All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1991

Positive Externalities of Gun Ownership

Mr. Kell is a botanist studying for his Ph.D. in biology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia.

While a friend and I were talking about gun control, he remarked that it didn’t matter to him if restrictions were placed on gun ownership because he didn’t own a gun. What he failed to realize was that he benefits from civilian gun ownership whether he owns guns or not. He benefits because the ownership of guns by civilians has positive externalities.

Externalities are unpaid-for effects that accrue to third parties from the use of property by its owners. The effects may be beneficial or harmful to the third parties. If beneficial, the effects are known as “positive externalities”; if harmful, they are called “negative externalities.” For example, someone who walks down a residential street full of well-landscaped yards might enjoy the sight and smell of flowers in bloom. Though the individual homeowners paid for and cared for their particular yards, the walker also benefits. The pleasure the walker receives is a positive externality of the homeowners’ yard care.

Advocates of gun control are quick to point out that innocent third parties sometimes are injured or killed by accidental discharge or criminal misuse of firearms. Indeed, these are negative externalities of guns in civilian hands. What advocates of gun control rarely acknowledge, or even understand, are the positive externalities of civilian gun ownership. Positive externalities may be less newsworthy, but they are just as real and far outweigh the negative externalities of the right to bear arms.

While accidents and criminal use of guns are reported as news, making the negative externalities of gun ownership readily apparent, the millions of peaceful interactions among people that occur each day are not reported. These peaceful events are taken for granted, and little thought is given as tO what conditions brought them about in the first place. Millions awake each morning and find that their homes haven’t been burglarized. The vast majority of stores pass through day and night without being robbed. Many women walk alone or live alone without being accosted or raped. These peaceful happenings are due to many factors, such as burglar alarms, door locks, and police patrols, but many are due, in part, to civilian gun ownership.

One million times each year homeowners and storekeepers protect their property and lives using firearms; often this occurs without a shot being fired.[1] The mere sight of a gun often is enough to send a robber running. Impressive as this number is, it doesn’t show the full extent to which the crime rate is lowered due to privately owned guns. In those cases where a gun owner thwarts a lawbreaker, it is obvious that having a gun benefited its owner. But those cases benefit non-owners as well. If the lawbreaker is killed, he will commit no more crimes. If the lawbreaker is wounded, captured, or even escapes, his inclination to commit a similar crime in the future is probably lessened. The peace that arises from the disinclination or inability to commit another crime is a positive externality of gun ownership.

Crime Kept in Check

It cannot be known how many times each day potential burglars think, “I’m not going to break into that house; I might get shot.” Even though it is difficult to evaluate how much crime is kept in check by civilian gun ownership, there is evidence that suggests its damping effect is substantial. In Orlando in 196667, the numbers of burglaries and rapes fell substantially after 2,500 women went through a well-publicized training program on the use of handguns.[2] In a survey taken of felons, 43 percent stated that the fact that a victim might be armed had caused them to avoid particular homes or people.[3] There probably is no way to determine how many law-abiding citizens might turn to crime if it were a less dangerous occupation.

A friend of mine, a gentle and honest man, once confided in me that he had stolen a car when he was a teenager. He and three friends had been walking down a street in the small town where he lived, noticed a car with keys in the ignition, hopped in and drove away. Their joyride ended when they were pulled over by the local constable. My friend said his act of thievery hurt his mother more than anything else he ever did, and he regretted it often. He was guilty of theft and knew it, but he said he wished that the car’s owner hadn’t left the keys. Even though a well-equipped criminal can break into a locked car in less than a minute, leaving cars unlocked with keys in the ignition greatly increases the number of thefts.

The lesson here is that if it is very convenient to commit a crime, more people will commit it. This is not to say that everyone is dishonest; it’s just a basic law of human nature that people will choose the easy way over the hard way when confronted with a task. In the task of living, it is easier to take than to make. As Frederic Bastiat said, “. . . the very nature of man . . . impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain.”[4] Copyright laws are violated daily by otherwise honest people with access to photocopiers and tape recorders. The crime is so convenient and the victim is so distant, most people who commit copyright violations probably wouldn’t consider themselves criminals.

Bastiat said, “When, then, does the plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor.”[5] Gun ownership by civilians makes burglary and robbery very dangerous and often very painful. About one-half of all homes in the United States contain firearms.[6] Someone considering carrying out a burglary has no way of determining if the house he plans to enter has guns in it, so he avoids all occupied houses, benefitting those who don’t own guns as well. People who don’t own guns know implicitly that they benefit from private gun ownership. How many of them would put a sign in their yard that says: “The owners of this house will not defend it with armed force.”

Jails are full of repeat offenders. That is evidence that punishment is not a strong enough deterrent for some people. The punishment served up by the criminal justice system usually occurs long after the crime, further attenuating any deterrence value it may have. But negative reinforcement, the condition provided by an armed homeowner at the time of an attempted crime, is an effective deterrent. Such immediate and life-threatening action makes crime a hazardous occupation, and if crime is made a dangerous way of life, the number of criminals will decline and society will be a safer place for all.

Restraining Government

Another positive externality, even less apparent, is the restraint that has been put on government action because of civilian gun ownership. What policies might have been put in place by federal, state, and local governments had civilian gun ownership been heavily restricted? In the many years since the founding of our nation, what rules might bureaucrats have written if they hadn’t needed to worry about an armed revolt of the masses? What invasive policies might they have come up with to make enforcement of their laws easier?

There are thousands of laws in the United States that restrict gun ownership in one way or another. Restrictions include waiting periods, bans on concealed weapons, and bans on owning particular kinds of weapons such as handguns or military style semi-automatics. Gun control advocates support these laws because they hope to eradicate negative externalities, but reducing gun ownership eliminates positive externalities as well. In fact, gun control laws probably cancel more positive than negative externalities, because law-abiding citizens are much more likely to obey the rules than are criminals.

The negative externalities of guns need to be decreased, but the best way to minimize them is to deal with them directly. Accidents can be reduced by educating owners about the proper care and handling of firearms. Such training is being provided by nonprofit groups including the National Rifle Association, and at for-profit shooting ranges.

Criminal misuse of firearms can best be decreased by cutting the overall crime rate. Methods of reducing crime have been discussed by other authors, and include drug legalization, eliminating barriers to entry in the work force, and increasing educational opportunities.

Since we don’t pay for positive externalities, we seldom think of their value. Indeed, it would be a formidable task to measure the total value of the positive externalities of guns in private hands. However, even without that measurement, the knowledge of the existence of positive externalities should help us to understand why so many people consider the right to own firearms to be a priceless freedom.

1.   Gary Kleck, “Crime Control Through the Private Use of Armed Force,”Social Problems, February 1988, p. 4.

2.  Ibid., p. 13. Rapes had decreased by 89 percent one year after the program. Burglaries dropped “substantially” as well.

3.  Ibid, p. 12.

4.   Frederic Bastiat,The Law (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1950), p. 10.

5.  Ibid., p. 10.

6.   Kleck, p. 1.