Lately I have cocked my eavesdropping ear whenever I hear others discussing guns in America. Ideas are flying furiously about how to prevent such events as the recent school massacre in Connecticut, from banning any and all firearms on one side to placing heavily armed guards wherever people gather in public, with a good portion of that public themselves packing concealed weapons, on the other side.
We are scared and want protection against feelings of powerlessness. The depths of our fears are demonstrated by the very irrationality of the proposals. Many people see guns as the problem itself. True, people shoot people, not guns alone. But unarmed people do not shoot people, and therefore the more difficult it is for a potential shooter access to high-powered weapons, the less likely it is such a shooting will occur. Many other people know from experience that guns give them a sense of power. Naturally, they turn even more strongly to the power these weapons render to counter feelings of powerlessness. Here in Illinois, the only state not to have one already, we are considering state-wide concealed-carry policy. This back-and-forth “guns as problem, guns as power” is played out daily in the Letters section of each newspapers across the state.
I do not own a gun, though I grew up with them and earned a turkey or two in my younger years for marksmanship. Sometime around 15 years of age, I just lost interest. Furthermore, I lived for many years in countries with extremely strict gun policies, and there the only people I heard complain about it were folks who I was quite relieved did not have easy access to guns! There, homicides of any kind were only a fraction of what occurs in any one of dozens of US cities each day.
But the USA is something else entirely. We have a different history, temperament and very different social institutions. Many in our society really love guns. Our Supreme Court, in laughably contorted interpretation of “well-regulated militia,” decided that being armed is a basic individual right. So clearly guns are not going away. Furthermore, any policy of confiscation would be largely viewed as a direct attempt to decrease citizens’ power, the remedy for which is [insert mental rim shot here] more guns!
So, we need to re-frame the issue. There are tradeoffs between individual freedom and the social costs incurred by exercise of such freedom. Generally we agree it is fair for the social costs of a freely-chosen activity to be folded into the activity itself and born largely by those who choose to engage in the activity. User-fee taxes are the best example of this. Thus smokers pay hefty tobacco taxes when they purchase their chosen product, the revenues of which defray at least a portion of the costs incurred by society because some people among us choose to smoke. Likewise, gasoline taxes at the pump are designated for upkeep of roads and bridges, which are costs incurred by society from the activities of drivers. We honor people’s right to engage in cost-incurring activities, but rightly expect that if costs are incurred from that activity, such costs be paid largely by those who choose to engage in the activity. Those who smoke a lot pay more tax for the privilege than those who smoke less. Those who buy lots of gasoline pay more tax than those who buy less. Generally speaking, we Americans prefer this to outright bans on harmful activities. “You can swing your arms all you want, but if you break someone’s nose, you pay the medical bill yourself!”
Rather than coercively eliminating guns, a better policy would be to recognize fully the rights of citizens to arm themselves, but also that exercise of this right entails very real costs to the society. Setting aside intangible costs (what dollar value can be assigned to people’s grief?) there are plenty of concrete costs incurred by current gun ethics in our country to give us a place to start–medical care for the wounded and payment for protection officers alone is already a significant sum. To this we might add the costs of a beefed up mental health and criminal justice system required if we are really serious about keeping guns out of the hands of some while fostering relatively free availability to everyone else.
A ballpark figure would not be difficult to establish for the costs incurred by society so that those among us who feel safer with guns can own more or less as many guns as they want and can afford. The next reasonable step is to assess an adequate users’-fee-tax, perhaps at the point when ammunition is purchased, designated to defray the social costs incurred by the misuse of such easily available weapons. Gun owners would then enjoy the freedom to decide how much or how little of that tax they want to pay, based on how much of the levied items they choose to purchase. Others in society would be at least somewhat eased of the burden of paying for the choice of gun owners to exercise their rights of gun ownership.
It seems Win/Win to me…