How to Think About Guns (Ep. 114)

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There are an estimated 300 million guns in America. This photo, from Kyle Cassidy’s Armed America, shows (from right to left) Donno, Judy, and their son Uzi. Cassidy’s latest book is War Paint: Tattoo Culture & the Armed Forces

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “How to Think About Guns.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript here; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

This episode is a straightforward conversation between Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt, keeping in mind recent events like the Newtown, Ct., school massacre and long-standing traditions like the American embrace of guns.

Levitt has focused much of his academic career on crime research, including all sorts of gun policies that do and do not prevent violence.  He has also analyzed the relationship between the economy and the crime rate, whether increased police presence affects crime, and whether deterrents like capital punishment and sentence enhancements actually work.

We begin this episode with some basic data. In the U.S., there are roughly 11,000 gun homicides and 20,000 gun suicides a year. (Our podcast “The Suicide Paradox” looked into why we hear so much less about the suicides than the homicides.) What we hear about more than anything are the relatively rare but extremely disturbing mass shootings. From the podcast:

Mother Jones magazine recently built a database of mass shootings – four or more fatalities — over the past 30 years. Not everyone likes this database – it excludes, for instance, all gang shootings and armed robberies. But here are those numbers: since 1982, there have been 62 mass shootings with 513 fatalities, or an average of 2 mass shootings and 16.5 fatalities a year. (Now, remember, keep in mind there are 11,000 gun murders each year in total.) Over just the past 10 years, those numbers are a bit higher – about 3 shootings a year, with 26 fatalities. But 2012 was a very bad year: 7 shootings with 72 fatalities, more than 4 times the average number of victims in a year from mass shootings.

Levitt helps put all these numbers in context, and make sense of overall crime trends. We also hear what he thinks about current proposed gun policy. He’s not optimistic:

LEVITT: I would just say that anyone with any sense looks at the current political climate, thinks about the kinds of proposals that are being made and accepts the fact that none of these proposals are going to have any real impact at all.

So what could diminish gun violence? We’ve asked that question before; good answers are hard to come by.  Levitt says mandatory sentence enhancements work. You’ll also hear about Geoffrey Canada‘s book Fist Stick Knife Gun, which might change the way you think about violence in general.


A big part of the argument in favor of the right to own firearms is "self defense". Is there any study that shows how many of the 11,000 homicides per year result from self defense? Were any of the mass shootings based on this argument?

The current debate should help shake up the fundamental assumptions that are dividing the American society in such a polarizing way.


I listened to the podcast and tend to agree -- including on the buy-backs. However, the analysis seemed to focus on homicide. Might there be more positive effect in suicide reduction?

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You could probably deal with gun suicides through other measures, like requiring people to store guns in a safe with a time lock (most suicide attempts go from the first thought to action in five minutes or less, so an hour's delay for unlocking the gun would prevent the attempt. Do you remeber that the old line about "If you ever decide to commit suicide, then just get me on the telephone first"? It's not so the counselor could rationalize the client out of suicide? It's effectiveness is in the delay. A delay of just a few minutes stops many suicides.

You might be able to reduce gun suicides by emphasizing what an ugly, expensive mess they create, and socializing the idea that good people use less messy methods (and always leave a suicide note so that there is less investigative expense incurred, and always arrange for a forewarned adult to find the body, and so forth).


Levitt obviously knows nothing about mental illnesses in the social contex. I was extremely offended by the use of the term “crazy people” and how apparently the insane are individually responsible for shootings. He obviously knows nothing about the history of deinstitutionalization and what it was supposed to accomplish. The suggestion to “lock the crazy people up”, because they pose a threat to THEMSELVES or other people and to let everybody know that there lives the crazy one, keep your kids indoors, how could they let someone like that “walk the streets” shows how he thinks of the mentally ill as second class citizens. Look at the statistics of how many people will suffer from depression in their lifetime (i suggest also looking at the statistics of how many and how severely these people are discriminated against in EVERY part of their life) – now, ALL of these millions of people, the 16 year olds, the 40 year olds, the 70 year olds, pose a threat to themselves, because depression makes people have suicidal thoughts. The problem is with the government, not these people, because in normal countries, you need proof from a psychiatrist that you are not depressed to get a gun. In the US, EVERYBODY ALREADY HAS GUNS and it’s stupid to suggest that we monitor the 18 year old girl who has depression and consider locking everybody like her up to stop shootings from happening. Now, the point of deinstitutionalizaton was to protect the civil rights of people who have mental illnesses (illnesses that are in NO WAY different from other illnesses) and to move from long-term institutionalization to COMMUNITY BASED MENTAL HEALTH CARE (hence the “scary insane people” living with their parents) and to treatment based on a biopsychosocial model of mental health. The reason i am so angry with his statements is that the mentally ill are, according to the WHO declaration (2010), a vulnerable group. Vulnerable, among many other things, to VIOLENCE AND ABUSE. Meaning that we need to protect the mentally ill from violence inflicted upon them MORE than we need to protect the community from the mentally ill. DESPITE WHAT HOLLYWOOD AND MEDIA PORTRAYALS OF THE MENTALLY ILL SUGGEST, THE MENTALLY ILL ARE NOT MORE LIKELY TO BE VIOLENT THAN ANY SANE PERSON. STOP ADDING INSULT TO INJURY, LEVITT. The community based mental health care hasn’t worked out perfectly, because we do not get ENOUGH FUNDING to provide these people with the proper infrastructure, care that they NEED, services that were PROMISED when the deinstitutionalization BEGAN MANY YEARS AGO and these services are STILL NOT IN PLACE AND AVAILABLE TODAY. And in the US, you don’t have incompetent doctors, but OVERWORKED doctors doing THE BEST THEY CAN. All the talk about over-medicating, over-diagnosing is because of a lack of funding – doctors just don’t have enough time to consentrate on one patient, because there are 15 waiting outside the door. Currently a very ill patient NEEDING care has DIFFICULTY GETTING INTO HOSPITAL AND WILL NOT BE ABLE TO STAY LONG ENOUGH TO GET REALLY WELL. The suggestion that people with mental health issues (i believe the Newport shooter was on the autistic spectrum and therefore not mentally ill, but neuroatypical) plan out mass-murders and are somehow secretive and want to hurt others and therefore wouldn’t talk to their therapists is WRONG, PLAIN AND SIMPLE. WHAT ARE YOU BASING THIS ON EXACTLY? So you can kindly go retract your statements and i expect an apology for discriminating, perpetuating harmful negative stereotypes and demonizing such a large percentage of the population based on nothing but your own ignorance.



To the downvoters: I am not sorry for being outraged by discrimination and harmful stereotypes.


While I understand the points made regarding the lack of effectiveness of currently proposed policies, I think there is some value to the ideas of licensing and restrictions on types of guns and/or ammunition for sale if you look at the long term. One piece of the puzzle is culture. Changing "gun culture'" requires a shift in thinking and that's where restricting sales of semiautomatics and such works.

As younger people grow up with these restrictions, it becomes normal to consider guns as acceptable within limits. Over time, there could very well be a shift toward considering the actual use of a gun rather than just wanting to buy a "bigger better" gun.


Its hard to say in short form all of the things wrong with your post.

You do not license civil rights. The right to bear arms is an individual civil right (See DC v Heller and other SCOTUS decisions)

The second amendment is intended to guarantee the availability of modern arms in common use. In fact a strong argument can be made that it is intended to guarantee use of military arms. I do not want a "bigger better" gun, I want an effective one. Several in point of fact because I enjoy the sport along with retaining them to stop attempts at violence.

Your argument that if you impose an infringement of civil rights on the young so that they grow up used to it is horrifying to anyone who believes in a free society. I'm reminded of the old joke, Orwell intended 1984 as a warning not a guidebook.

If you unravel one portion of the framework that protects that freedom, you jeopardize it all. It is, in fact, why Madison didn't want the bill of rights at all because people would use it as an excuse to restrict natural rights because they'd take the view that the rights came from the document not the proper view that you always had those rights. The document is to stop the government from infringing on them.

Take some time to read an expert in the field of firearms and self defense's opinions on recent issues:



Isn't the right to vote a civil right? Even, maybe, the paramount civil right? And yet we register to vote, and have our names checked to make sure that we are not felons. No one ever objects to those simple measures to prevent fraud! How would universal background checks be any different?


I was not going to say anything originally but it wasn't your basic point for me.  I might agree with it if I had the energy to read and follow the whole thing.  It was the parody of an insane rant in defense of people with mental illness.  If this was on the level (and I think it was), you are not helping.


I am a pretty big Freakonomics fan; I read FN and superFN, and I remember the piece about swimming pools vs guns. However, listening to the podcast last night, you said something that I didn't remember from the books. I might have misunderstood it, or it might have been in the book too and I just forgot - it seems to be a pretty big flaw in the logic:

You looked at the lethality of swimming pools based on the number of times they were used (at least that's what I think you were saying), so something like times used/deaths. But then when you shifted to looking at the lethality of guns in the home, you just looked at overall risk, 24/7, with no consideration of how often it is used. Isn't that comparing apples and oranges? To be consistent, wouldn't you need to either look at the SP risk NOT based on a per-use figure, or look at gun deaths USING a per-use figure? ie how often does the family go target shooting or hunting.

Here's an example of what I mean:
Let's say that instead of swimming pools, we were talking about basketball hoops, and instead of guns, skydiving parachutes.
Using this analogy, what you did would be like looking at the basketball hoop on a per-use basis (let's say it's used 3x/week), and looking at the parachute NOT on a per-use basis (even though it is only used 2x/year). You would probably conclude that the basketball hoop was far more risky than the parachute! Is this really the way you compared your statistics, or did I misunderstand (very possible)?

ps I understand that this presents unique challenges to study; I mean, what are you going to do, survey parents and ask "how often do your children play with your guns?"? No one would ever admit to that, even if they didn't lock up their guns well. On the other hand, it's also not like parents will answer honestly "How often do your children swim unsupervised?"! Unique challenges, sure, but you have to find a way around it - you're economists! Economist up!

Keep up the good work!


Adriel Michaud

Great podcast guys. I particularly like how the unique points of view given were weighted with pragmatism and fact without the emotion that so many feel the need to attach to this issue.


The problem here is that you keep skating around an important, perhaps crucial, question. You talk about "gun violence" as though it's a single thing; that if there were no guns, there would be no violence. I would think even a slight acquaintance with history ought to disabuse anyone of that notion, but there it is.

So what are the odds that if a person has a desire for violence, whether it be suicide or mass murder, and a gun is not readily available, that some other tool will be used instead?

Along with this, we have the fact that the largest (non-governmental) mass killings in the US have all been done without the use of guns. Airplanes, arson, improvised explosives, cyanide... all these have been shown to be capable of killing more people more effectively than guns.