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Would Gun Control Have Prevented the Arizona Shooting Massacre: An Economist’s View

January 13, 2011

In light of the current tragedy in Arizona, I’ve postponed some of my more “economic” posts and instead decided to briefly shed light on what academic research tells us about the shooting and gun-legislation.


The shooting in Arizona has led many in the country to reconsider the nation’s gun laws. The shooter, Jared Loughner, was a mentally disturbed young man who nonetheless was able to obtain a firearm and commit a senseless act of violence. However, existing gun legislation could have prevented the sale. The 1993 “Brady Bill” prohibits the sale of guns to individuals who fall into the following categories:

  1. Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
  2. Is a fugitive from justice;
  3. Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance;
  4. Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution;
  5. Is an alien illegally or unlawfully in the United States;
  6. Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions;
  7. Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced U.S. citizenship;
  8. Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from  harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such  intimate partner, or;
  9. Has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence

Under these laws the possibility exists that Mr. Loughner could have been prevented from buying a gun through a mandatory background check, had government officials previously decided to pursue harsher governmental responses to his early behavior. Of course hindsight is always 20-20, so I’m not casting any blame. However, if Mr. Loughner had been convicted of the September 9th 2007 charge of drug possession he would have been ruled ineligible to purchase the gun he bought on November 30th; according to this document from NY that summarizes the legal interpretations of the Brady Bill’s provisions. Further, if his parents or school administrators had forced him to enter psychiatric care (forced mental-care is legal in Arizona) he also would have been disallowed from purchasing the firearm.  If the existing provisions in the Brady Bill could have prevented the tragedy, the next question is how effective is legislation in the U.S. ?

Gun laws vary significantly from country to country and it is no secret that America has the highest homicide rates in the developed world, accompanied by very lax gun legislation. While there have been many studies done on this subject, the jury is still out as to whether gun laws are effective at controlling gun crime or if social/demographic factors are more important determinants. The research is problematic because it can be hard to even compare laws across countries, let alone social factors: for instance in this study the U.K. and U.S. were given the same strength of gun legislation. So instead I will look at a study on the Brady Bill published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, that I think tells us a lot about how the U.S. should approach gun law, and a little about econometric research.

The study, authored by economists Jens Ludwig and Philip Cook, compares states which already had legislation equivalent to the Brady Bill to states that were instead forced to implement the new legislation due to the bill’s passage. What this is called in econometrics is a natural experiment (check back later for a post on natural experiments). By comparing states that already virtually had the Brady Bill in place to states that didn’t they were able to discern the effect the bill had on gun crime. Of course they had to account  and control for differences between states such as: population age, race, poverty and income levels, urban residence, and alcohol consumption.

What they found was only one part of the Brady Bill seemed to have any effect on violent crime. That was the waiting 3-days or so for the background check to go through (note: this waiting period is now no longer in effect as background checks can be done instantaneously). The effect of the waiting period appeared as a drop in suicides among persons aged 55 years and older. Apparently after waiting a little old-people decided life wasn’t so bad (see the top link in this post for more).  Other than that, the Brady Bill had little effect on the homicide rate. But this doesn’t make sense, the law didn’t have its intended consequences. Well, there was a problem with the experiment.

What the researchers found was something that has been known by law enforcement for years. If your state has strict gun laws, you can just get a gun from another state. This meant that comparing the states with preexisting strict gun laws to more lax states was not useful because many guns used in crimes were simply bought out-of-state anyways. For example, 66.5% of guns used in crimes in NY during 2009 came from out-of-state. Thus states with weak gun laws become exporter states for guns used in crimes elsewhere, as shown by this chart in the economist.

While research is inconclusive regarding the role of gun legislation on violent crime, what is clear from the research and data is that if the U.S. is going to be successful in combating gun-crime through legislation it needs to happen at the federal level. Research has also found that measures such as limiting handgun purchases to one a month help reduce the illicit cross-state gun trade.

Whether Arizona’s gun lax gun laws are to blame, or individual and institutional failures that might have stopped the purchase, or our society, or any of the other elements that failed to prevent this tragedy is uncertain. What is clear is that without national-level legislation there will be loopholes that allow the violent and deranged to have access to guns. But, whether the possibility of stopping this is worth reducing state and/or gun-owners rights is a political question I’m not qualified to answer.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 13, 2011 3:25 pm

    Economists Jens Ludwig and Philip Cook, whose study on the Brady Bill I discussed in this article, have just come out with a new policy suggestion… banning all high-capacity magazines (even “grandfathered” ones).

    I guess all those gun enthusiasts rushing to purchase high-capacity magazines aren’t just crazy.

    I would like to add though, even if grandfathered (magazines sold pre-ban) are outlawed, enforcing this provision would be difficult due to the amount of them already in private hands. The primary benefit of the law, as I see it, would be it would drive the trade in these magazines underground which might help in reducing access.

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