The "deadweight loss" of gun control. (Gun Right).
Nevertheless, there are intellectuals who have things to say that are at once new, sensible and even profound. I was forcibly reminded of this in reading Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the Civil War by Jeffrey Hummel, an economist and historian. Though I consider myself well read concerning the Civil War period, that book offered many new and profound insights. I cannot belabor them here because this column is supposed to focus on gun issues. But, though I do not agree with all that Professor Hummel says, I unreservedly recommend his highly readable book to anyone who wants to better understand this vital period in American history.
One insight from the book that definitely is applicable to gun issues is the economic concept of "deadweight loss." In relation to government, what this concept describes is a public policy that may benefit particular individuals or groups, yet its cumulative effect is to impose an overall loss on others and/or on society as a whole. For instance, slavery was economically beneficial to slave owners. But it hurt everyone else, and society in general, far more: Black Americans were economically exploited for minimal recompense; nonslave-owning whites were forced by law to participate in nightly slave patrols to prevent slaves escaping or rebelling; society as a whole was harmed by the economic inefficiency of these things and because slaves produce far less than free men would since they work as little as they can rather than as much as they can.
Gun control also exemplifies the concept "deadweight loss." Its only beneficial effect for anyone is increasing the happiness of people who hate guns, are terriffied of guns or want Americans to be helplessly dependent on government. Gun control does not have any of the criminological benefits claimed for it because the criminals and/or irresponsible people who misuse guns will not obey gun bans and cannot be disarmed by law. (After all, if society had power and knowledge enough to disarm them, it would have knowledge and power enough to prevent their crimes, so disarming them would not be necessary.) And, insofar as gun control disarms potential crime victims, it actually promotes violence since firearms are the only weapons that allow resistance to attackers who generally enjoy the advantages of surprise, youth and strength over victims.
This last point has been impressively documented in an article by criminologist David Kopel, whose career has included stints as a prosecutor and deputy attorney general and teaching law and criminology at New York University ("Lawyers, Guns and Burglars," 43 Arizona Law Review 346-367, 2001, and at www.davekopel.org).
In this article, Prof. Kopel lists the multiple positive benefits widespread firearms ownership confers on society. He does so to emphasize the wrongness of the recent spate of suits seeking covertly to end handgun sales by foisting the costs of handgun crimes onto the dealers and manufacturers, thereby making handgun sale uneconomic. (The ironic thing about these suits is that they have been brought by cities and counties. Yet if anyone besides criminals is to blame for handgun crime, it is the cities and counties that fail to do their job preventing such crime.)
Prof. Kopel says, "Courts are ill-suited to [make the kinds of judgments these suits ask for because] courts cannot properly assess the true socioeconomic costs and benefits of [guns]. To illustrate this point, this article looks at a very large [benefit], which is overlooked in the[se] suits: the major role widespread gun ownership plays in reducing the number of home invasion[s]."
This is important because home invasion burglary is a very dangerous thing. If no one is home when a burglary occurs, the only harm is property loss. But if victims are home, they are much more likely to be killed, severely injured and/or raped as compared even to victims of commercial robberies or street muggings. So victims and society in general greatly benefit because fear of confronting an armed victim causes American burglars to take great care to target only unoccupied homes.
Moreover, as Prof. Kopel also notes, this deterrence value spreads beyond homes of gun owners: "American homes that do not have guns enjoy significant 'free rider' benefits... Because potential burglars cannot tell which homes possess guns, most burglars choose to avoid any occupied home for fear of being shot." Only the "gun owners bear [the] financial and other burdens of gun ownership, but [homes without guns] enjoy exactly the same" deterrent benefit
But some people might say this is just theory. How do we really know burglars take care to avoid occupied homes? The answer is that they say they do. Criminologists interested in going beyond theory to the real world of crime have conducted actual interviews with prison inmates, including burglars. Among findings from the interviews with burglars, Kopel says, "They tend to 'work' at hours when persons are unlikely to be in the home... Two hours are spent in the average suburban burglary, [but] most of that time is spent driving around observing the houses--'casing the joint'--to ensure no one is home. One burglar told of watching a particular house and noting that the occupants went to church for four or five hours on Sunday morning. Another explained, 'You just knock on the door to see if they're there. You bang, you bang, you look through windows, nobody's there. I mean, you gotta make sure they're not home."'
This is confirmed by a survey conducted under the auspices of the National Institute of Justice among thousands of felons in 10 state prisons across the country. Seventy-eight percent of felons who had committed a burglary or a violent crime agreed that "one reason burglars avoid houses where people are at home is that they fear being shot"--quoting the actual question asked. In response to other questions, 34 percent said they had been "scared off, shot 'at, wounded or captured by an armed victim, and about two-thirds (69 percent) had at least one acquaintance who had had this experience." In addition, more than a third of the felons said that in contemplating a crime, they either "often" or "regularly" worried that they "might get shot at by the victim." That is from James D. Wright & Peter Rossi, Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms (1986).
Don B. Kates Jr., a criminologist, civil liberties lawyer and former professor of constitutional law, is the co-author of various books including Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control (2001), the essay on the Second Amendment that appears in the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution and articles appearing in law reviews and criminology journals, including the leading law review article on the Second Amendment, "Handgun Prohibition and the Original Understanding of the Second Amendment", 82 Michigan Law Review 204 (1983). As a lawyer he has litigated cases involving gun rights.