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.


I was really excited when I saw a podcast about this topic, as much of the current debate is clouded by emotional appeals as opposed to hard data. That said, the podcast was pretty disappointing. I have the same problem with the swimming pool argument as Jacob (you're much more likely to use a swimming pool for swimming than to drown in it, but you're much more likely to harm yourself or a loved one with a gun than protect yourself with it).

While Levitt does a great job of demonstrating that gun buy-back programs are pure political optics, he doesn't directly tackle any of the three major proposals in Congress: the assault weapons ban, universal background checks, and a limit on magazine capacity. While it may be true that banning assault weapons does nothing about the 300 million guns already in circulation, Levitt does admit that the popularity of guns in America accounts for our higher homicide rate. Doesn't it follow that a country with 500 million guns floating around is more dangerous than one with 300 million? We already have regulators who are supposed to prevent the sales of certain weapons, so where are the extra costs coming from if all we're doing is adding another type of weapon to the list of what's banned? I can see that such a ban may not be the most effective policy and may be too costly in terms of political capital, but the analysis seemed incomplete.

The magazine ban and background check weren't analyzed at all, and I was really looking forward to a statistical analysis of those policies. I also expected someone as creative as Levitt to have a really original solution that no politician is even mentioning. What about a $25 tax per bullet or an exorbitant $200 tax on armor piercing bullets designed for automatic and semi-automatic weapons. I'm not a gun expert, but if there is a way to distinguish between bullets used for hunting (which would be tax-free), hand guns, and assault weapons, would a two tiered tax system be an effective way of decreasing gun violence?


A Concerned Parent

"one is to parent better, to have society indoctrinate people into more empathy and whatnot."

First: amen.

Second: how?

Does it possibly start with changing our culturally permissive attitude toward the glorification of violence and revenge in our media (tv, movies, video games, etc.)?

I'm sure I will get a ton of downvotes for that idea. But we need to ask the question: how do we seriously expect to teach empathy and civility when we're bombarding our children with violent images?


I'm from Sweden were guns still aren't very common and your'e considered a suspicious person if you own a gun for self defense. Maybe this is why I can't understand the gun vs swimming pool risk argument.
I wouldn't let my kids play in a house where there are guns and I would let them play in a house with a swimming pool (and have them promise not to swim in it without an adult present). But I don't make that judgement based on survival statistics but on an over all evaluation of the gun owners judgement. You purchase a pool for swimming and it comes with a risk of drowning. You purchase a gun to injure/kill people (defense or not) and that tells you something about the person buying it. I think non-gun environments generally are more risk free for my kids(which was kind of stated later in the podcast: People who hangs around people with guns more often get shot)