The NRA keeps saying that if HRC is elected, the first thing she will do is confiscate all the guns. So that got me thinking. What would happen if the guns were taken away? Or to put it more specifically, what would happen if America implemented licensing for gun ownership similar to what exists in the rest of the OECD? Such a system would mean the immediate disappearance of assault weapons, the gradual disappearance of small, concealable handguns and the remaining firearms (true sporting rifles and shotguns) being regulated to varying degrees. The number of guns manufactured and imported each year would drop by more than half, but the revenue loss of roughly $13 billion in a GDP of almost $18 trillion would hardly be noticed at all.
On the other hand, what would the absence of guns mean to public health and crime? As to the former, there would probably be some drop in the 20,000 suicides that occur each year with guns, but the evidence also suggests that there would be a ‘substitution’ effect, meaning that many, if not most suicide-prone individuals would find other means for ending their lives. As for unintentional injuries from guns, as the total number of guns in civilian hands declined, so would the number of injuries, but the medical costs of gun accidents is less than .001% of the medical costs racked up each year for treating all unintentional injuries, hardly a major component in driving costs of medical care.
As for intentional gun injuries, for the sake of argument, let’s place annual gun assaults midway between FBI and CDC, or roughly 100,000. That’s still only 15% of all serious assaults which might not be committed if guns couldn’t be used, but I suspect that the ‘substitution’ effect here would also render the difference less, because our overall assault rate is not much different than average assault rates throughout the OECD. As for the argument that our homicide rate would be much lower if we didn’t have easy access to guns, this is perhaps true. But in 2014 the U.S. still racked up almost 5,000 homicides without guns, substantially higher than most of the OECD.
In all of the arguments being made about strictly regulating guns however, what seems to be missed is the effects of gun absence on gun owners themselves. Because there are somewhere around 30 million households that contain legal guns, and of the 60 million or so legal gun owners, at least 5 million define their life-styles, the social milieu, their culture and cultural beliefs in terms of guns. So what happens to these folks and their everyday existence if they can’t have access to guns?
When I was growing up in the 1950s, I had lots of toy guns but what I really took pride in was my collection of Lionel trains. The trains and the room-wide track display eventually disappeared, both for me and for just about everyone else who loved model trains. By the time my children were old enough to play with model trains, they were sitting in front of a television set playing Nintendo and collecting video games.
For that matter, when I was in my twenties and thirties, I don’t recall all that many cars on I-91 going towards New Hampshire and Vermont with kayaks on top or backpacks and tents behind. Times change, styles change, leisure activities change – the market will always find a way to satisfy our desire to accumulate objects we really want but don’t need.
Which is exactly the problem with guns. More than 30,000 people die and another 70,000+ are injured each year because Americans have free access to something they really don’t need. So the issue of how and why to regulate this product doesn’t come down to numbers at all. It comes down to a moral imperative which says that we should not sanction the use of violence in the ordinary course of human affairs – neither violence towards ourselves or towards anyone else.