Bob Costas' Supply-Side Gun Control Fallacy

At the risk of stating some obvious things, I want to respond to Bob Costas’ recent comment about the failings of “our current gun culture”.  Costas endorsed without reservation, indeed just read from Jason Whitlock’s critique of the murder suicide deaths of NFL player Jovan Belcher and his wife.

“Our current gun culture, “Whitlock wrote, “ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead.”

“Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it. In the coming days, Jovan Belcher’s actions, and their possible connection to football will be analyzed. Who knows?”

“But here,” wrote Jason Whitlock,” is what I believe. If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”

First reactions to horrible things are often, perhaps naturally burdened with a touch of hysteria.  Comments and commentary are infused with a flood of emotions that cloud our thinking.  On a personal level we know to avoid making important decisions under such stress.

A body politic, must exercise the same caution.  Fortunately, our political structure answers that worry. Law-making is cumbersome and time consuming.  That’s a good thing.  Also, our Constitution enshrines a series of basic rights that have real and ongoing costs.  Changing the Constitution to impair those rights is even harder than ordinary law-making.

That too is a good thing.  Because moved by exigencies of the moment, people will do, say, believe and vote for all manner of half-baked ideas and against many good ones.   Commentators have speculated that even on a good day we probably could not get a majority of Americans to vote for a variety of constitutional provisions – e.g., the socially costly protections extended to criminal defendants.  But on balanced reflection, the importance of those things, despite their costs, shines through.

Balanced reflection is often in short supply in the wake high profile firearms crimes. Mr. Costas’ commentary reflects that trend.  I will summarize here just a few things that are missing from his critique.

Balanced reflection, requires just that – balance.  Costas does not even attempt it.  His critique advances the simplistic logic that no guns equals no gun crime. Well yes.  But this fails to translate into policy because no guns is not a serious option. The guns are here, hundreds of millions of them.

Costas also denies what we really all know. Guns render substantial social benefits.  Certainly in the hands of police, almost no one would object that guns are a social good. But the data go far beyond that.

Multiple surveys show that American’s defend themselves with firearms hundreds of thousands of times per year, with some contested estimates ranging into the millions.  Rarely are these episodes dramatic enough to make the national news. Most defensive gun uses are stories of averted threats.  Most involve no shots fired.  Generally we would say that these are good outcomes.  The problem is they have little press appeal.  So off the cuff policy assessments by harried journalists and sports announcers will tend to ignore them.

Other assessments, comparing the U.S. to other countries, show that just the fact of gun ownership in America dramatically reduces the rate of “hot burglaries”  (where the intruder knows the occupants are home but still decides to invade, steal and often attack). The low rate of hot burglaries in the U.S., seemingly driven by the wider ownership of guns, in turn reduces the number of assaults and homicides.  That is to the good.

Just last week, an article in  Atlantic Magazine,  acknowledged the possibility that the best chance of preventing tragedies like the shooting and Aurora Colorado is to have trustworthy armed citizens in the venue. See Jeffrey Goldberg, The Case For More Guns And More Gun Control: How do we reduce gun crime and Aurora-style mass shootings when Americans already own nearly 300 million firearms? Maybe by allowing more people to carry them. . One can disagree, but it surely worthy of debate.

Costas’ comment also reflects a common mistake of overweighting firearms costs. A good example of this occurred several years ago at a conference of prominent New York lawyers and judges where I moderated a panel on Gun Rights and Regulation. One of the participants, and subsequently my co-author on the book Firearms Law and the Second Amendment, (Dave Kopel) asked the group to estimate the number of children below the age of 14 killed annually in firearms accidents.  By a show of hands a few people said one million.  A handful said 500,000.  Nearly half the room said 100,000.  Most of the room said at least 50,000.  Virtually everyone said at least 10,000.  Several months later at a lunch with a smaller group of New York lawyers, I asked the same question with roughly the same distribution of answers.  The actual number of such tragedies for 2010 about 40 (Yes, forty).

I have repeated this survey in my firearms law seminar with essentially similar results.  For what it’s worth, the respondents in these surveys were all New Yorkers. My co-author Mike O’Shea has conducted similar surveys in Oklahoma and gotten very different results. This suggest  that views of what is clear and obvious about the “gun problem” reflect wildly flawed assumptions and regional differences that must be accounted for as part of a sober policy assessment. So for example the implicit assumption (perhaps driving Costas’ critique) that New York City premises and rules will play in the heartland may be … let’s say, naive.

Balanced reflection also demands a clear-eyed critique of the boundaries on policy making.  Years ago, Ross Perot quipped that Washington was filled with a bunch of people who erroneously believed that “if they said it, it meant they did it”.  This worry is nowhere more apt than in arguments about gun policy. As I showed in previous posts, and argued extensively in the Wake Forrest Law Review (2008), the number of firearms in the civilian inventory render the “better world through gun bans” agenda a pipe dream and the inevitably failed attempt would likely make things worse. That analysis runs 100 pages that I will not attempt to summarize here.  But the basic point that statutory language alone will not makes guns disappear is illustrated by a short thought experiment.

Putting aside arguments of process and constitutional protection of  the right to arms, imagine Bob Costas got his way; that tomorrow morning, Congress and the President all agreed to ban handguns, invoking  Senator Diane Feinstein’s dream language for restricting “Assault Weapons”, “Mr. and Mrs. America, turn them all in.”

Now what?

Well we don’t have a crystal ball, but the evidence from even small scale efforts in the U.S. are instructive.  In New Jersey and California rates of compliance with assault weapons bans were in the single digits. Most people probably sold or moved their guns to other states. But it’s hard to know for sure. Rates of defiance of gun bans internationally confirm that people defy gun bans at very high rates.  This is not surprising.  If someone says you must surrender a tool you earnestly and reasonably believe may save your life, you probably will be slow to comply.

So we have to stipulate that some large percentage of the U.S. gun inventory would not just be turned in, but instead would be held by defiant (perhaps militantly defiant) Americans. It is a serious policy question whether that is a good thing. On one view this would merely push gun ownership toward the least law-abiding among us. That seems like a bad thing.

One place where this scenario actually played out was Washington D.C. and Chicago before Heller and McDonald. Blanket prohibition in those places barred innocent people like Shelly Parker and Otis McDonald, the sober mature adults of the community, from having guns.  And the people we are really worried about?  Well they were already, robbing, raping, battering and selling drugs, so they just ignored the ban and bought guns from the well stocked black market. (See my last post)

When Shelly Parker was under siege by thugs in her neighborhood who objected to her antidrug community activism, no amount of pleading with the city government would get her a handgun permit. Her self-defense interests and her safety were subordinated to the supply-side experiment. Otis McDonald raised similar claims and told similar stories about his Chicago community.  Parker and McDonald required the intervention of the United States Supreme Court to protect his basic self-defense interests.

I do not know how Costas would respond to the concerns of Parker, McDonald and countless others who choose to own firearms to fight off threats that are on them far quicker than government can respond.  Perhaps he does not know these stories or is unwilling to credit them.

In this he unfortunately is not alone, but hopefully is part of a declining population.  What Costas decries as a culture grown insensitive to firearms violence, is better understood as a culture that has experienced, analyzed and rejected the flawed premises and ultimately false promise of supply-side gun control.