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  • Max Stearns

Gun Externalities

In my last post, Putting Constitutional Rights in Perspective, I offered my own detailed thoughts on gun control. Before posting, I revised that post to reflect what happened in Donald Trump's bipartisan Cabinet Room meeting. It now appears that the shelf life of his seemingly remarkable commitments to meaningful reform might have been lasted only until he met with the NRA the following day. This post makes two points that, although touched upon in the earlier post, each warrant separate treatment.

Those who collect guns, especially the most dangerous guns, such as the AR15 Rifle, or comparable weapons that are suitable only for military use, create two separate and distinct externalities. Those externalities increase the risk of our most tragic gun crimes, including Parkland, Florida and Newtown, Connecticut, but so many others as well. Although the externalities are related, they are not the same, and sorting that out matters.

The first externality:

By acquiring more weaponry that can be used to inflict such massive harm, those buying these weapons add to the available stock of guns, estimated at about 330 to 360 million within the US. Guns are the ultimate durable goods. They will long outlive their initial purchasers and those who acquire from those purchasers. No matter how well cared for; well stored; well trained; well, frankly, anything respecting these guns or their owners, there is absolutely no way to ensure that those guns will never fall into the wrong hands and be used in the most horrible of crimes. The loopholes involving gun shows and internet sales largely refer to sales by unlicensed dealers. This includes those who inherit or otherwise come into possession of guns and who want to sell them. This 2010 piece by a CATO commentator (not an anti-gun leftie) gets the Commerce Clause analysis profoundly wrong (Congress can regulate sales at gun shows taking place within a state). But the author does point out that a woman who inherits her husband's gun business can sell those weapons without complying with the ordinary requirements if she doesn't plan to continue the business as she would not then be a licensed dealer. This point applies more generally, and this is where the loopholes reside. Persons who sell outside ordinary, licensed dealer, channels become the path of least resistance to those who desperately want, but should never have, access to such dangerous weaponry. And as seen in Florida, even proper licensed sales can create disasters, leading to the second externality, discussed below.

Before getting to that, for those who are gun enthusiasts, please consider that whatever guns you acquire today will long outlive you, and sometime in the future, maybe decades hence, could be used in a horrible crime. There is absolutely no way that you can prevent that, that is, unless you make sure that upon your disability or death that gun is destroyed or relinquished to a proper legal authority. Also, please also consider this: Even the most responsible among you can never know with certainty that the persons to whom you might bequeath or gift your weapons will be as responsible as you are or as think they should be. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Think carefully, just for a moment, about your families and friends' families. How many degrees of separation are required before you can identify someone who is unreliable, or perhaps suffers a mental illness? The answer, invariably, is very, very few, at least for those who are honest. To be sure, the vast majority of those who are emotionally unstable would never commit a gun crime. (This is one of the many reasons why Trump's assertion that we should take guns from such persons first and then give due process was entirely absurd, even as the Democrats in the room tried to pretend that he wasn't talking nonsense; the other reason is that the government cannot, without violating due process, enact a program that suspends due process.) Can anyone honestly claim that a person in her or his circle who suffers depression, an addiction, acute anxiety, bipolarity, some other diagnosable mental illness, or frankly is simply unkind (whether or not a sociopath) might not seek to profit from that gun, selling it to a stranger who could possibly use it in a nefarious manner, or perhaps even do so himself? Of course not. Acquiring a gun, no matter how responsible the new owner claims to be, is irresponsible unless the acquisition is coupled with a concrete and foolproof plan ensuring that upon the new owner's disability or death the gun will never fall into the wrong hands. And, frankly, short of destruction or turning the gun into the government, there is never, ever such a guarantee.

The second externality:

This one involves resistance to laws surrounding acquisition of such guns. Those who collect and acquire these weapons almost invariably resist even the most modest or reasonable reforms. (I've previously discussed some of those, and there is no need to catalogue them here.) We also know that the NRA will get to the White House, or wherever else their leaders need to be, in a nanosecond just to make sure that no additional regulations ever are imposed. As gun enthusiasts push back to protect their own access to the most dangerous of weapons, make no mistake. They are thereby facilitating easier access by others who are less responsible then they are. And that, in and of itself, is irresponsible. Unless today's responsible gun owners truly believe that absolutely all gun purchasers are as responsible as they claim to be, then in their heart of hearts they also know that there are irresponsible people, dangerous people, seeking to gain access to these weapons. And they know that those persons will look for the path of least resistance to acquisition, such as various legal loopholes. Those same persons also know that the unwillingness to allow even the most modest of gun reforms makes this easier, and thus more dangerous, resulting in tragedy. The kind of tragedy that arises when a 19-year old is legally permitted to purchase an AR15. Resistance to modest legal reform is as much a dangerous externality as are other means of facilitating the flow of dangerous weapons into the wrong hands.

There is, of course, much more to say about guns. I encourage anyone who has not done so to please also read my earlier post, linked above. I suspect this will also not be my final word on this topic. (For an earlier post on this topic, please also see here.)

I welcome your comments, whether or not supportive of my views, on this divisive topic, provided they are polite and otherwise appropriate.

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