Weighing The Costs And Benefits Of Gun Ownership

Let us try to shift the gun debate to another level. Instead of arguing about whether it is people who kill, not the guns, let’s talk about responsible gun ownership. The Second Amendment provides US citizens the right to bear arms, but the confusing part is the first clause that mentions a ‘well-regulated militia’. I think we can all agree that with our rights come responsibilities; that the Constitution requires that we responsibly manage those ‘arms’.

I think we can also agree that the level of gun violence is unacceptable. There is no other developed country where it is so pervasive. The United States is also way out of the norm of other developed countries in the number of guns we own. Is the reason for our high gun ownership and this level of violence because we have the 2nd Amendment or because we fail to responsibly manage the right?

Everything has a cost but there have been few detailed cost benefit analyses of how much the Second Amendment cost the nation. One such attempt estimated that when you add up the direct costs for police, courts, emergency rooms, and prisons for a single “death due to firearm injury” the total is about $400,000. There are 90 such deaths in the US every single day. There also are secondary costs to treat first responders for PTSD, lost wages for victims, welfare costs for victims families, etc. Add in the costs for the over 70,000 non-fatal gun injuries every year and one study put the national costs for gun violence at $220 billion annually. More research might move those costs up or down, but either way, any responsible government would want to study something that took the lives of over 33,000 people every year at a potential cost of tens of billions. Divided equally among the population gun violence could amount to $700 per person per year whether they own a gun or not. We can debate the numbers, but we have to agree that having so many guns and so much gun violence does cost the nation something.

Neither the victims nor perpetrators are paying these costs; all of us are. Is that fair? Why should non-gun owners pay the cost of private gun ownership if they don’t exercise the right? (I remember hearing a similar argument during the healthcare debate.) With only 1 in 3 households owning guns would it be more fair if they, the gun owners who insist on the un-infringed upon right to bear arms, absorbed the costs? There are lots of ways to do it, an excise tax on gun and ammunition sales, a $750 per gun annual license fee, or a per household firearm tax on your 1040. It is understandable that responsible gun owners are crying foul. Their guns were never used to shoot anyone so why should they pay, but somebody has to. Why should someone who never owned a gun, never wanted a gun, and doesn’t care about the 2nd Amendment have to pay for it?

An earlier question asked why this country has more guns and more gun violence than any other developed country; is it merely because we have a Second Amendment or is it the failure to properly manage the responsibilities that right implies? It seems obvious that it is the latter and the nation needs to examine what well-regulated means. Rather than arguing over gun control or what is an assault rifle, we need to use the free market to sort things out. Very much like the pollution debate, we have externalized the costs while internalizing the benefits. We are awash in guns because a typical gun owner realizes the benefits but does not shoulder the true costs. We need to conduct a comprehensive cost benefit analysis of gun violence and attribute those costs to the most relevant parties, those who want the guns. Once individuals understand the costs and have to pay for the right to bear arms, the numbers of guns will drop as will the level of gun violence.

Tom Meara is a Jamestown resident.


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