First, of course, I speak for everyone when I say our thoughts are with the community of Newton and the families affected by the tragic school shooting today. Though I myself am not religious, those of faith are undoubtedly offering countless prayers as well. I will not try to describe the horror and sadness of today’s events as they are ineffable. Already calls for gun control have started and it is this issue I want to turn to first. Second, I will offer a few thoughts on what I’m sure will be an unfortunate discussion of mental health that will surely follow today’s events.
There is both a demand and supply side aspect to the problem. Generally speaking, those on the right focus on the demand side while those on the left concentrate on the supply side. Both are important.
The demand side is easy enough to describe. In the history of legal gun possession in the United States almost no one has gone into a school and massacred innocent children and teachers. In fact, relative to the number of guns in the U.S., a very small percentage of people have ever attacked another person with a firearm. What’s more, as a result of physics, a gun has never jumped off the gun rack and walked itself through the streets shooting wildly. Though the phrase, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is often scoffed at, there is undeniable truth in the sentiment. It is also undeniable, however, that when it does go wrong, firearm violence can result in the worst that humanity has to offer.
It has been argued by some gun control advocates that shootings of the nature seen in Newton have increased markedly in the past, say, ten or fifteen years. But unless gun availability has increased at a similar rate, this too is an argument for a demand-side explanation.
The supply side is equally important. Suppose every individual in the U.S. wanted a gun, but the supply of guns was zero. Who would own a gun? No one. How many gun deaths would there be? Zero. This example, however unrealistic, is illustrative of the importance of supply in a market. Also, there is the economic notion that “supply creates its own demand.” This is congruent with the Apple business model in which consumer product surveys are put to the side in favor of creating innovative new products at the whim of creative designers. Consumers didn’t know they wanted an iPhone until it was invented. Malcolm Gladwell tells a similar story about pasta sauce. It could be that guns somehow spark the violent imagination in a way that would be absent otherwise. (Please don’t misunderstand my statement to be one of equating Apple products or pasta sauce with guns, that is clearly not my intent).
I would note that advocates of increased gun control presuppose that such laws have a fairly elastic relationship with gun supply. That is, a marginal increase in gun laws will cause a proportionally significant decrease in gun supply. Whether that is true or not is an empirical question. I would note that in the time that marijuana has been illegal I’ve never once met someone that has had trouble obtaining it in the medium run. In the short run, perhaps. Maybe they couldn’t get it the night they wanted it, but they could always get it within a week or two. Given the fairly tame temperament of those in my circle, I suspect this anecdote is not unusual. So clearly legality is not always tightly associated with supply. That said, I’m also confident there are numerous behaviors that have seen fairly stiff responses to changes in public policies. Again, where guns fall in this spectrum is unclear, though I’m sure someone has done interesting and insightful research on the topic (it’s simply that I’m not aware of that literature).
How will the demand and supply sides interact? Like they do in every other market. If demand remains unchanged and supply declines the price will increase. This will tend to move demand to firearm substitutes. This might include knives for self-protection, a bow and arrows for hunting, and, perhaps, homemade explosive devices or other homemade projectiles for the sort of ruthless and tragic attacks we’ve seen today. It will likely also drive black-market sales. With a high price only the very wealth — perhaps well-positioned gang members, for instance — would be able to afford firearms. If tougher prison sentences are part of gun control reform, this will add additional risk-weighted cost to possession. On net I suspect violent deaths would go down in the face of agressive gun control reform. That’s just speculation, of course. The only real way to test the effect of increased gun control is to pass tougher gun laws and keep careful note of the results.
It’s tempting to look at cross-country gun control policies for an answer and, indeed, popular culture has seen the promotion of the notion that the U.S. is especially violent due to lax gun control (think Bowling for Columbine). From a social science viewpoint these popular notions aren’t helpful since they don’t attempt to control for the enormous cross-country variations that may affect violence in any particular nation. That is not to say such analysis is not useful. In fact, cross-country studies are used regularly in the social sciences, but it takes careful and creative methodology to properly control for all the necessary factors and to tease out the real relationship between cause and effect. Again, I’m sure some careful cross-country studies of gun control have been conducted, but since it isn’t my area of expertise I’m not aware of the results. I may try to take a look and post any interesting research I find in the coming days.
One important thing to keep in mind when discussing increased gun control is exactly what we mean by that term. We can think of gun control as a spectrum. At one end is a policy of zero gun regulation. I suppose this would be a society in which any person of any age could go to any store that chose to sell guns and buy one off the shelf as if it were a bottle of shampoo. At the other end of the spectrum is 100% gun control, a society where no single person was allowed to ever have a gun on their person regardless of circumstance or occupation. The U.S. falls somewhere along that spectrum. We can quibble over how far to one side or another we are, but the important thing is that there is a long way to go between where we are now and the 100% side. Saying we need “increased gun control” isn’t very useful without specific policy suggestions since the gap between here and there leaves a lot to be worked out. Reform could mean anything from longer gun waiting periods, to harsher prison sentences, to an all out prohibition, and could include many interesting and creative policies in between.
As is always the case in tragedies such as the one we witnessed today, an unseen and unmentioned victim is the state of mental health discourse in our country. Focusing on perpetrators who “needed help” and family members who should have “seen the warning signs” during crises and ignoring thoughtful discussions of mental health the other 340 days of the year creates a dangerous eponymous association between “mental health” and “crazy.” It acts to stigmatize the state of mental illness and — far from helping to bring awareness — causes victims of mental health problems to ignore symptoms because, after all, “I’m not on the verge of going on a murderous rampage and those are the type of people that need counseling.” As a mental health advocate this is unspeakably frustrating. I am very proud to say that I have been to see mental health counselors over a number of periods of hardship in my life and it was immensely helpful. I’m sure I will do it again in the future. All of us, I repeat all of us, could benefit from a few sessions with a counselor. Talking about yourself and your problems to someone trained (and paid) to listen can’t go wrong. That we so often mention this simple exercise of improving self-awareness only in the context of the worst violence humanity can offer does no service to the state of mental health in our society.