What’s Your Best Idea to Cut Gun Deaths? A Freakonomics Quorum

Are there more guns in the U.S. or more opinions about guns?

Hard to say. This blog has featured a variety of posts about guns in the past; today we present a quorum with a very narrow focus: what are some good ideas to cut gun deaths? Let’s put aside for a moment the standard discussions about the right to bear arms and deal instead with the reality on the ground: there are a lot of gun deaths in this country; how can they be lessened?

In response to the recent Supreme Court decision to revoke the D.C. gun ban, Levitt made clear his preference: enforcement is a much bigger deal than ownership.

Or, as Jens Ludwig puts it below:

“A big part of America’s problem with gun violence stems from young guys walking or driving around with guns and then doing stupid things with them.”

We asked a group of people who give a lot of thought to this issue — Ludwig, Jesus Castro Jr., Eric Proshansky, and David Hemenway — the following:

What’s your best idea to cut gun homicides in the U.S.?

Here are their answers. Comments welcome.

Jens Ludwig, McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

“Flashing a gun at a party might still score points, but it would now massively increase your legal risk.”

We should give out rewards — I mean big, serious rewards — for tips that help police confiscate illegal guns.

More people die from gun suicides than homicides in the U.S., but gun crime accounts for most of the $100 billion in social costs that Phil Cook and I estimate gun violence imposes each year. Most murders are committed with guns (around 75 percent in 2005 in Chicago). We also know that young people — particularly young males — are vastly over-represented among offenders, most murders happen outdoors, and a large share of all homicides stem from arguments or something related to gangs. A big part of America’s problem with gun violence stems from young guys walking or driving around with guns and then doing stupid things with them.

Young guys carry guns in part because this helps them get some street cred. For a project that Phil Cook, Anthony Braga, and I conducted with sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh (published in the November 2007 Economic Journal), Venkatesh asked people on the South Side of Chicago why they carry guns. As one gang member said, in the absence of having a gun:

“Who is going to fear me? Who [is] going to take me seriously? Nobody. I’m a [unprintable five-letter word that starts with the letter “p”] unless I got my gun.”

Guns are something that a lot of guys seem to have mostly to take to football and basketball games or parties and to show off to their friends or girlfriends. At the same time, the costs of carrying guns might be low. A previous Freakonomics post by Venkatesh notes that cops are less likely to be lenient for other offenses if someone is caught with a gun. But the chances of being arrested with a gun are probably modest, since the probability that even a serious violent crime or property crime results in arrest is surprisingly low.

Giving out serious money for anonymous tips about illegal guns would increase the costs of carrying a gun and reduce the benefits; flashing a gun at a party might still score points, but it would now massively increase your legal risk.

These rewards might help undercut trust among gang members and could be particularly helpful in keeping guns out of schools. A bunch of logistical issues would need to be worked out, including how large the rewards would be (I think $1,000 or more wouldn’t be crazy) and how police should respond to tips and confiscate guns while respecting civil liberties.

But this idea does have the big advantage of getting us out of the stale public debate about gun control, and it gives us a way to make progress on this major social problem right away.

Jesus “Manny” Castro Jr., 33, became an active gang member at the age of 12. After being incarcerated for two and a half years, he joined Cornerstone Church of San Diego and now runs the G.A.M.E. (Gang Awareness Through Mentoring and Education) program at the Turning the Hearts Center in Chula Vista, Calif.

“If parents knew that they would/could do time for their children’s behavior, perhaps they would stay more involved in their lives.”

Growing up in gangs and living the gang lifestyle, I have firsthand knowledge [of this issue] after seeing so many people die from gangs and guns! One great idea that can help to cut gun deaths in the U.S. is having the perpetrator’s family be financially responsible for all emotional, mental, and physical damages that result from the victim’s family’s loss.

This should include (but not be limited to) garnishing their wages for their entire lives and having them pay all funeral arrangements and all outstanding debts. If the perpetrator is under 18, then not only will he have to do time in prison but his parents should also be required to serve at least half of the time on behalf of his crime. Everything starts and stops in the home!

The greatest way to make this happen is to make it law and set up organizations that educate parents on how to stop gun violence and clearly teach them the consequences that result from gun violence. At Turning the Hearts Center, through our G.A.M.E. program, we found that the young people we are working with care about their parents and what they think.

I get parents’ input on what goes on at home so that I can implement and address their issues into our G.A.M.E. curriculum. Kids have respect for their parents — and if parents knew that they would/could do time for their children’s behavior, perhaps they would stay more involved in their lives.

If the people in communities around the U.S. can model what we do at Turning the Hearts Center, we can make a difference in the world. Hard-core issues like gun deaths need hard-core consequences.

Eric Proshansky, deputy chief of the Division of Affirmative Litigation, New York City Law Department. He has been part of Michael Bloomberg‘s legal team in his campaign to eliminate illegal guns in New York City.

“The elevation of the gun to sacred political status explains in part why 30,000 annual gun deaths have not given rise to anything like the complex regulation of, for example, the automobile or pharmaceuticals.”

Elect public officials who are, in fact, committed to reducing gun deaths in the U.S.

If deaths on the scale caused by guns were caused by any other consumer product (face it, that’s all guns are) solutions like those that have provided us with air bags (and other legally mandated fixes of useful products with the capacity to kill or maim when placed in the wrong hands) would have long since emerged.

The elevation of the gun to sacred political status explains in part why 30,000 annual gun deaths have not given rise to anything like the complex regulation of, for example, the automobile or pharmaceuticals.

What evidence there is suggests that who you vote for does affect the gun death rate. See L. David Roper, “Gun Deaths and Political Parties.” See also “Policies to Prevent Firearms Trafficking” by Jon Vernick and Daniel Webster, published in Injury Prevention in 2007.

It remains to be seen whether more or fewer gun deaths will result from a political process that in recent years: 1) engineered the appointment of a tipping-point Supreme Court vote aimed at overturning settled Second Amendment precedent; 2) gifted near-total legal immunity to the gun industry through the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (when did laws begin to be entitled by spinmeisters?); and 3) via the Tiahrt Amendments, concealed from the public previously available public gun-trace data that identify negligent (and worse) gun dealers.

Our preliminary experience in New York City has been that by identifying (through the now Congressionally suppressed gun-trace data) those retail gun dealers whose business practices foster gun trafficking and providing them — through the incentive of a lawsuit — with the motivation to sell with greater care, we reduced the number of guns that wind up in the hands of New York City criminals. Should the ultimate effect of that effort be fewer New York City gun deaths, that result will be directly traceable to policy choices made by the city’s elected officials.

No one knows exactly what regulatory measures will reduce gun deaths. But that ignorance is fostered by a political process that will not even permit experimentation. The notion — expressed recently by the Supreme Court in its decision on the Second Amendment — that “the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table” is pure circular reasoning; the judges and those who appoint them determine the architecture of that shrine.

David Hemenway, professor of health policy, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health, and author of Private Guns, Public Health.

“It’s time to take some of the politics out of firearm safety.”

Create the National Firearm Safety Administration.

A milestone in the history of motor vehicle safety in the United States, and the world, was the establishment (40 years ago) of what is now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (N.H.T.S.A.). The N.H.T.S.A. created a series of data systems on motor vehicle crashes and deaths and provided funding for data analysis. This enabled us to know which policies work to reduce traffic injuries and which don’t. The N.H.T.S.A. mandated many safety standards for cars, including those leading to collapsible steering columns, seat belts, and airbags. It became an advocate for improving roads — helping to change the highway design philosophy from the “nut behind the wheel” to the “forgiving roadside.” Improvements in motor vehicle safety were cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a 20th-century success story.

A similar national agency is needed to help reduce the public health problems due to firearms. Firearms deaths are currently the second leading cause of injury deaths in the United States; more than 270 U.S. civilians were shot per day in 2005, and 84 of those died. In response, Congress should create a national agency (as it did for motor vehicles) with a mission to reduce the harm caused by firearms.

The agency should create and maintain comprehensive and detailed national data systems for firearms injuries and deaths and provide funding for research. (Currently the National Violent Death Reporting System provides funding for only 17 state data systems and no money for research.)

The agency should require safety and crime-fighting characteristics on all firearms manufactured and sold in the U.S. It should ban from regular civilian use products which are not needed for hunting or protection and which only endanger the public. It should have the power to ensure that there are background checks for all firearm transfers to help prevent guns from being sold to criminals and terrorists.

The agency needs the resources and the power (including standard setting, recall, and research capability) for making reasonable decisions about firearms. The power to determine the side-impact performance standards for automobiles resides with a regulatory agency, as does the power to decide whether to ban three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles (while allowing the safer four-wheeled vehicles).

Similarly, each specific rule regulating the manufacture and sale of firearms should go through a more scientific administrative process rather than the more political legislative process. It’s time to take some of the politics out of firearm safety.

jack burton

"I think we need strict regulation on gun shows which is where much of the illegal dispensing of firearms take place."

1) EVERY seller and EVERY buyer of ANY gun at a gun show MUST follow ALL applicable state and federal laws.

2)Let's hear what the "experts" have to say...

“Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation's Law Enforcement Officers.” The study is the third in a series of long investigations into fatal and nonfatal attacks on POs by the FBI team of Dr. Anthony Pinizzotto, clinical forensic psychologist, and Ed Davis, criminal investigative instructor, both with the Bureau's Behavioral Science Unit, and Charles Miller III, coordinator of the LEOs Killed and Assaulted program.

Their finding...?

Predominately handguns were used in the assaults on officers and all but one were obtained illegally, usually in street transactions or in thefts. In contrast to media myth, none of the firearms in the study was obtained from gun shows.

3) It's absolutly amazing how people are willing to post about subjects that they are totally clueless on.



"Let's put aside for a moment the standard discussions about the right to bear arms and deal instead with the reality on the ground: there are a lot of gun deaths in this country; how can they be lessened?"

Gentlemen, you cannot unless of course your true intention is to ignore the realities of the Rights of Man- which, after reading this disgusting drivel, convinces me you are.

The reality is that the disgusting rape of the People, by stripping them of their right to Keep & Bare Arms has lead exactly to the situation of crimes by criminals (which the word in and of itself describes exactly someone who ignores the law) on the lawful. This is exactly your intent IMO because it forces the individual citizens to rely upon the supposed protectors to keep one safe. However, as you well know SCOTUS has deemed time and again, that NO police agency has a RESPONSIBILTIY to protect an individual citizen, but society as a whole. Just one example, and from the NYT's hometown:

"What makes the City's position particularly difficult to understand is that, in conformity to the dictates of the law, Linda did not carry any weapon for self-defense. Thus by a rather bitter irony she was required to rely for protection on the City of NY which now denies all responsibility to her."
Riss v. New York, 22 N.Y.2d 579,293 N.Y.S.2d 897, 240 N.E.2d 806 (1958).

This and many other cases can be found via a simple Google search along with many other points that can be made but mine has been.

As I said to begin with, your original premise does not stand and cannot stand.


A Friend of Freedom

This article turns my stomach. The fact that the supposed experts who were invited to comment use their experience and position to advocate citizen disarmament with the full credentials and resources of their educational and community organizations behind them speaks to just how near-universal this deranged groupthink is in such circles.

This is apparently considered cutting-edge thinking by the political elite who seek to shape others' destinies by intrusive social engineering. "Forget about rights and individual responsibilities," they are saying. Their ideas involve instituting more big-government programs which will entice people to turn against their neighbors out of the motives of greed, envy, or simple malice. Their professed ignorance in the realm of real solutions does not convince me that they are acting out of altruistic motives, either.

There's a lot more I could say about this article, but two words pretty well sum it up: Truly sickening.


Free Marketeer

1) See what other cities or states have done and check the statistics on gun crime. Mimic the ones that saw big drops in gun crimes. Sometimes being a copy cat is better than trying something really new.

2) Enforce existing laws.

3) Enact tougher legislation on crime in general and gun crimes in particular.

4) In general, make parents of criminal minors financially responsible for a very long time, regardless of whether or not there was a gun involved.

5) Make crime, safety, and gang awareness a normal part of the school curriculum.

6) Poor performing students should get extra scrutiny, since it's sometimes a symptom of a potential problem kid.

7) Punish gang members who commit crimes SEVERELY. Forced tattoo removals, public denouncement of their gang, the whole 9.

8) Create a charity that helps families relocate out of inner cities with gang problems. Give preference to higher performing students at risk. Monitor those families to ensure they're keeping the grades up.


Bobby W Yates

Violence is a social issue, not a mechanical issue. In the Seattle-Vancouver gun control study "Handgun Regulations, Crime, Assaults, and Homicide: A Tale of Two
Cities" (Sloan et al), they showed that the violence rates of the different racial/cultural/economic groups was the same, Seattle had the larger population of violent groups.

Then there is the problem of the promotion of violence by the media and the funding of violence through drug purchases. Anyone that purchases illegal drugs is supporting murder in this country.


#199 says: "Possess a weapon while commiting any crime = minimum of 20 years. Discharge a weapon during any crime = life. Kill someone with a weapon = death within 6 months."

Assuming you mean "gun" when you say "weapon" ...

Say a fellow up and decides to kill his wife. Even though he's bad, maybe he's not stupid, so he beats her to death with his bare hands, or perhaps methodically stabs her two thousand times with a fork, or runs her over with a car, or bludgeons her with a blender, or poisons her, or goes after her with a weedeater, or ... whatever.

Why would any of these methods of murdering one's spouse be deemed less offensive to the rest of us than shooting her with a gun?

The real issue is that the guy MURDERED his wife. Exactly how he did it is beside the point. It's still a heinous crime. Perhaps more heinous with a fork if you ask me... ?

And #190

"It's when you make adult choices that kill other people, THAT is when I get worried. Run around with lethal weapons, drive your car drunk, leave bombs in public places"

I do not drive drunk. I do not leave bombs in public places. I do run around with lethal weapons on a daily basis - legally. There are a great many "lethal weapons" besides guns, but just to annoy people like you I run around with guns too. How does that interfere with your life and liberty? I'd bet you never heard of me before, and I have certainly never done anyone harm, nor have I ever committed any sort of crime with any sort of weapon.

It's people who are willing to commit crimes that interfere with your life and liberty. If you would take some initiative and run around with a lethal weapon of your own, these people would pose much less of a threat to you.


Kurt Hofmann

Reduce gun deaths? It seems to me that with alcohol-related deaths tripling shooting deaths, and the tobacco-related death rate more than A DOZEN TIMES the shooting death rate, doing something about those huge problems would have a vastly greater impact than trying to stop thugs from shooting one another.

By the way, since the same agency regulates alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, it would seem that the more time and resources they spend on guns, the more screwed up their priorities are.

Zachary Gennaro

I will never disarm, ever. Rest easy gun socialist authoritarian gun grabbers-I and my ilk are not the problem-young black men are. Dubner, you confuse the issue by qualifying your statement with "gun" violence, when the important statistic is violence. Get rid of all guns here, and violence would still be high, like in Brazil and Russia. Why doesn't Switzerland have a high murder rate? 1/3 of the homes there have machine guns and pistols in them. Explain it please. I can: It's the culture, not the tools available. Rate of violence is inelastic vis-a-vis the means available.

Laffe R. Curve

Legalize drugs. The reason guns have a purpose on the street is because you can't call the cops when someone steals your stash of drugs.

Carl in Chicago

It appears all the commentators in this column are from the "side" that supports strict gun control.

Yet you are asking what can be done to reduce gun crimes and other deaths that involve guns.

To these people people, the foregone conclusion is simply "we must enact strict (and stricter) gun control." Thus, the unspoken subject of your inquiry turns from "how do we reduce gun related violence and death" to "how do we enact stricter gun control legislation."

There are a couple of things that you must not forget, or simply write off:

1) gun control does not equate to crime control

2) supporters of lawful gun ownership and use can come to the table with many useful and effective strategies for decreasing gun related deaths in the US.

But ... you have to ask them, and be open to some of their ideas. You cannot come to the table with foregone conclusions about what works, and what is acceptable.


Anthony C.

A lot of people suggested that we stop making guns or make them illegal to buy. This only affects people who buy guns legally. It is not easy for a law abiding citizen to get a gun, there is a lot of paper work and background checks and in most cases classes that must be gone through in order to have a handgun. And who does these things? Well John Q. Public of course. Who does not go through these things? CRIMINALS!

Imagine this for a moment...America no longer has any guns available but somehow violent crime rates are going up. How is this happening? Oh, did we forget about our neighbors to the north and south. They can still have guns! But will criminals get guns through the black market from other countries...well of course, they get them from the black market now! Oh dear, we have now unarmed all the law abiding citizens and they have no way to protect themselves, meanwhile criminals are still getting guns.

And let's say by some magical spell that there really are no more guns, would that really stop criminals. Why would they not use knives or bats or cars. Where does this none sense of banning things stop? LET ME BE CLEAR...GUNS DO NOT CAUSE CRIMES TO HAPPEN! In the absence of guns there would still be violent crime. Has no one ever taken a social anthropology, or social psychology or just a sociology class? There is a saying that goes "Correlation does not imply causation" that means that just because two things are correlated does not mean that one of those things caused the other. However, we must remember, there is actually NO POSITIVE CORRELATION BETWEEN GUNS AND HIGHER VIOLENT CRIME. THE OPPOSITE IS TRUE. MORE GUNS IN THE HANDS OF LAW ABIDING CITIZENS ARE STATISTICALLY PROVEN TO REDUCE CRIME!



#197 - That's a great idea!

I for one, would become a rich man. Cheap Milsurp revolvers can be had for around $100 or less, so for starters I would buy ten of those and flip them for $20K

Guess what I would do with the $20K... buy 100 more ASAP! Flip them for $200K. Buy a ranch in Montana, and start systematically ruining the budgets of every large city in America that was stupid enough to do this. All without doing ANYTHING ILLEGAL!

Hooray for free enterprise!

A great many people that are posting here have ideas that are so unrealistic that it's a little scary. If these are real examples of what the superior "civilization" of big cities produces in the way of critical thinking, I'd venture that a great many of the bitter gun-clinging rural folk you love to blame are far wiser than you can even comprehend.

Anthony C.

It is not that I want to cut gun deaths, I want to cut innocent gun deaths. If we want a safer society we need to arm to the citizens. Statistically speaking every state that allows the citizens to be armed and makes it easier for law abiding citizens to be armed has very low crime rates (Vermont) and places with strict gun control laws, places not allowing their law abiding citizens to be armed have high crime rates (Washington DC). These are not some inflated "gun-nut" staistics, these are statistics from the Department of Justice at the order of many politicians who wanted to prove that more guns actually make more crime. The opposite was proven, more guns in the hands of law abiding citizens actually means less crime.

Let's face it, when criminals realize that the people they are preying on are not going to roll over and take it, innocent gun deaths will start to drop. Would you victimize people if you knew that every time you tried it could be the time you were shot.

There is saying, you can either be a wolf, a sheep, or a sheepdog. The wolf is the criminals, they are predators, and they prey on the sheep, the general population. Then there are the sheepdogs, and sheepdogs are law abiding citizens who arm themselves and who refuse to be victimized by the wolf. In nature the sheepdog is also a predator, but preys on the wolf, not the sheep. The sheepdog protects the sheep from the wolf. The wolf knows that the sheepdog is a superior predator, never hurting the sheep but always willing to defend against the wolf and hurt the wolf.

The point is, criminals are predator and you can either be the prey or a superior predator, but never preying on the innocent. Only when you are a superior predator will you not be preyed upon by criminals, and if they do attempt to victimize you, they will quickly find out they made a mistake and realize you are superior, but for them it will too late, and society will be much safer.



The question is structured to infer that all "gun deaths" are bad things (i.e. any use of a gun to kill a human being is unacceptable).
Note: Even in the rarified, extremist, anti-gun nirvana, the "gun death" of a madman who is shooting children cannot be considered a bad thing, whether the shot is fired by a policeman or a law-abiding gun owner.
"If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun." - the Dahli Lama, speaking at "the Educating the Heart Summit in Portland, Or. (05/15/01)


well, the first step seems to be to give up on gun laws. They don't work here and they don't work in the UK or anywhere else. Prohibition did not work for drinking, does not work for drugs and won't work for guns.

We need to make folks responsible for their actions. Keep the bad folks in jail for what they do, and make it easier for good folks to get guns if they want and to protect themselves without being treated like the bad guy.

If some woman kills a gang member trying to rob, rape or kill her than it should be investigated, and she should get off with a minimum of issues with the state.

Only when folks have to take responsibility for there actions and criminals learn that we won't take it any more will this stop. We need to encourage these criminals to find a safer line of work that is legal.


Have the aliens zap all guns off the planet. That's the only way we're going to get rid of gun violence.


History escapes most of you......as does knowledge & wisdom.
You cannot regulate taste.
You never can, and you NEVER will be able too.
When you do try to regulate everything under the Sun, you enslave yourself.
It's the Idea that People think they can control the out comes & Actions of others.
This is a delusion.
It's the same delusion people have when they actually believe they have control of their cars as they drive them down the highway at 55 MPH!


Education, education and education

Kevin P.

The manufacture of firearms is hardly regulated at all. It's actually a large example of a self-regulated industry. The government doesn't regulate calibers, chamber pressures, manufacture techniques, production materials — practically everything that goes into a gun is without regulation.

Cars are regulated up the wazoo. You have to put certain things in them, meet certain safety standards, use other items that are standardized across other companies.

And guns are doing just fine without government meddling in this subject. Modern guns are made very safe. They simply do not fire by themselves. They only fire when someone deliberately puts his finger on the trigger and squeezing.

I have no doubt that government "safety standards" would be immediately used by anti-gun bureaucrats to start shutting down gun ownership using the pretext of "safety".

Heavy D

Some interesting ideas but it seems the only realistic solution would be to set extremely harsh penalties for any crime in which a gun was used.

Possess a weapon while commiting any crime = minimum of 20 years. Discharge a weapon during any crime = life. Kill someone with a weapon = death within 6 months.