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.

Steve Cebalt


I have written earlier on my blog ( that the only sensible remedy to gun control is an economic one: make the price for carrying an illegal gun too expensive for criminals to consider. In other words, ruthlessly and relentlessly prosecute and punish any offense related to illegal us of a gun: illegal possession, providing false information on a background check, brandishing a gun in a gas-station stick-up, scaring a person with a gun, or using a gun to coerce someone into being raped, robbed or victimized. No infraction should be too small to carry the ultimate price -- the same price for all offenses -- life in prison without parole.


Here's why gun control is irrelevant to reducing gun crimes: Only 14% of criminals bought their guns legally. So laws will not influence lawbreakers. Period. That is why they are called "criminals."

To support the preceding statement: Among prison inmates possessing a gun, fewer than 2% bought their firearm at a flea market or gun show, about 12% from a retail store or pawnshop, and 80% got their guns from a street buy, or an illegal source or a friend or associate. Existing federal law would have disqualified over 8 in 10 inmates from buying a firearm. And with nearly as many guns in circulation (that we know of) as there are people in the U.S., there is no way to control the illegal market through legislation on the "supply" side -- the solution is to increase the price on the enforcement and prosecution side of the ledger. (sources are ar


Here is the real problem: It's cheap (in terms of consequences for the criminal) to use a gun in a crime, because it makes the criminal act far more effective and yields very little extra jail time:

Among prisoners carrying a firearm during their crime, only 40% of State inmates and 56% of Federal inmates received more jail time because of the firearm. Essentially the use of a gun in 60% of State cases was "free" in terms of consequences, and in nearly half of Federal cases. That's a problem we can fix, right now, with no new laws, no Second Amendment debates; just the willingness to treat all gun crimes with the utmost punishment possible: life without parole. Simply increase the price (life in prison) to the criminals until they are unwilling to pay it, and as with any other economic transaction, behavior will follow suit. Meanwhile, the cost of imprisoning these offenders is pennies on the dollar compared to the havoc they cause to victims and society.

Right now using a gun is cheap for criminals in terms of risk vs. reward. Those who had carried a firearm served, on average, about 10 years on their sentence, and those without a firearm, 7 years. So the current price for using a gun during a crime is 3 years. Increase the penalty to all the remaining years of the criminal's life, and most will not be willing to risk or pay that price. But risking 3 years to make your criminal activities more effective and lucrative ... well, that's a bargain for criminals. Why are we making it so cheap for criminals to victimize us?