Economists and public health researchers have been trying to figure out the costs of gun violence for more than twenty years, and the latest estimate, just published in Mother Jones, puts the total tab at $229 billion. This isn’t the first time that attempts have been made to estimate gun violence costs; Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig published an entire book on the subject back in 2002, and they put the annual figure at $100 billion – surely the number couldn’t have more than doubled in the past 15 years, particularly since the number of robberies, assaults and homicides have all declined from the earlier date. In fact, the lead researcher for the Mother Jones piece, Ted Miller, said in 2010 that gun violence was costing the U.S. $170 billion, which means that somehow total costs have increased by 35% over the last five years.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not playing Monday-morning quarterback and casting aspersions or doubts on the research and analysis presented in Mother Jones. Anyone who believes that gun violence isn’t a public health issue of major proportions might as well join Wayne-o, Chris Cox, Larry Keane and other professional gun delusionists in promoting the idea that guns don’t represent any risk at all. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a serious discussion among rational-minded folks about the ways in which we understand and frame the debate about guns. The Mother Jones report is a serious contribution to that discussion and I’m responding to it on those terms.
The report breaks things down between direct and indirect costs, the former reflecting such expenses as medical care, policing, emergency services and penal charges (courts and incarceration), the latter reflecting what the researchers call “less tangible” costs, such as lost income, quality of life impacts and labor replacement. I would rather refer to these two categories by the qualitative value of the data, because most of the direct costs can be calculated from governmental budgets covering policing, medical care and penal institutions, whereas the indirect costs are estimates at best, and may or may not be based on any real numbers at all. The direct costs of America’s annual gun carnage is estimated at less than 4% of the $229 billion total, of which incarceration accounted for 94% of the direct cost total for homicides, but only a fraction of that amount for each aggravated assault. Miller and his associates claim that incarceration costs $414,000 per homicide; Cook and Ludwig set the cost at $244,000. Could this number have nearly doubled in 15 years? The overall gun violence costs appear to have more than doubled during the same period, so why not?
Moving from direct to indirect costs presents other types of data issues which I’m not sure are discussed with the sensitivity and acuity which they deserve. The biggest one to me is the attempt to calculate the economic value of a human life which is based primarily on estimates of what that person would have earned had they lived out a normal life term. And even though the report calculates the number to be significantly lower than estimates from various government agencies, any such estimate is based on assumptions about the economy’s long-term performance that may or may not be true. Those of us who watched out 401Ks shrivel in 2007-2008 or got called into the boss’s office at 4 P.M. on a Friday afternoon, know how dangerous it is to attempt to predict any degree of financial or economic performance out beyond the next couple of months.
When it comes to gun violence there’s a moral imperative – thou shalt not kill – which transcends any discussion about numbers even though the gun industry evidently feels that it doesn’t apply to them. The cautions above should not detract at all from the value of this report which reminds us again that the real cost of gun violence, the cost to our humanity and decency, remains to be solved.