Gun Regulation Is Costly—and Not the Only Option

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Policymakers should deploy strategies beyond regulation to reduce gun-related harm.

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Every mass shooting in the United States generates fresh calls to restrict access to guns, under the theory that fewer guns mean fewer shootings. But if the goal is to reduce gun fatalities, gun regulations are not the only option. In fact, the fight over gun control is distracting policymakers from opportunities to save more lives by other means.

Calls for stronger gun regulations are based on the belief that gun ownership leads to more deaths, through a combination of escalating violent conflicts—for example, what was just a bar fight is now a shooting—accidental shootings, and suicides. (A striking 62 percent of gun deaths in the United States are due to suicide.) Proponents of meaningful gun control say that these deaths outweigh any deterrent effect that gun possession may have.

There is solid evidence supporting this claim. For instance, the school shooting at Sandy Hook resulted in a spike in gun purchases, perhaps because people feared being the victim of a violent crime themselves. That spike in purchases led to spikes in homicides and accidental deaths. The death toll due to the subsequent spike in gun purchases was larger than the initial toll of the Sandy Hook shooting itself.

It would seem, then, that government regulations could engineer a drop in gun ownership, which would lead to a drop in homicides and accidental deaths. But this is easier said than done.

Government regulations are not always successful at changing behavior. It may be that those who want guns—particularly those who want guns for nefarious purposes—will find a way to obtain them, even if doing so means skirting the law. In other words, it is unclear how much gun possession falls in response to stricter gun regulations. It is even less clear whether any changes in gun possession result in a change in public safety.

There is a long, contentious academic literature on this topic. Many smart people have spent decades debating methods and data sources to consider the effects of a wide variety of regulations.

Some regulations do seem promising: For instance, mandatory waiting periods for handgun purchases reduce suicide rates by 5 percent, and surveys suggest that child access prevention laws improve school safety by holding gun owners accountable if a minor is found in possession of their guns. A recent study found that right-to-carry laws increase homicides by 4 to 6 percent, suggesting that repealing such laws might reverse this effect.

But, in general, the effect of gun regulations on public safety is less clear than many advocates on either side think, in part because gun law changes are typically heavily tethered to public opinion.

These are not laws that slip through the legislature unnoticed. These laws therefore do not offer good natural experiments to estimate their effects. It is difficult to disentangle the effects of gun laws from the effects of a community’s feelings about guns, from a community’s motivation to reduce gun violence, or from an increase in gun purchases that often comes before the laws take effect.

But let us assume for the sake of discussion that gun regulations would meaningfully reduce mortality. Pursuing regulations has opportunity costs: The significant time and money required to pass gun regulations—not to mention the time and money needed to enforce such laws through policing and incarceration—could be spent advocating for and implementing other programs. Are there other life-saving programs more deserving of these resources?

Several programs are at least worthy of consideration. Summer jobs programs for teens reduce mortality by 18 to 20 percent among participants. This effect is driven by a reduction in young men killed by homicide or suicide. Cognitive behavioral therapy for at-risk young men lowers violent crime arrests by 45 to 50 percent for participants. Access to Medicaid in early childhood decreases suicide by 10 to 15 percent later in life. Mandating that health insurance cover mental health benefits at parity reduces the suicide rate by 5 percent. Access to antidepressants also reduces suicide rates: An increase in antidepressant sales equivalent to one pill per capita reduced suicide by 5 percent.

In addition, repealing duty-to-warn laws for mental health providers—which require that they report a patient’s violent threats, perhaps causing patients to be less honest—could reduce teen suicides by 8 percent and decrease homicides by 5 percent. Repealing juvenile curfews could lower urban gunfire by two-thirds. And if the goal is to reduce mortality in general—not just gun deaths—then there are many more options policymakers should consider.

Some people will argue that policymakers can and should pursue all of these policy options—that pursuing gun control does not mean advocates cannot also lobby for summer jobs and mental health care—which may be true.

But the fact is that there is, right now, a tremendous amount of lobbying money and energy being expended both for and against gun regulation, and almost none on summer jobs programs or cognitive behavioral therapy. In the war over gun deaths, vast armies have gathered to contest gun regulations, a territory of uncertain value. Meanwhile, other zones of clear value are available and virtually unguarded.

Why are policymakers not seizing them?

Jennifer Doleac

Jennifer Doleac is an associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University and the director of the Justice Tech Lab.

This essay is part of a nine-part series, entitled Bringing Expertise to the Gun Debate.