would not have made an offer at all.

When an educational institution posts signs proclaiming a gun-free environment, they convey the message to students that they may have less fear of being shot. However, they convey the same message to the potential mass killer. The killers at Columbine and Virginia Tech had no fear of facing resistance by armed students or teachers because they were on gun-free campuses. The killers knew who had guns (they did) and who didn’t (everyone else), but no one else knew that. This information asymmetry allowed the killers to be far deadlier than they otherwise could have been.

So suppose these campuses had been pro-gun zones instead of anti-gun zones. Suppose the killers had faced the prospect of confronting armed opponents instead of unarmed victims. Note that this policy difference does not change the killers’ ends. However, it makes clear that the killer is far less likely to achieve those ends, regardless of the means selected. At some point, as risk rises and reward falls, even a would-be killer chooses to substitute video games and animated carnage for a murderous rampage and real carnage.

Again, we could explore the role of substitutes in the defense of the potential victims. A student with a black belt in martial arts can handle herself in dangerous situations, but the cost involves years of preparation, the expense of lessons, and the forgoing of many other activities. A student with a calculator and a notebook, on the other hand, has almost no defense against any sort of aggressor. A physically large student has certain natural advantages, but a small student is at greater risk. But for all potential victims, a firearm is a great equalizer. Whether the student knows karate, is large or small, male or female does not matter. All students can be very effective in defense with a firearm.


Let’s even consider 9/11. Several groups of hijackers had their ends and their means. They intended to hijack planes to crash them into key targets such as the World Trade Center (WTC) and Pentagon in order to cause death, panic, and terror. Unlike the hijackers, the law-abiding citizens on board those planes had no weapons. Had the hijackers faced the possibility of armed passengers, it seems unlikely that the terrorist plot would have even been carried out, much less carried out with such success.

For that matter, the hijackings of 9/11 were themselves substitute terrorist activities. In 1993 terrorists detonated a bomb in the WTC’s underground parking structure in an attempt to topple the building and cause a chain reaction, with one tall building falling against another, thereby creating maximum damage and death. The bomb detonated, but the WTC did not fall. The failure of the blast did not change the terrorists’ ends; it merely led them to consider alternate means.

As with so many other issues, the issues of mass killing and gun control can be evaluated using basic economic concepts. Once we explore the ideas of substitutes, means and ends, moral hazard, and information asymmetry, we see that economic realities arise regardless of the wishes of well-intentioned people who call for restrictions on market behavior. Gun control will not solve the problems of society. It will only lead would-be killers to use substitutes.