Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Let's Not Talk About Gun Control

The news reports have fallen away and the shock is now confined to the victims and those directly affected. Another mass murder is rapidly becoming history as the National Rifle Association and its supporters hope.  A search of Google will not show many news reports beyond the 7th of October.

It has been well-publicised that it is a technique of the gun lobby in the USA to say after every massacre “It is too soon to talk about gun control.”  I have therefore waited but frankly, I’m not going to talk about gun control at all. Nor am I going to split hairs about the Second Amendment holding firearms as part of a well-trained militia. There will be no mention that the Founding Fathers could not have imaged the effectiveness of modern assault weapons.  There will be no note that roughly the same number of Americans have died in wars than in shootings from 1968 to the present (

If Americans want to have guns, go right ahead.

It is interesting though to visit the NRA and read their statement on the Las Vegas mass-murder. They call for no legislation that will impede either the Second Amendment or the right of a US citizen to self defence  A Norwegian friend of mine made an equally interesting point on social media. According to him, there at thirty one guns per hundred people in Norway.  Those weapons are held for various purposes: hunting, military (as part of a civil militia) and target shooting. No guns are held for self-defence and it is unheard of for these weapons to be used as such.
Under the US concept of self defence ( and example of which is here, the use of deadly force can only be applied if faced with an assault using deadly force. In other words, guns are justified to be held for self-defence purposes because there are so many guns already in society. A critic might point out the circular logic here but let’s follow the NRA recommendation and leave that for another day, or perhaps never. Ah, one might reply, it is monstrous to suggest that any manufacturer intended for any misuse, criminal or otherwise, of their weapons. This is perfected true. The misuse of any firearm is an unintended outcome of their manufacture and sale.  It is also true that those who make and sell weapons and ammunition do not give any financial compensation to the victims of such incidents. 

What is lacking from the NRA statement is any sense of responsibility beyond that of the murderer: “Banning guns from law-abiding Americans based on the criminal act of a madman will do nothing to prevent future attacks.”  It certainly does not mention the activities of the weapons and ammunition manufacturers, whose business activities allow for such massacres to occur.

In economics, there is a term for this situation: it is called an externality. To quote a textbook, “an externality arises when a person engages in an activity that influences the well-being of a bystander (ie. a third party) who neither pays nor receives any compensation for that effect.”  So while the vast majority of American firearm holders are law-abiding, the economic activities of the manufacturers allow for shootings (on whatever scale, whether fatal or not) to occur. No compensation is offered to those affected and it is left to others in society to pick up the bill.

How big a bill are we talking? Nobody is sure.  A recent paper (*  that gives an indication of the costs involved at $2.8billion per year for the emergency healthcare involved.  The average cost of ED care is $5254.00, rising to $95,887.00 if the victim is admitted as an in-patient. The authors indicate that the total estimate is on the low side, as it does not take into account those who do not make it at all to emergency departments. Nor does it take any account of the police costs involved, nor loss of earnings for victims and dependents.  If these factors are accounted for, the total would be many billions of dollars more. They also note that research in the area is scant because since 1996, the US government department CDC (Centre of Disease and Preventable Illness) is prevented from investigating the cost of firearms injuries if the purpose to bolster the cause of gun control.

In many countries the determined cost would be calculated and a tax raised upon the industry, in exactly the same manner that a factory polluting a river might be levied for each tonne of waste it disposes of into the environment. With the current makeup of the federal congress, that is unlikely to happen.  If state representative houses carried out the research though, state levies could be introduced piecemeal across the USA. 

The suggestion of a levy on the arms industry does not challenge anybody’s right to bear arms. What it does do is address the inequality that currently exists, that the victims of shootings, from whatever cause, are effectively subsidising gun and ammunition producers who are not picking up the economic externalities of their business activities.  Ultimately the additional charge to each consumer who buys a gun or a box of ammo will be low, because it is so widely spread. The principle of polluter pays is well established elsewhere. For the gun industry to try and wriggle out or ignore the social costs of its activity is nothing more than special pleading. 

Meanwhile, like tens of thousands of individuals before them, the hundreds of victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting are having to either resort to charity or sort out the cost of their healthcare on their own. 

Faiz Gani, Joseph V. Sakran and Joseph K. Canner
Emergency Department Visits For Firearm-Related Injuries In The United States, 2006−14
Health Affairs 36, no.10 (2017):1729-1738

doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2017.0625