The shooting recently of 10 innocent persons at a retail store and a university in Illinois has highlighted once again the issue of gun control in the United States. Five customers and employees were murdered at a Lane Bryant clothing store in a robbery attempt that got out of hand, while a former student killed other students at Northern Illinois University, and then killed himself. The question raised by these shootings once again is how to control the use of guns?
I will take for granted in this discussion that effective gun control laws are desirable, and mainly consider how to make them effective. So I bypass the lively controversy among economists over whether gun control laws are desirable-for two strong and opposite conclusions drawn from limited empirical evidence, see Mark Duggan ("More Guns, More Crime", ,Journal of Political Economy, 2001), and John Lott ("More Guns, Less Crime", University of Chicago Press, 2000). Effective gun control laws that prevent guns from getting into the hands of mentally unstable individuals and criminals are surely desirable, but present laws do not achieve that.
The main issues in gun control legislation are 1) many people, mainly men, want to own guns for self protection because they live in bad neighborhoods, or because they fear that criminals may invade their homes, or because they just like guns. In addition, shopkeepers want guns to protect themselves if attempts are made to rob them, and criminals want guns in order to commit crimes more successfully. 2) The number of guns in the United States is huge, probably well over 100 million. Many were purchased legally, but probably most were obtained in the active black market in guns. Individuals who want to own guns but are prevented from acquiring them legally will often buy them illegally. Clearly, the black market in guns is strong, even though many law-abiding persons do not know how to go about getting guns illegally. Sellers of guns underground are generally criminals since they can function more effectively than honest sellers in illegal markets where contracts and other attributes of legal transactions are difficult, if not impossible, to enforce except by the use of force.
A close analogy is with drugs. That drugs like cocaine are illegal shifts the market for drugs underground. The higher price in the underground market offsets the risk of punishment to traffickers, which attracts sellers who are willing to bear the many sizable risks in this market, including imprisonment. These traffickers engage in violence against competitors and others, and they corrupt police and other officials to protect the considerable profit they make when they can avoid being apprehended.
One criticism of many state gun control laws is that they are too lax in allowing some persons to purchase guns legally who should not be eligible to buy guns. For example, the killer of the 5 students had a history of mental illness, yet he only recently had been able to legally buy a pistol and a shotgun. He made these and some prior legal purchases of guns in Illinois, even though this state has a rather stringent gun control law that requires a background check for a criminal record, registration by gun owners, and a cooling off period before purchases can take place. If gun laws were greatly tightened, individuals who badly want to have guns but cannot obtain them legally would try to turn to the underground economy, just as those who badly want to consume drugs get their drugs underground. Pretty much all men who want guns for criminal purposes now obtain their guns illegally in the underground economy. That economy would become still more important if gun law were tightened.
Still, several steps can be taken to have much more effective gun control. The first would be to impose a high tax on legal gun transactions, which would greatly raise the price of guns purchased legally. Like the tax on gasoline, cigarettes, and some other goods, a gun tax should be several hundred percent of the untaxed price to discourage purchases of guns by those with less strong demands. Individuals who strongly want guns for legitimate purposes might still prefer to get them legally, if they can, since they would then avoid the various punishments and other risks of buying guns illegally. For this reason, gun control laws should allow persons with legitimate needs for guns to buy them legally at the very high prices caused by the high gun tax.
The second step is to punish substantially traffickers in the illegal gun market to discourage individuals who could get guns legally from buying them in the underground market. A sizable punishment to illegal suppliers would raise the price of guns in the illegal market in order to compensate sellers for the risks of punishment. One criticism of present gun laws is that sellers of guns in the underground economy are not punished enough when they are caught. (Unfortunately, higher gun prices in the illegal market would attract sellers who would be good at avoiding apprehension since the profits could then be huge for sellers who can avoid punishment.)
Since a high tax on gun sales and substantial punishments to illegal seller of guns would greatly raise the price of guns in both the legal and illegal markets, the demand for guns would be reduced in both markets. The magnitude of the fall in the number of guns purchased would depend on how responsive purchases are to higher gun prices-this response is what economists call the elasticity of demand. I have come across little evidence on this elasticity for guns. Yet one would expect that the demand for guns by individuals is likely to be significantly higher when other persons have more guns, partly because of the desire to protect themselves, and partly because of the culture this creates to own guns. As a result, the overall response of purchases to high gun prices might be quite large. For under these conditions, a higher gun price lowers the demand for guns by some individuals, and that in turn reduces gun demand by others. These ‚Äúsocial interaction‚Äù effects on gun demand would tend to greatly raise the overall price response of the demand for guns.
The illegal market would cater mainly to persons with criminal and other questionable backgrounds that could not readily buy guns legally. Of course, even with active enforcement against sellers in the underground gun market, some individuals will be able to buy guns illegally. Hence the third prong of the desirable approach to gun control would be to add a large extra sentence, larger than is common in many states, to the prison sentence of criminals who used guns to commit crimes. Such greater punishment for using guns to commit crimes would encourage criminals to shift away from guns toward knives and other less lethal weapons.