Is it finally time for the War on Guns? Two proposals to cut through the bullshit

The first thing I did this morning was visit a preschool classroom and read 16 adorable kids a book about a bear.

The second thing I did this morning was learn that someone else also visited a classroom and thought it would be a good idea to bring along a gun.

The point is not that I’m a better person than Adam Lanza — I hope that’s not a position I ever have to defend — but simply that the news struck particularly close to home. Not, obviously, in the sense that I was at the site of the tragedy, or that I sent a kid to school there, or that I sent a kid to school in Connecticut, or that I sent a kid to school anywhere, or even that I have a kid — but still, the dichotomy was jarring.

I’m not going to talk at length about the tragedy — I have no words to do it justice. Instead, I want to write about gun control, and two ideas that could help everyone concerned with gun safety — liberal and conservative alike — move in a more productive direction.

The solution is never going to be simple. Even if Congress could control gun sales, there are already more guns in private hands than there are people in the United States. And even in the aftermath of this morning’s events, someone will still rush to explain that Congress shouldn’t control guns, because guns don’t kill people, people kill people (I’ve already written about that one) and that, if only someone else in the school had been packing heat, the tragedy could have been prevented, or at least mitigated.* And besides, the Supreme Court seems to think the Second Amendment grants an individual right to bear arms, District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), so who am I to argue?

*[Update, 12/15: correct!

“Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands. Federal and state laws combined to ensure that no teacher, no administrator, no adult had a gun at the Newtown school where the children were murdered. This tragedy underscores the urgency of getting rid of gun bans in school zones.”

– Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, as quoted in the New York Times

Another Update, 12/21: more correct!

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

– Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA]

But if Congress can’t even stop people from carrying weapons near schools, United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), the least it can do is find someone to hold responsible. And since I know it won’t take too much convincing to get most liberals to sign onto gun control in pretty much any form, I’m going to propose a solution that might appeal to those on the more conservative end of the political and ideological spectrum, by turning to market-based solutions and appealing to personal responsibility.

Assuming — as Pratt’s argument goes — that guns can actually make us safer, maybe we should give gun shops credit for the benefit they bestow upon society. And since — under this assumption — guns are a net positive, even shop owners should have no problem taking credit, or being held responsible, for the guns they sell.

I don’t mean that we should arrest a gun shop owner every time he makes a sale that ultimately kills someone. But how about an insurance scheme where an individual shop owner’s premium depended on his ability to screen out eventual mass murderers. Every shooting stopped by someone wielding a gun bought at your shop would make your rates go down — and maybe even run negative (i.e., the policy pays you money). And on the flip side, every innocent person killed by a gun bought at your shop would make your rates go up — way, way up.

On balance, what a gun shop paid in insurance would reflect whether it made people safer — or whether lax standards made it a menace to society.

Suddenly, market incentives align with the social good. If you’re absolutely certain that a given person would use a gun only with the best intentions, you’ll have no qualms selling him one. But if you don’t feel confident the buyer is perfectly responsible — i.e. if you haven’t done a thorough background check and maybe even asked for a psychiatric evaluation — you’re probably not going to risk your business by handing a .223 caliber rifle (what was used in Connecticut) over to the next James Holmes.

Gun dealers suddenly have to think twice before accepting a big wad of cash. And no one loses the legal right to buy and sell guns — but if no one feels comfortable enough selling you one, you’re out of luck.

That solution, of course, is a bit of a risky proposition for gun shop owners. After all, they don’t have complete control over what people do with their guns, people change, guns can be stolen, and so on. Of course, those are all reasons widely-available guns are a net negative for society and should probably be made less widely available, but again, we’re assuming here that — on balance — guns make everybody safer, and so the net effect of this law should reward gun-sellers who actually make people safer, and drive the rest of them out of business.

But still, I can understand the gun shop owner wary of small sample size distortion and wanting some ability to protect himself in case one sale goes south. So I would suggest modifying the essentially free-market scheme by implementing a market-cap solution.

Cap-and-Trade is a free-market mechanism that would set some “acceptable” (unavoidable) level of shooting deaths, auction off “credits” at a market rate given their designated level of availability, and force gun-shop owners to “cover” any shootings caused by guns they sell with a credit bought on the market. The exchange could even create new credits every time someone used a gun to stop a murder in action. I know the idea is not popular among conservatives when applied to carbon credits, but maybe “bust a Cap in your ass-and-Trade” would be easier to swallow.

The scheme allows gun shop owners to spread the risk in recognition of the fact that there is some degree to which sellers can’t control what is done with the guns they sell. There would still be strong incentives for them to perform background checks, because — since the optimal level of mass shootings is zero — the cap would presumably be low, the credits outrageously expensive, and anyone would much rather sell a credit than be forced to buy one. And if credits proved impossible to come by — perhaps because very few credits turn out to be available when their existence depends on the benefit guns bestow upon society — then maybe it’s time we just come to terms with what the invisible hand of the market is trying to tell us.

At the end of the day, both solutions are imperfect, and neither really addresses what to do about all the guns that are already out there. But they’re also better than nothing. And if you truly believe that easy access to firearms does everyone a world of good, all it asks is that you put your money where your muzzle is.

By one count, there have been 64 school shootings worldwide in the thirteen-and-a-half years since Columbine; 48 of them have taken place in the United States. It’s uncomfortable to think that anything positive could come out of this morning’s tragedy. But it would be a shame to let yet another round of shots heard round the world to go to waste.

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