More than anything else, economics is a way of thinking. At the heart of economics are several simple and easily observable characteristics of humans and the world in which we live. The first is, people prefer more of those things that give them satisfaction and fewer of those things that give them dissatisfaction. Second, when the cost of something goes down, people tend to take or do more of it and when the cost of something increases, people tend to take or do less of it. Finally, having more of one thing requires less of something else. Or, as my colleague Professor Milton Friedman puts it, "There's no free lunch." Let's apply these simple postulates to public policy issues.
With any public policy there's a benefit and there's a cost. Intelligent public policy discussion requires an examination to determine whether benefits outweigh costs. For example, there'd be a clear benefit to mandating a national speed limit of 5 mph. The enormous benefit from doing so would be the virtual elimination of the tens of thousands of highway fatalities and injuries each year. But the costs of a 5 mph speed limit would be enormous. We sensibly conclude, without saying so, that a 5 mph speed limit and the lives it would save wouldn't be worth the hassle. The lesson here is that we can't simply look at the benefits. If we only look at benefits, we'd do just about anything because everything has a benefit.
Our nation is in a frenzy about child victims of gun homicides and accidents. Many people are becoming increasingly shrill in demands for all manner of supposed gun safety measures. First, let's put the magnitude of accidental gun deaths in perspective. The following are Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 1997 statistics for types of accidental deaths of children from birth to age 14: drowning (1010), auto (2,608), bicycle (201), pedestrian (675), and gun accidents (142). Gun homicide in the same age group totaled 346.
It turns out that among all the causes of accidental deaths of children, the chances of death by a gun accident are the remotest. That means the benefit of child safety locks might be 142 fewer accidental deaths in 1997.
Reported in John R. Lott's book, "More Guns, Less Crime," fifteen national polls such as the "Los Angeles Times", Gallup, Peter Hart Research Associates, there are an estimated 760,000 defensive handgun uses to 3.6 million defensive uses of any kind of gun per year. Crimes that have been prevented included robbery, car-jacking, burglary, assault and murder. I doubt whether these crimes would have been as effectively prevented if a gun owner, awakened by a burglar in the dead of night, or approached by a car-jacker, had to first worry about scrounging around for the key to unlock the safety lock.
But you might say whatever it takes to prevent the accidental death of our children is worth it. Then I suggest that you prioritize things a bit. The number of children killed accidentally by guns is 142. We'd save more child lives (1010) by closing swimming pools, save (201) lives by banning cycling, and (675) banning pedestrian activities. Again, if we only look to the benefit (saving lives), we might ban these activities, but what would be the cost? Our children would lose all the joy and entertainment from swimming, bicycling and playing in the streets.
Economics gives no clue about the motivation of people who push for one public policy or another. So I'm going to go out on the limb regarding the motivation of gun safety lock advocates: these people want ultimate gun confiscation and gun locks are just another nuisance factor toward that end.
Walter E. Williams
June 1, 2000
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