I suspect that just about everyone's Facebook feed since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is full of examples of overly simplistic arguments for and against gun control. Yes, armed citizens sometimes stop would-be murderers, but at the same time yes, Aurora shooter James Holmes probably would not have killed as many people if he hadn't had high-capacity magazines. As is often the case in policy debates, the issue is much more complicated.
Earlier this week, President Obama launched the biggest push for gun control that has come out of the White House in more than a decade, pushing for an assault weapons ban and issuing 23 executive orders to expand background checks, provide funds for research, and other relatively minor measures to curb gun violence.
In one of the most poignant parts of his speech, the president said:
"So I’m putting forward a specific set of proposals based on the work of (Vice President Biden's) task force. And in the days ahead, I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality. Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try."
Clearly, in these sort of briefings, there is a need for rhetoric that will resonate with people personally and emotionally. This statement is quite effective in this regard, but when carried out to it's fullest implications, it is utterly absurd.
Take, for example, an illustration from my undergraduate micro-economics class. We have a speed limit. Every year, a number of people die in fatal car accidents. To up the rhetorical stakes, let's say X number of babies burn to death in car accidents every year. Now suppose we lowered the speed limit by 10 miles per hour. Surely we would have a fewer fatal car accidents, and fewer babies would die on our highways. But wait, why not lower it by another 10 to prevent even more fatal traffic accidents? And so it goes.
Lowering the speed limit by that much seems crazy to most people. The costs to transportation and commerce would be astronomical, but hey, it would keep more babies from suffering a fiery death. In fact, one could imagine plenty of laws and restrictions we could come up with that would save at least one life, but most would probably come at an unacceptable cost.
The same basic question must be asked in the gun control debate: How much freedom and efficiency do we want to sacrifice for the sake of safety?
Preventing mass shootings is trying to strain out a gnat — it's one guy doing something every other year or so in a nation of more than 300 million people. Preventing more of these shootings will require better filters, which means time and money to put said filters into effect. As this Politico article notes, Obama's 23 executive orders are expected to cost about $500 million in 2014. In the grand scheme of the federal budget, that isn't all that much, and the changes they make are hardly even enough to alarm many conservatives and the gun lobby, but how many deaths will these new regulations and restrictions prevent?
In the case of Sandy Hook, tighter background checks would not have helped because the shooter used weapons legally purchased by his mother. Gun control issues by their nature tend to be difficult to sort through because every devastating shooting that gets the country up in arms is a unique case. These events are outliers that can hardly be used as symbols to capture an entire nation's alleged "culture of violence."
Back to the president's statement. In a country that loses more than 11,000 people to gun-related homicides each year, would it be worth a half billion dollars just to prevent one of those deaths? What about 10 of them? Or 1,000?
There's no way to precisely calculate the impact of Obama's gun orders, of course, and we'll have to wait until the end of the year to even begin evaluating the statistics on gun-related deaths and offering some speculative answers about whether these polices made much of a difference.
It may seem cold and heartless to think in those terms, but from a pure policy perspective, when it comes to implementing laws that will cost time and money, that's how the debate ought to happen