Guns and Externalities

by Robert VerBruggen

Over on the homepage, Charlie Cooke has an excellent piece on the drive to force gun owners to pay for the externalities of gun ownership. A few months back mandatory gun insurance was all the rage; now it’s gun taxes.

Charlie makes the case based on principle, and I agree with him entirely: It is not kosher to tax people specifically for exercising a constitutional right, and the broader idea of using taxes and subsidies to account for every conceivable externality is a threat to liberty. Certainly, in some cases externalities should inform public policy — anyone who drives a car has a decent chance of causing expensive damage to someone else’s car, so it makes sense to require insurance; no one would want to repeal every penalty for pollution. But at some point it turns into farce. The government cannot account for every benefit and every harm caused by every behavior and then tax and subsidize accordingly.

The current proposals for gun taxes are especially ham-handed, because the question of gun externalities is especially thorny. In some cases, a gun enables someone to commit murder when they otherwise would not have. In other cases, a gun makes no difference — some people who kill with guns would otherwise kill with other tools. And in still other cases, the presence of a gun — or even the mere possibility of armed resistance — stops a crime from taking place. Before we can tax or subsidize based on these externalities, we have to calculate how they add up.

This is incredibly difficult to do; the world is a complicated place, and different ways of slicing the data (comparing various sets of countries, comparing states within the U.S., looking at trends within a given place, etc.) suggest different conclusions. Some researchers try to coax out trends that are not readily apparent, building complicated statistical models — but different researchers reach different results.

We can’t even say that guns cause more crime than they deter. And putting a price tag on the difference would be a whole new can of worms. How much is a life worth? Does it matter whose life? What about various injuries?

Gun-control supporters are presenting taxes as a simple way to internalize the externalities of gun ownership. They are far too confident in their assumptions.