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Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s an economist, at the University of Chicago. One topic he’s studied for lot of years, from a lot of angles, is crime. He’s tried to figure out which of many potential factors have a big impact on crime rates.  More police and more prisons? That’s a yes. The economy? Mostly a no. Did the legalization of abortion help crime fall a generation later? That’s a yes. He’s also studied guns: gun laws, gun buybacks, gun crime.

Levitt and I were working together, in Texas, on the day back in December that a 20-year-old guy in Connecticut named Adam Lanza killed his mother, then shot up an elementary school, killing 20 little kids and six adults, and finally shot himself.

As horrific as that was, as incomprehensibly sad, Steve Levitt, given everything he knows about crime, he wasn’t all that surprised.

Steven LEVITT: You know, I think my reaction was probably different than other people’s reactions, because the thing that I’m always shocked by is how few insane people are out there doing mass murders, not how many are out there doing mass murders. And so, I have sort of a sense of foreboding. I always expect there to be crazy people out there doing murders, and so I guess I wasn’t as surprised as a lot of other people were.

DUBNER: So you are more surprised when there isn’t as much mayhem in the world as there is the opportunity for mayhem to occur?

LEVITT: Yeah, the way I think about it, when there’s one or two people out there a year who just go completely nuts and kill a bunch of people, then you think, well, why is it only one or two? Why is it not eight or 10 or 15 or 20? Once you get that far on the tail, it seems striking that, that…you know, we know there are lots of people who are insane. We certainly know there are lots of guns, and that’s a lethal combination. 

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On today’s show, a conversation with my Freakonomics co-author, Steve Levitt, about guns. The United States has a lot of guns, by most estimates, at least one gun for every adult. And we have a lot of gun violence. In a given year, there are roughly 11,000 gun murders and nearly 20,000 gun suicides.

And then there are the mass killings, like the one in Newtown, Ct., that makes everyone rethink everything they ever thought about guns. Now, how many such killings are there, and are they on the rise?

Well, depends how you count, and whom you ask. 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 a total of 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 three shootings a year, with 26 fatalities. But 2012 was a very bad year: seven shootings with 72 fatalities, more than four times the average number of victims in a year from mass shootings. So you can see why this topic has got everyone’s attention. Here’s how Steve Levitt makes sense of these numbers.

LEVITT: Yeah, it certainly appears to be the case that these isolated incidents of mass violence against strangers is going up, but I think you also need to put it in the context of the amazing gains we’ve had in the reductions of crime since the peak of homicide. Homicides are way down. They are down almost 50 percent, maybe even more than 50 percent from the peak. It’s come down year after year after year. The number of people who are killed by guns is in the thousands. But the number of people who are killed in these sort of Newtown type of events is really, really a small piece of the overall gun violence. So much more gun violence is either, you know, drug dealers shooting one another, spouses killing each other, friends and family killing each other, more generally, or, indeed, killing yourself. I mean, of all the gun violence which really is at the top of the list it’s suicides. Gun suicides. 

DUBNER: The fact is, though, that while gun violence isn’t necessarily increasing overall, it’s been relatively flat for the past 10 or 15 years, after having fallen a good bit before that. The U.S. is more violent than most other rich countries, at least, there’s more gun damage here than most other rich countries. Why do you think that is? Any thoughts?

LEVITT: Well, we have more crime in general across the board than many other rich countries. And, more specifically though, we have a lot more guns than other countries. So, it’s not the slightest bit of a surprise that when you have as many guns as people in a country, that your gun violence will be much higher than in a place like the U.K. where guns are incredibly sparse. 

DUBNER: Alright, so when you say that, one might immediately say, well okay if you want to get rid of the violence, you’d need to obviously get rid of the guns. But there some issues with that right? I mean, first of all, guns are not perishable. Unlike Coca Cola or a car, it doesn’t deteriorate in any way, so a gun that exists 10 years ago will still exist today. So how do you start to think about if your goal is to lessen the amount of guns, lessen the supply of guns, how do you think about doing that?

LEVITT: If your goal is to limit the amount of damage done by guns, then, given the fact that guns are a durable good that will stick around and if taken care of well will work for 50 or 100 years, the first obvious thing that you need to think about is you can’t have policies that only affect new guns. Right? If you have a stock of 300 million guns, it doesn’t really matter what you do with the new guns if you don’t do anything with the guns that are already out there.

DUBNER: Okay, so what are the kinds of things that are typically done with the guns that are out there? I’m thinking gun buybacks. What’s your view on the efficacy or lack thereof of a gun buyback?

LEVITT: Gun buybacks are one of the most ineffectual public policies that have ever been invented in the history of mankind. So the typical gun buyback will offer, you know, $25 or $50 for a gun, or maybe they’ll offer some, you know…There was one where they offered some therapy, you could get therapy.

DUBNER: Right that was California.

LEVITT: California, therapy if you turned in a gun. But the fact is maybe a thousand guns will be turned in in an incredibly successful gun buyback program. And it’s successful in the sense there’s a really big pile of guns, and the mayor or the governor gets to set that pile of guns on fire. And it’s a great media opportunity. But there’s two fundamental problems. The first one is that the only people who bring back these guns in gun buybacks are people who don’t want the guns in the first place. Most of the guns are inoperable, they’re guns people inherited, they’ve just been not sure what to do with them, these are not the guns that are being used to kill people. Anyone who has a gun and wants to put it to a real purpose doesn’t bring their gun back for the buyback. So you get exactly the wrong kinds of guns. But more fundamentally, I think people are confused with respect to how dangerous a particular gun is. If I’ve done my calculations right, any particular handgun in the United States will kill a person about once every 10,000 years. Okay, so in order to prevent one homicide in a year, you would need to get 10,000 guns brought back in a gun buyback. Okay, but the thing is you don’t get 10,000 guns, and they’re not the guns that are used to kill people. So the typical gun buyback program I would guess saves approximately maybe 0.0001 lives. And I think that’s being optimistic about the size of the effect.

DUBNER: One of the questions that we posed in our first book, in Freakonomics, was simply this: what’s more dangerous, if let’s say you’re the parent of young children, what’s more dangerous, a house with a gun in it, or a house with a swimming pool in the backyard? What’s the answer to that question?

LEVITT: Yeah, the answer to that question is incredibly easy. And the swimming pool is far, far more dangerous than the gun when it comes to young children. So what we did is we looked at the number of child deaths that were due to swimming pools, the number of child deaths that were due to guns, and then we put it in terms of how often will a given swimming pool kill a child versus how often will a particular gun kill a child. And it turns out that the swimming pool is far more lethal than the gun, that a given swimming pool is 100 times more likely to lead to the death of a child than a particular gun is to lead to the death of a child. And so, I know a lot of parents who would say I would never let my child go over to the house of someone who has a gun in the house, but I’ve actually never heard anyone say I will never let my child go over to the house of someone who has a swimming pool, when in fact that’s completely reversed when it comes to the risk that the two products actually have.

DUBNER: Alright, as we’ve discussed this a lot on this program and elsewhere: people are terrible at risk assessment generally. And we understand why. Sometimes the math is hard. And some things are scarier than others. And a gun is inherently frightening to a lot of people, especially the kind of people who don’t interact with guns at all. So let me ask you this, in regards to guns, do you think then, that reducing gun violence is a goal that should be put front and center on let’s say the political agenda, or do you think it’s really not as threatening as it’s being felt to be and made out to be?

LEVITT: I think that gun violence is clearly an important problem. You look at the thousands of people who die each year from it. But the simple fact is that there are no viable political answers to it. So, in regard to your precise question, I think no, I don’t think gun violence should be on the political agenda at all. I think it’s so hopelessly convoluted. And the kinds of policies that people suggest are so obviously not going to fundamentally affect that the problem, that while there is a big problem, I don’t think there’s any way out given the kind of minimalist suggestions we’re making. So therefore I think we should spend our time on other problems where I think we might have a chance to really make a difference. I think about motor vehicle fatalities. And we’ve had an enormous impact of motor vehicle fatalities. There are assuredly other policies, say, related to drunk driving that could, and seat belt wearing, that could have a big effect on that. And I think for the number of lives you could save per word out of a politician’s mouth or dollar spent by politicians is probably 100 times greater if we think about motor vehicle fatalities than if we think about gun violence.

Coming up: How optimistic should we be about gun legislation?

LEVITT: 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.

That’s coming up on Freakonomics Radio.

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On today’s show, we’re talking with Steve Levitt about guns, and the new spate of gun-control ideas that are being raised since the massacre in Newtown, CT. Levitt says that many of the gun-control ideas that are being proposed simply will not work.

LEVITT: Well, I think the policies that can work are ones that tie heavy punishments to uses of guns that we don’t like. So for instance, laws that say if you commit a crime and you have a gun with you, regardless of whether the gun was used, then without any sort of other consideration, we add five years, or 10 years, or 20 years, or 50 years to the sentence that you get. Those kinds of laws, I guarantee you, will work. If the incentives are strong and they tell you don’t use guns, then I guarantee you we will see the number of gun homicides fall and the number of knife homicides rise, but not one for one. People will substitute away for using guns to kill people to using knives to kill people. But it won’t be one for one because knives just aren’t as good of a tool for killing people as guns are. That will work. I have no doubt that will work. It’s worked in California in the past when California put mandatory sentence enhancements on for felonies that were committed with guns. But I think the policy has to be one of that nature, where you’re not tying it to the gun itself, you’re tying it to the use of guns that you don’t want.

DUBNER: Levitt, let me ask you this: so, we’ve talked before about the hidden cost of things, something as simple as, you know, free parking let’s say, which in fact generates a lot of hidden costs in terms of pollution, and congestion, and real estate value and so on. Talk to me for a moment about the fact that, you know, modern America is perhaps the freest society in the history of the world in which just about anybody has the right to go just about anywhere and do just about anything within some set of boundaries. And that in this very, very free society that perhaps gun violence is simply one of the hidden costs of that freedom, and perhaps A) we shouldn’t be so surprised by it, and B) it’s a trade off that if we want a society like we’ve got it will continue to exist. What do you think of that?

LEVITT: I actually don’t completely…I agree about the part about freedom, but I think the fact that there are all the guns around is really accidental. You know, if guns were just being invented today, the treatment of guns would be completely different than the treatment we have in this country. So, you know, it’s part of the Constitution. It’s been interpreted in various ways. But I think that there are all sorts of things that you’re not allowed to do. You’ not allowed to drive really fast in your car. And you’re not supposed to litter. I mean, there are many, many things that you’re not supposed to do. And I think it’s really an accident. I’ll give you another example of accident. If you think about why is it that alcohol and cigarettes are legal and marijuana is not, I think that again is mostly accident. If people had been smoking regularly for the last 300 years and alcohol had just kind of come along and been on the fringes, there’s no way we’d say, you know, alcohol should be freely consumed by everyone all the time. So I’m not after making this country into a police state, but I think that people are kind of whacked when they act like there’s something fundamental about, you know, how guns should be part of society. I thin it’s kind of a historical accident that you live with. But I don’t think it was deterministic in any way.

DUBNER: What about from the other side, not people who were defending the right to have guns, but the other side, people who are defending their right to live in a society where other people don’t have guns. I wonder how much you think that’s a kind of a repugnance issue, you know, that people who don’t like guns don’t just not like them, they find them repugnant and so much so that they, not only do they not want to engage with them but they feel that no one should and that people who do are by association repugnant? Do you think that’s an issue? 

LEVITT: Yeah, I agree with you. Because the people who don’t have guns themselves, they tend not to hang out with other people who have guns, and consequently they really are at extremely low risk for being the victim of accidental gun shooting or gun violence, because such a trivial, trivial share of the gun deaths are of pure innocents who are, you know, being, you know slaughtered by people with guns. And so, it just gets back to what you said, which is that there’s something else. Either they’re misinformed about the risks that guns pose to them, or they feel the repugnance, but for people who don’t hang around guns, guns are almost certainly one of the least likely sources of death for them.

DUBNER: So, President Obama, inspired by the really horrible killings in Newtown, Connecticut, came forward with a plan called “Now Is The Time,” which is meant to curtail gun violence. And it’s full of the kind of stuff that we’ve been talking about here that, according to you, pretty much won’t accomplish much. Let’s say that the Obama Administration invited you to become it’s anti-violence czar for the next few years, asked you for ideas on how to cut down on gun homicides, in particular. Where would you start? What would you tell them, and how would you think about breaking the impasse?

LEVITT: Well I’d start by saying no thanks, I’ve got much more productive things to do than to try to lead a committee like that. I mean, I think from the perspective of having either a big impact on the number of homicides or being cost effective, I think it’s a really difficult problem to make any headway on. I mean, I think there are very expensive ways to try to have a small impact, so…

DUBNER: Expensive in terms of dollars you mean, or in terms of laws…

LEVITT: Expensive in terms of dollars and time and everything. But really dollars. So, I mean, but let me give you one example. So it used to be that we locked up enormous numbers of people into mental institutions. And I don’t know if it was right or wrong. And it turned out though that we weren’t so good and treating those patients. And there’s a lot of bad publicity. And it is really remarkable. We used to have more people in mental institutions in this country than we do prisoners. And that number has now swung, you know, I don’t know whether it’s a 10 to 1 ratio or a 20 to 1 ratio of more prisoners than people in mental institutions. And, you know, I think it’s probably true that most of the people who carry out these tragic mass shootings are probably at least ex post described as being mentally ill. And I’m not sure these are people who would be institutionalized before they committed their act or not. I think maybe not always, but just in terms of a glimmer of hope, and I’m not saying this would be at all cost effective, I think you could revisit the policy of are there people who are so mentally ill that they cannot function in open society, and should those people be institutionalized, because right now very few of them are institutionalized. Many of them are on the streets, many of them are, you know, living with their parents. And I, again, I don’t think it’s a great policy, but at least we would have some hope of reducing this kind of gun violence.

DUBNER: Well, let me ask you this: in New York State, where Governor Andrew Cuomo jumped out very quickly and passed a new gun law, or set of gun laws, called the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, one component of that is mental health reporting. It “requires therapists and social workers to report dangerous patients to the county” the definition of dangerous being, “likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to him or herself or others.” And then the county would help to build a database that cross checks those people with gun ownership. So if someone seems to be a threat and has access to a gun then the state would get to know about it. What do you think of this idea, how do you see that playing out, Levitt?

LEVITT: Well, in principle it doesn’t seem like such a terrible idea, but it certainly seems like it’s one of these things that could have unanticipated consequences. So for instance, let’s just say I’m one of these crazy people who has guns and is thinking about committing a mass murder, well I sure as heck am not going to tell my therapist about it now because if I tell my therapist they’re going to take my guns away, they’re going to lock me up, whatever. So, you know, to the extent that you think that this sort of therapy is at all effective in solving people’s problems and making them less likely to carry out these acts, this actually could have exactly the opposite effect you want, which is it closes off the ability of that mental health system to have any influence on these people’s lives, because they’re going to withhold the information that might have been exactly the information that a therapist not charged with telling the state about the problems would have worked through with the client.

DUBNER: I remember when you and I first started working together and we started talking about — we knew we were going to be writing about crime, and therefore violence, and therefore guns — and we started talking about Geoff Canada’s book, Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun. And it lead to this conversation where we wrote…Here I’m going to read you Levitt a couple of sentences that we ended up writing. “It might be worthwhile to step back and ask a rudimentary question: what is a gun? It’s a tool that can be used to kill someone, of course, but more significantly a gun is a great disrupter of the natural order.” I wonder if you could just talk about that for a minute. When you think of a gun disrupting, changing the equation of the way that people interact with and fight each other, the way they did hundreds or thousands of years ago at least, how does the gun as a kind of, you know, intervening instrument just change the whole dynamic of the way that people relate to each other or against each other?

LEVITT: Yeah, you might think that having a lot of guns around would be great for reducing violence. It’s the same theory that works with nuclear deterrents. When you have weapon that’s incredibly powerful, no one wants to fight because the costs of fighting are so high. But why is it in the context of guns we don’t think of guns as deterrents, we think about guns as, being this, causing the violence. And the idea here comes out of Canada’s book, Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, which honestly I’ll say is one of the best books I’ve read in my life, and if it’s still in print I would just encourage people to go find it. It’s fantastically insightful. And what Canada talks about is that in the old days in the fifties and sixties when there weren’t that many guns around, disputes would be solved with fist fights or maybe with knives, okay? And the thing is, look when you fight someone who’s much bigger and stronger than you, you know who’s going to win. And if you already know who’s going to win you don’t need to fight, because if you know you’re going to lose, why bother? So actually in that setting, where disputes are decided by fighting, you know, with your fists, you don’t have to have many fights because there’s not a lot of uncertainty.

But guns, okay, and this is Canada’s point, guns really destroy that order because anybody with a gun can beat anybody without a gun, right? It doesn’t matter how strong you are or whether you’re popular or unpopular. The gun basically makes it so that uncertainty of the outcome of the fight is immense. And then that actually has the opposite effect of deterrents, because now if anybody can win the fight there can be more fights, because it’s not like you’ve got a certain winner and certain loser, which means you don’t have to fight in the first place. And I think that’s a really powerful idea. It’s a subtle idea, but one that is really at the heart of why guns are related to violence but nuclear weapons have not been ever used. Since we did it the first time when no one had them on the other side to scare us off from using them.

DUBNER: I’d like to hear you leave people with a thought about gun violence generally for whether they are gun owners and gun lovers, or whether they think that guns are the most abominable thing that was ever invented, no matter what camp you’re in when you look at the shooting at an elementary school where these five and six-year-old kids are killed, you know, no one can be unaffected by that. It’s the kind of problem that’s got all kinds of tiers and levels, and incentives, and all different kinds of people with all kinds of agendas. What’s the way that you would encourage people to think about violence and guns when something like that happens without resorting to the knee jerk positions that gun people on all sides of the aisle typically resort to?

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 if you want to have an impact I think you have to go back deeper and you have to look at the fact that if we’re not going to get rid of guns, but you want to get rid of gun violence, you got to get rid of the people who are doing violence with guns. By get rid of I don’t mean, you know…There are a lot of ways to get rid of them. I mean, one is to parent better, to have society indoctrinate people into more empathy and whatnot. I think those are the ultimate solutions. I’m not saying that any of them are easy, but fundamentally that’s where the answer lies. Right? If you don’t have people who have the desire to go kill large numbers of other people then you don’t have a problem with gun violence. And so consequently I think that’s the dimension if I were forced to start thinking about it I would be operating on given the fact that we have 300 million guns in this country today, and my guess is we’re going to have more than 300 million guns in this country 100 years from now. And so you just got to live with that, and subject to that constraint find some other way to get at the problem.

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