Wednesday, July 20, 2005

What 2nd Amendment?

I could spend an entire post on the Constitutional argument for your right to keep and bear arms. I could throw in quote after quote from our founders detailing that when they said the right of the people, that's what they meant -- who ensures the right of government in their Bill of Rights? I could show that their objective, according to Patrick Henry, was "that every man be armed." But why waste precious time? Do away with the 2nd amendment completely and the compelling argument against gun control still holds.

Gun control is not a tool for reducing crime, much as advocates claim it to be. Its effect is quite the opposite. (I'll save the empirical evidence for a later post, for now this is just basic economics). Let's say we enact a gun control law that requires waiting periods, licensing, mandatory trigger locks, and high taxes on firearm purchases. We have just made it more costly for an individual to buy a gun. What should we expect to happen to the quantity of firearms demanded? It drops overall. But in limiting ourselves to the overall drop in quantity demanded, we ignore the responses of two important groups: the law-abiding citizen and the criminal.

1) I'm a law-abiding citizen. The cost of owning a gun goes up. The only reason, ignoring target practice and hunting, that I own a gun is for self defense. I don't know that I will ever need a gun. So, my cost-benefit analysis goes something like this: the risk of me being attacked is fairly low, but the cost of purchasing this firearm is very high ... I'll take my chances.

2) I'm a criminal. The cost of owning a gun goes up. I now know that fewer people will own guns, and therefore the likelihood of my criminal activity being met with resistance is much lower. My cost-benefit analysis: My risk has gone down, my expected payoff to crime has gone up ... a gun is a pretty good investment right now, I'll take it!

Daniel Polsby, Professor of Law and acting Dean of George Mason Law School, terms this phenomenon the "futility theorem" in his article, The False Promise of Gun Control. While for the law abiding citizen there is less of an incentive to purchase a gun when the cost is increased, there is a corresponding higher incentive for a criminal to purchase a gun. For the criminal, the cost of the weapon has increased, but the payoff for criminal activity has also increased because his victim is less likely to be armed. From simple economics, it is clear that when the expected return exceeds the cost by a larger amount, one should expect a rise in the activity that yields the expected return. Polsby concludes, and I agree, “This is what makes the case for the right to bear arms, not the Second Amendment. It is foolish to let anything ride on hopes for effective gun control. As long as crime pays as well as it does, we will have plenty of it, and honest folk must choose between being victims and defending themselves,” The False Promise of Gun Control. Atlantic Monthly, March 1994.

So go ahead, abolish the Second Amendment. The case against gun control still stands.

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