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.


If we use probabilities as an argument about the worthiness of investing effort in controlling gun violence, we fail to take into account the impacts of "unlikely" outcomes. Just because Newtown is extremely rare doesn't reduce its impact. The notion that we're not going to invest in background checks, smaller magazines, and assault weapons bans because "they won't work," is to ignore the probability, however small, that sometimes they will work. If it is a probability that one life will be saved because Lanza could only fire ten bullets instead of 30, or that he had to use a handgun instead of an assault rifle, because his mom couldn't buy one, or that someone like him seeking to buy a weapon (new or old) failed a background check, do we say that those efforts "didn't work"? Can we categorically declare they won't work in every single instance? We have little tolerance for negligence in the safe operation of commercial aircraft and as a result, we have enjoyed a long run without major crashes. These already extremely rare events are deemed to be unacceptable and we invest in efforts to reduce the probabilities to as close to zero as we can get them. This should be the same standard to apply to gun violence. To say only that we need better parenting and mental health is to give over the problem only to solutions with very long tails. Likewise, while mandatory sentencing for gun crimes have proved effective, it can't be seen as the only solution. Second Amendment rights must be balanced against society's interest in containing violence and preserving innocent life that supersedes an absolute right for everyone to keep and bear arms without limit, review or regulation. Finally, I think you missed the correlation between the increase in mass slaughter with assault weapons in recent years as an outcome of the expiration of the ban on same. That would seem to be evidence that the ban was effective in reducing the use of such weapons to kill lots of people very quickly.



Like several others, I did not find the "guns vs. swimming pools" comparison very apt, given the different ways those items are typically stored and used. You would have to run morbid experiments of allowing toddlers to have loaded guns around swimming pools and see what the casualty rate would be before that you could really compare.

But it does bring a more practical idea to mind. Many swimming pools come with safety feature, such as covers, etc. that reduce the possibility of people falling in.

Likewise, a better approach to guns may simply be to encourage safer handling and storage of them, as this extremely liberal (not) writer from the National Review suggests:

I would be curious to know how many guns that are properly stored in locked gun cabinets, safes or similarly, when their owners are not in possession of them, are used to cause death or injury (intentional or accidental). I would imagine that its a small fraction of the total.

What if we simply made NRA safety guidelines for handling and storing firearms the law? That would change the debate from argumets about possession of guns to a discussion about personal repsonsibility. Would any (or many) responsible gun owners object?

Its sad to me that we are not having discussions along these lines.



As usual, I learned some things from your podcast, but one topic that you did not address was the actual economic impact of gun violence on our society. Could you please do a follow up show that discusses the financial issues associated with the guns/ammo industry, weapons training classes, medical costs from gun violence etc. I would also like to hear your opions on how guns/ammo are currently taxed compared to other taxable items and whether or not changing the tax structure for guns could have a societal benefit. It seems to me, that there is a long history of using tax policies to attempt to modify behaviors and I wonder why I don't hear from any politicians about propoposals to dramatically increase taxes on ammunition. This could generate revenue for mental health programs without restricting the right to bear arms.