« Gun Control--Posner's Comment | Main | College Tuition and Endowments-Becker »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Michael Webster

In your view, is this analysis amenable to a Schelling type critical mass model?


Hummmm. Seems I recall somewhere that the U.S. Supreme Court (I don't recall the actual Justice who penned the phrase) said something to the effect that "The power to tax is the power to destroy." Have you considered the possible ramification that higher taxes on the legal gun sale "might" have an unintended consequence. i.e., many of the now legal guns will end up in that "illegal" market that you describe? Just a thought.


Any chance that increasing the tax on guns could potentially drive some people with legitimate purposes to the underground market as well? Assuming the price there is lower.

David Drake


The high tax would raise the price of guns in the black market.

dan in michigan

You make two assertions that should be reviewed. The first being that most guns were purchased on the black market. Are you implying that these are illegal transactions? If so, this cannot be correct. Second, how can you assert that a knife is less lethal than a handgun? Based on the lethality data I have seen I would much rather be shot than stabbed. Some choice!


German Wrench

Here I was all ready to quote Professor Lott's book, and he himself beat me to it. Although I guess I can still interject a couple of corrections: One, according to 2000 data, there are over 250,000 guns in the US, and less than 1% of those guns are even involved in a crime. So raw numbers of the things themselves bear very little relation to crimes committed with them.

Two, according to a study by Dr. Edgar Suter ("Guns in the Medical Literature, Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia), "The responsible use and safe storage of any kind firearm causes no social ill, and leaves no victims. In fact, guns offer positive social benefit in protecting good citizens from vicious predators. The overwhelming predominance of data we have examined shows that between 25 to 75 lives may be saved by a gun for every life lost to a gun. Guns also prevent injuries and protect billions of dollars of property every year. In view of the overwhelming benefits, it is ludicrous to punitively tax gun or ammunition ownership. They save far more lives than they cost."

Of course, I strongly recommend John R. Lott's book on the subject (and I'm very glad to see him actively participating in the post), but I simply see no reason to excessively tax something that the founding fathers clearly believed the general populous has a right to, which has much social benefit, and relatively low social risk.

Alan Mills

It seems to me that, unlike drugs, the vast majority of guns enter the chain of commerce in the legal side of themarket, and only later cross over into the illegal market. It also seems that the penalties for illegal transactions are weakest precisely at the points where this switch from the legal to the illegal market occurs--licensed dealers who sell to straw buyers, licensed owners who fail to secure their guns, etc.

Wouldn't a national system allowing quick, accurate tracing of all guns and ammunition back to the manufacturer and all (legal) owners, coupled with stronger punishments for allowing guns to migrate outside of this system, be effective in keeping many more guns where they belong?

MIke McDaniel

Your taxing suggestion inevitably raises questions of constitutionality. For this very reason, we have no poll taxes, nor do we impose taxes on owners of printing presses. I suspect that the ultimate intent of the founders in writing the Second Amendment will soon be clarified, and in favor of the individual rights model. That being the case, taxing a fundamental right would seem to be, regardless of its utility, not something we can reasonably do.

The assertion that most firearms are purchased on the black market is also suspect. It would depend, I suppose, on how one defines the black market. If we consider that any purchase not made from a licensed dealer in a storefront retail outlet is a black market transaction, then perhaps this assertion makes a bit more sense, but the overwhelming majority of such transactions surely are not illegal. In fact, it is the widespread, legal availability of firearms in America that ensures that there is little or no need for a real black market in firearms, unlike the experience of our enlightened British cousins whose functional firearm ban has indeed resulted in a flourishing black market in firearms in the classic sense of the term.

As Dr. Lott has pointed out, most of the assumptions underlying this posting hold little water. Firearms are indeed useful, even valuable tools in the hands of the overwhelming majority of their owners.


Would a high tax, for the purpose of limiting the acquiring of, be an infringment of a right?




By all means, tax the guns away from the poor people.


Just a couple questions - most of which, I recognize, are generally in-line with the well-established (hackneyed?) logic of gun control opponents:

To what extent would a lower incidence of gun ownership over time (due to the reduced demand) increase the utility of owning a gun (and of armed robbery as a tactic) for criminals? Would the increase in utility wholly or partially offset the price increases expected from your proposed changes to law enforcement/punishment?

What are the most important variables determining the rate of legal gun ownership? Is it really price? Or is legal (sp. handgun) gun ownership determined more in response to prevailing crime levels? ie, until prices get so high as to legitimately raise constitutional questions, aren't legal gun buyers mostly paying for security in the form of deterrence and potential response?

Would raising the price even by 200% through a gun tax change the gun ownership equilibrium level at all? OR - if the tax revenues were applied exclusively to law enforcement and anti-gun-trafficking measures, could you lower the need for and hence the utility of owning a gun legally for protection purposes?

Sadly, I'm not sure you can do anything about the lunatics, especially in a nation with well over 100,000,000 guns. And I'm not sure that there's any contitutional punishment that's severe enough to actually change the prices of illegal guns enough to substantially impact that market. Even if you were able to make the price of an illegal gun $5000 (unlikely), a reasonable cost of capital consideration would have the criminal require an additional, say, $1200 per year in his criminal activities to justify that expense. That's really not that much, and would be clearly justifiable if your tax levy on legal gun ownership succeeded in reducing ownership rates among the criminal's prospective targets!


Taxes are always worth considering when there are significant negative externalities. The first problem here is that the balance of significant externalities has not been clearly quantified. What rate or rates of tax are appropriate?

The second problem is that guns without ammunition are no more dangerous than any other sort of club. We tax tobacco, not pipes and cigarette holders. If tax is appropriate, should it not be on ammunition, not guns? Apart from being more accurately targetted, an ammunition tax would be collected at the factory gate or the bonded store. It would be much less difficult to collect than a tax on each sale.


You said "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."

Most estimates I have seen indicate the number of privately-owned guns in the US is more like 250 million. The military and the police are not included in this number.

I would be interested in your source for the statement that "most" of these guns were obtained in the "black market", or in violation of the law. Gun sales from owner A to buyer B within a state are covered by state laws. In some states, such as California, such person to person sales are legally required to be done with participation by a licensed gun dealer, involving forms, identification, background checks, waiting periods and payment of fees.

But in most states, the owner of a gun can legally and privately sell it to buyer without any dealer involvement or record keeping requirements. The Federal government has no jurisdiction over this within the state borders. Is this what you are calling a "black market"? If so, I think you should pick a more appropriate name, such as "legal sale".


Dan in Michigan,

I admire your bravery. Personally I'd rather be stabbed in the chest, than shot in the heart by a 45. Calibre Cougar Magnum. I think my chances of survival would be slightly higher.

For that matter, I'd rather have someone stab me in the head with their Swiss Army knife, rather than have them shoot me in the head with their Mac-10 automatic machine gun. Again, I think my chances of surival would be higher.


I always find it interesting after an incident like at Northern, that everyone comes out of the woodwork condemning guns. While at the same time, there is a far more deadly and insidious technology, Autos, Suv's and Trucks; that maim and kill at a far higher annual statistical rate than guns ever have or will. But, we hear nary a whimper regarding the need for increased control or access to the technology or even it's removal from public ownership. Strange huh?

As for access to less developed weapons technology, it's still just as deadly in trained hands, "and as I am a soldier, I will run it up to the hilt". Some people just don't realize how dangerous a swiss army knife can be. As for myself, I prefer Case, the blades are heavier and stronger.


The scariest part in this whole argument is to question what the intentions of the gun buyer might be. One might imagine that a person such as the Northern Illinois shooter would have little concern about the price of a gun if his intentions were to take his own life (along with others) anyway.

I would hope a tax would decrease the number of lesser gun crimes (if there is such a thing) due to the high prices, but it will probably be less productive eliminating the extreme ones, sadly.


"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."

I am assuming that you mean guns used in crimes were obtained illegally. Intially all guns would be purchased legally through a manufacture. I wouldn't think there are many guns being manufactured illegally.

Overall this was a disappointing blog entry.


What about also heavily taxing the ammunition used?
There is a difference between hunting ammo, and ammo used for target practice and killing humans.

I think to be effective, you need to tax the razor and the blade.


Firearms as a fundamental right and poll taxes are separate issues. Poll taxes were struck down on equal protection grounds, not based on substantive due process. Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966).

Additionally, even if the Second Amendment is interpreted with an individual rights point of view, a high tax would not de facto be unconstitutional on either equal protection or substantive due process grounds. As explained in the main post, there are substantial legitimate reasons for having a high tax on gun ownership. Even if gun ownership were viewed as a fundamental right, fundamental rights are not absolute, and the proposed restrictions would seem to have a chance of passing a strict scrutiny review.

As far as equal protection, one could argue that a high gun tax would deprive the poor from purchasing guns, analogizing to a situation such as poll taxes. This analogy, however, is misplaced. Poll taxes were struck down because the restriction of having a “poll tax” was not related a legitimate qualification to vote. It wasn’t that restrictions couldn’t be put on voting, just that the tax didn’t further any legitimate goal. (Plus, the poor are not a suspect class for equal protection purposes). Regardless, any disparate impact argument against the poor would still fall under a strict scrutiny standard for the same reasons the tax would (arguably) pass under substantive due process.

This is not to pass judgment on the merits of the proposal, but merely that the constitutionality arguments may be overblown.


The estimate is 280 million privately-owned firearms in the United States, as of a few months ago. The train has already left the station.

Funny how those shootings seem to take place most frequently in gun-free zones.

Louis S. Levy

Dear Sir,

Your thoughts on the gun control issue are well intended, but ill-informed. Consider that the most recent estimate of the number of firearms in the U.S. is over 150,000,000. Some estimates place the number at over 200,000,000. Gun control proponants like to imply that guns are like fresh fruit. That if you could impead people's ability to buy a gun that eventually violance would lessen as existing guns wilt away and are disgarded. Guns used in the American Revolutionary War are still around and still able to kill in the hands of a violent offender. Most of the guns already here will be here virtually forever.

In Canada, where gun regestration was required, researchers have estimated that the non-compliance rate was 40%. In South Africa where regestration was required the non-compliance rate is estimated to be as high as 90%.People just don't want to give up their guns.

Several studies have revealed that criminals usually aquire thier guns from aquantances or from family members. Street dealers haunt city streets and bars. Ask any young man from a getto how long it would take him to buy a gun on the street, and he will usually tell you that he can get one in less than an hour. So much for background checks!

You seem to assume by your remakes that there is some kind of a crisis which requires that something be done about all of the guns. Considering your occupation, it's odd that you arn't better informed of the numerical facts. The number of Homicides involving a firearm each year in the U.S. is around 11,000 (per the F.B.I.). The C.D.C. reports that about 1,000,000 Americans die each year from heart dease and stroke. About 500,000 Americans die yearly from cancer. The A.M.A. thinks that as many as 100,000 Americans die each year from medical mal-practice. You seem unaware that around 36,000 Americans die yearly of the flu! Yes, we have a three times greater chance of dieing of flu each year than of being mudered by someone with a gun!

With just 11,000 firearm involved homicides yearly in a population of 300,000,000 people, what is someone's chances of being murdered with a gun? You do the math!

The same day as the most recent school shooting in which six died, eight young people were run down by a car and killed while they stood watching a street drag race. The school shooting made the front page in every newspaper in America. The drag racing tragidy ended up on page three if it apeared at all. This is the nature of the American Press these days. If a gun is involved, reporters will fly in from all over the world to cover the story. Perhaps you can be forgiven for feeling that there is an epademic of gun related violance.

I have been the victim of violent criminals 3 times. The first was an armed robbery. The second was a mugging. The third was an attemped armed robbery. There wasn't a police officer around to save me from any of them. I suggest that you have some converations with police officers on the issue of their ability to prevent violent criminals from harming you. Most of the cops I've taked with tell me that they keep a gun at home, and have trained their spouse to use it for self defense. They know from everyday experence that it is rare indeed for the police to be there to stop a crime in progress.

Isn't it interesting that the mass shootings never happen at shooting ranges, or police stations. If you want to save lives I suggest that you requre signs to be posted on all "gun free zones" warning folks that the means of self defense having been banned, that they are entering a "free fire zone" for violent criminals.


I think it odd that so much attention is paid to the guns the homicidal lunatics use on their rampages, while so little is paid to the fact that there are homicidal lunatics wandering around. It would seem to me that the money and effort that could be spent trying to limit gun availability would probably be much better spent dealing directly with the lunatics.
Even without a gun, these people are going to be causing trouble of some sort, and I think improving the sad state of mental health care for the seriously mentally ill provides a much more direct way of lessening the harm they do to society.
I know that one of my co-workers suffered from manic depression, with a criminal history, and he slid into madness while I and my boss watched helplessly. We knew what was happening and (roughly) what was going to happen, and that it could have been averted by there being a number we could call that would lead to an evaluation of his current mental health, followed by some simple drugs to bring him down.
There is no such number however, so he ended up cutting a guy pretty badly in a bar and fleeing for parts unknown. Which is a shame, because he's a good kid when he's on his medication, not to mention the guy he hurt.
In my opinion we need better laws for involuntarily treating or commitmenting of the severely mentally ill far more than laws governing gun availability.

George C.

"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."

I think this change in incentives could be contrary to the overall desired effect of reduced gun violence. I say this because by decreasing the difference in the punishments of murder and armed robbery, a thief becomes more likely to use his firearm to murder anyone who would be able to provide sufficient evidence to convict the criminal of armed robbery. People, on average, are not prone to murder and therefore it is difficult to predict how strong of an effect this increased punishment would have, but I still think it is notable.

medical videos research news


The comments to this entry are closed.

Become a Fan

May 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31