The New York Times published an editorial on its front page for the first time since 1920. Entitled “End the Gun Epidemic in America,” its placement and strong language reflect the editors’ outrage over the recent mass shootings and their sense of urgency that something needs to be done.
But “doing something” for the sake of “doing something” is not a sound reason to enact any policy proposal. Moral outrage does not turn a bad idea into a good one. And a careful reading of the editorial reveals a vague and unrealistic policy suggestion that, if enacted, would come with high costs while barely doing anything to prevent gun violence or gun deaths generally.
Beyond the heated rhetoric (“moral outrage,” “national disgrace,” “weapons of war”), the Times suggests “eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition” by outlawing them. It states that “[c]ertain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership.”
Gun Ban Logistics Are Staggering
Setting aside the political impracticalities of the Times’ proposal, it faces serious practical and logistical problems. First, there is no easily defined category of long rifle called a “combat rifle” or “assault weapon” that can be banned. These weapons are semi-automatic rifles that fire one bullet with one pull of a trigger, like countless other rifles. Fully automatic weapons are already heavily regulated and almost never used to commit a crime. Legislation banning assault rifles generally focuses on style (pistol grips, detachable magazines, and other features deemed military-like) rather than substance (the semi-automatic rifle itself).
As James Jacobs, director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University School of Law, argues in a recent article, “banning assault weapons is pointless” because they are “functionally equivalent to other semi-automatics and . . . figure hardly at all in violent crime.” In 2013, of the 8,454 gun homicides the Federal Bureau of Investigation tracked, only 285 were traced to rifles of all kinds, as opposed to 5,782 that were tied to handguns.
Perhaps one could solve the definitional problem by outlawing the sale of all semi-automatic rifles. Ignoring the political realities of this, it would still probably not stop the use of these weapons because so many U.S. households already own at least one of them. And any actual movement towards such a ban would lead to an incredible surge in sales, considering the sales spikes that have occurred when talk of much less restrictive gun control measures occurred after previous mass shootings.
There would also be the logistical problem in the form of huge administrative costs for citizens and the government. The costs would be large because every rifle would need to be registered, and additional costs would derive from the coercive measures, such as fines or jail time, needed to force people to register. Those who accidentally or intentionally failed to register properly would face criminal penalties.
Additionally, all private-party sales, gifts, or other transfers, including loans, would have to be tracked. This would generate an incredible amount of paperwork for law-abiding citizens and for the government, which would have to both set up and manage this system.
Inflating Bureaucracy Won’t Stop Violence
Even if we pretend all of this could be done in a reasonably cost-effective manner, someone willing to commit mass murder can just break a few laws to obtain the guns, so these policies would actually stop few shootings. Surveys of inmates show that most criminals obtain guns on the black or grey market, and they could still do so after such policies are passed. A potential mass murderer is not likely to fill out a form if it would stop him. If they can legally purchase the gun, then commit mass murder, they will.
The Times does have a solution to the already purchased weapons problem: “Yes, [our proposal] would require Americans who own these kinds of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens.” This solution would cost billions of dollars, but would be unlikely to save many lives.
In a world of perfect compliance, just the cost of buying back the semi-automatic rifles will be large. A few years ago, Slate tried to estimate the cost of buying back certain types of firearms. Using some numbers from the article, such as there being 110 million rifles in the United States, and my estimate that 10 percent of them, or 11 million, would be of the banned types, and estimating an average cost of $700 per rifle (which is conservative), the price tag just for the buyback portion would be $7.7 billion.
Even if officials ignored the takings clause of the Constitution along with the Second Amendment, which carries its own intangible costs, the loss of wealth would be real. It would just be borne by a class of citizens instead of all taxpayers.
This excludes costs associated with running the program, enforcing compliance, and disposing of the weapons. It also ignores the lost utility from gun owners who can no longer derive pleasure from owning the weapon. Additionally, the cost of coercion would not only involve fining or imprisoning those who fail to comply intentionally or accidently, but it would likely involve heavily armed government agents having to seize these weapons from holdouts.
Considering the scope of the backlash to far less-intrusive government actions, such as the Cliven Bundy incident, one could only imagine the far-right backlash and potential violence. While this type of behavior is deplorable, the reality that it would occur and create additional costs cannot be ignored.
Stop Making Impossible Demands
Attempts to narrow the ban and confiscation to assault weapons would leave millions of semi-automatic rifles in circulation that could easily be turned into assault rifles, while still costing billions and imposing many of the other costs listed above. For example, the Slate article calculated there are more than 3 million of just AR-15-style rifles in the United States.
Either a narrow assault-weapon ban and confiscation or a broader semi-automatic rifle ban and confiscation miserably fail any serious cost-benefit analysis. The cost in money, violations of civil liberties, and the related political realities of making any version of the Times’ program work, when weighed against the meager benefits, are not justified.
Additionally, a total ban would not even stop many of these attacks. Despite extremely stringent gun control laws, the French terrorists just purchased illegal weapons smuggled in from another country. Attackers could switch to handguns—a recent Times article about how 15 recent mass shooters obtained their weapons shows that more shooters used handguns than rifles.
One might now wonder what the United States can do to reduce mass shootings, or gun violence in general. Steps can be taken, but there are no easy, costless answers. Potential policy choices include more gun control, different law enforcement strategies, and changes in the American mental health system.
Gun-control measures could be anything from restrictions on magazine sizes to broader bans on those with mental illnesses from possessing guns. But they have some of the same issues as discussed above. More aggressive law enforcement against potential terrorists (Islamic and right-wing) and those most likely to commit gun crimes, such as those with a violent crime record, would probably be more effective—but that also involves monetary and civil liberty costs. Ditto for changes in the mental health system. However, policy proposals from all three of these areas exist that would be much more effective than the Times’ proposal, since few could be worse.