On framing gun laws

Prashanth Perumal

On framing gun laws
Policymakers need to conduct a cost-benefit analyses while drafting gun control laws “Firearms and Lynching,” Michael D. Makowsky and Patrick L. Warren, August 2022, Journal of Law and EconomicsGun violence is an issue that is hotly debated in ...
Policymakers need to conduct a cost-benefit analyses while drafting gun control laws

“Firearms and Lynching,” Michael D. Makowsky and Patrick L. Warren, August 2022, Journal of Law and Economics

Gun violence is an issue that is hotly debated in countries such as the U.S. Anti-gun activists have often pointed to the killing of innocents in mass shootings in schools, malls, and other public places and called for a ban on the purchase of guns by civilians. The pro-gun camp, on the other hand, has put forward the case that guns can actually make crime less likely by raising the cost of committing a crime. They have particularly pointed out that it is hard to quantify the number of lives that have potentially been saved by civilians who held guns, leave alone the number of crimes that never happened because the potential victims held a gun. It is also hard to quantify how many actual crimes reported each year could have been averted with civilian access to guns. So the cost of gun abuse, which is for everyone to see in the form of mass shootings and other tangible evidence, cannot easily be compared to the possible benefits of freer access to guns and other items of combat among civilians. This makes it very hard to weigh the disadvantages of wider gun use against its advantages and frame a proper gun policy.

Need for evidence

Even in academic literature on crime and gun control, it has been hard to come across clear empirical evidence that measures the lives saved by the use of guns by civilians. “Firearms and Lynching,” a paper by economists Michael D. Makowsky and Patrick L. Warren from Clemson University published in the Journal of Law and Economics tries to fill this vacuum. The paper studies the effect that access to firearms had on incidents of lynching against blacks in southern U.S. during the times when the Jim Crow laws were in force. The Jim Crow laws were racial segregation laws that were implemented particularly in the southern States from the late-19th century to the middle of the 20th century to discriminate against black Americans. Even when the laws were not openly discriminatory on paper, the implementation and the actual intent of the laws were discriminatory against blacks. The researchers found this by studying the effect of state gun control laws during this time. These disarmament laws had the desired negative effect on black gun ownership but not on gun ownership among whites. While firearm ownership among blacks reduced due to discriminatory disarmament laws, the magnitude of the reduction depended on the price of firearms. For example, when the price of firearms was high, sales bans had little effect as firearms were already unaffordable to many.

Greater protection

Notably, since there are no clear records of individual ownership of guns from the Jim Crow era, Makowsky and Warren used data on suicides committed using guns as a proxy to measure gun ownership among different populations in different regions. The assumption is that greater gun ownership is likely to lead to a greater number of suicides using guns. In their analysis, the researchers found that there was a strong negative relationship between access to firearms among blacks and incidents of lynching against them. That is, in places and during times when blacks had greater access to firearms, there were fewer cases of lynching against them. When disarmament laws managed to reduce access to firearms among blacks, the authors estimate, there was a rise in cases of lynching against them. This finding implies that access to firearms could have helped blacks better protect themselves against incidents of lynching. The authors of the paper note in particular that the benefits of free access to firearms to a certain group of people may be higher in political setups where there is institutional discrimination against them. This was true in the case of the American south under the Jim Crow laws but may not, the authors warn, hold true in the present day. Still, their paper serves to remind that at least in some contexts wider gun ownership need not have negative effects on public safety. Public policymakers may need to take this into account in their cost-benefit analyses while framing gun laws.

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