Gun Violence: The Real Costs

Gun Violence: The Real Costs

by Philip J. Cook, Jens Ludwig


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100 billion dollars. That is the annual cost of gun violence in America according to the authors of this landmark study, a book destined to change the way Americans view the problem of gun-related violence.

Until now researchers have assessed the burden imposed by gunshot injuries and deaths in terms of medical costs and lost productivity. Here, economists Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig widen the lens, developing a framework to calculate the full costs borne by Americans in a society where both gun violence and its ever-present threat mandate responses that touch every aspect of our lives.

All of us, no matter where we reside or how we live, share the costs of gun violence. Whether waiting in line to pass through airport security or paying taxes for the protection of public officials; whether buying a transparent book bag for our children to meet their school's post-Columbine regulations or subsidizing an urban trauma center, the steps we take are many and the expenditures enormous.

Cook and Ludwig reveal that investments in prevention, avoidance, and harm reduction, both public and private, constitute a far greater share of the gun-violence burden than previously recognized. They also employ extensive survey data to measure the subjective costs of living in a society where there is risk of being shot or losing a loved one or neighbor to gunfire.

At the same time, they demonstrate that the problem of gun violence is not intractable. Their review of the available evidence suggests that there are both additional gun regulations and targeted law enforcement measures that will help.

This urgently needed book documents for the first time how gun violence diminishes the quality of life for everyone in America. In doing so, it will move the debate over gun violence past symbolic politics to a direct engagement with the costs and benefits of policies that hold promise for reducing gun violence and may even pay for themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195137934
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 10/26/2000
Series: Studies in Crime and Public Policy
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)
Lexile: 1690L (what's this?)

About the Author

Philip J. Cook is the ITT/Sanford Professor of Public Policy at Duke University and Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He has been conducting research on firearms and violence for over 25 years, and has served as consultant to the Departments of Justice and the Treasury. He has written extensively on alcohol control, gambling, the economics of crime, and other topics, and is co-author of The Winner-Take-All Society (1995) and Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America (1989).
Jens Ludwig is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University and Affiliated Expert of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. He conducts research on public policies related to crime and education, and has provided testimony on gun policy to state legislatures and other groups in California, Kansas, and Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Gun Violence and Life in America

At 11:21 A.M. on April 20, 1999, 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, from the back parking lot carrying two sawed-off shotguns, a Hi-Point semiautomatic rifle, and a 9 millimeter Tech DC 9 semi-automatic pistol with a high-capacity magazine. The two students had earlier hidden at least 30 pipe bombs throughout the school for use in the attack and had planted a 25-pound propane bomb in the school's kitchen. They then proceeded to open fire, shooting 35 people before the end of lunch hour. By three in the afternoon, local police had finally evacuated the building and started their search for the gunmen, both of whom were found in the school library, dead of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Among the 13 other victims who died were 48-year-old Dave Sanders, a popular teacher who was shot twice in the chest while leading others to safety, and Daniel Rohrbough, a 15-year-old freshman who was shot while holding an exit door open for other students and was, as the New York Times reported, "last seen alive, running, screaming for his mother." The family of Lauren Townsend, a senior and member of the National Honor Society, received a letter offering her a college scholarship the day of her funeral.

    It is difficult to overstate the effects that this tragedy has had on the residents of Littleton. The Columbine High School students' lives and those of their friends and families will never be the same. And the shock wave from these shootings has reverberated throughout Colorado.The mother of a high school student reports that up to that point, "I had total blind faith in the schools, but I am not going to play Russian roulette with her life. I just can't do it. She thinks about where she'd run and how she'd get out of her school if it happened to her. How do you study and concentrate like that?" Similar sentiments by other parents have led to a fourfold increase in the number of calls received by the Christian Home Educators of Colorado, a home-schooling organization.

    The Littleton shootings followed a string of similar, though more limited attacks by students at schools in Jonesboro, Arkansas (March 1998), West Paducah, Kentucky (December 1997), and Pearl, Mississippi (October 1997). They have touched parents and students across the country. After Littleton, one teacher in a Virginia public school with many low-income students noted, "It may be hard for so-called safe communities to accept the fact that their children can inflict as much mayhem as, and maybe more than, those from less privileged environments and to take the tough steps that schools like mine have learned are the price of protection."

    Metal detectors, security personnel, and other measures that had once been largely confined to big cities are now in schools across the country. Many principals and other school personnel spent the summer of 1999 worried primarily about student safety:

In dozens of locales as disparate as Pittsburgh and Palm Beach County, SWAT teams have spent the summer learning the layouts of high schools and conducting drills involving mock hostage-taking. Many students returning to school will find metal detectors and armed security guards at the doors, while others will have to trade their canvas backpacks for see-through bags designed to make it harder to conceal a weapon. ... In Allen, Texas, a suburb of Dallas that cut back its class schedule last spring after a series of bomb threats, officials are spending $1 million to bring in metal detectors, surveillance cameras and a new security force, and are requiring students to wear identification badges.

The Lessons of Littleton

The Littleton tragedy highlights several lessons that are important for addressing the problem of gun violence in America. First is the key role of technology. There have been endless commentaries on what could possibly have driven Harris and Klebold, sons of prosperous families with seemingly bright futures, to plan and execute the mass killing of their classmates and teachers. The suggestions range from the sterility of life in upscale subdivisions to the violent fantasies encouraged by television and computer games to general societal permissiveness. Whatever the merits of these various perspectives, one feature of this attack cannot be ignored: Harris and Klebold, like the other student killers before them, used guns to accomplish their grim purpose. They also tried, unsuccessfully, to use bombs, but without guns, the enterprise would have been unthinkable.

    Of course, guns are not necessary to perpetrate more ordinary violence, whether in schools or homes or on the street. Knives, fists, and clubs are far more common. The importance of guns in routine fights and robberies is that they intensify violence, increasing the likelihood of death. Because guns increase the scope and lethality of violence, keeping them away from violent encounters is a vital public goal. This goal is distinct from the goal of reducing overall violence rates. Gun-oriented policies, if they are successful, may save lives even if assault and robbery rates stay at current levels.

    A second lesson is that the consequences of Littleton and the other school shootings extend well beyond the injuries and loss of life. These tragedies created a new arena for worry, a violent scenario that parents and principals everywhere could not ignore. The anguish of the victims and their families and friends was just the beginning—throughout America the emotional response to the shootings engendered a demand for prevention and protection efforts.

    Third, in aggregate these efforts to repair the damage to peace of mind are not cheap. The effort to prevent subsequent shootings has greatly added to the costs of the shootings themselves. That is, in assessing the comprehensive costs of gun violence in schools, we must include the direct burden created by the threat and the indirect burden on parents and children who are complying with the new rules, not to mention the taxpayers who are paying for the extra protection.

    Fourth, in the costly pursuit of safety, it's possible to err on the side of "too much." While many schools responded to the Littleton shootings by substantially changing their security practices, others have rejected the use of metal detectors and similar measures as "an affront to educational openness." One superintendent from Massachusetts said "We don't want to create an image of a police state, and we don't want dogs sniffing around," while the Los Angeles public schools decided against screening every student because of the loss in class time that would result. The trade-off appears in the private sector as well: As one bank president said, "you don't want to have so much security that you inconvenience your customers."

    Systematic evaluation of policies to reduce gun violence thus requires that the costs on both sides be weighed and compared. But it is more common in debates over gun-oriented policies that the two sides talk past each other. Consider, for example, the use of aggressive police patrols against illegal gun carrying in New York. Mayor Rudolph Guiliani supports these patrols, arguing that they may well have contributed to the reduction in gun crime in the city. Opponents such as the Reverend Al Sharpton argue that the patrols should be ended in light of the inconvenience to large numbers of innocent and predominantly minority citizens. But presumably most observers will synthesize the two arguments and recognize that police patrols against illegal gun carrying involve both benefits and costs. In the absence of more information about the relative importance of each, members of the public are left to form their own opinions on the basis of other things, such as which spokesperson has the less unpleasant personality.

A More Comprehensive Perspective

To the extent that data rather than rhetoric are brought to bear in public discourse on gun problems, they consist of counts of injuries and deaths, rather than broader measures of effects on society and standards of living. Of course the immediate damage guns do in assaults, homicides, unintentional shootings, and suicides, amounting to more than a million deaths since 1965 and about three times that number of injuries, cannot be denied. Indeed, in considering the potential benefits of sentencing enhancements for gun use in crime, a ban on particularly dangerous types of guns, or more stringent regulation of gun commerce, the first question must be whether that policy will save lives and increase public safety. But even if the answer is yes, then there remains a second, more subtle question—what is the value of this increase in public safety, and how does it compare with the costs of the program?

    The first question is challenging enough and produces any number of skirmishes among analysts. A case in point concerns the consequences of putting more guns on the street by easing restrictions on carrying a concealed weapon. The claim that gun-toting citizens will deter homicidal assaults contends with the claim that more guns on the street will simply escalate the "arms race." There is evidence on both sides, though in our judgment these policies have likely had little effect either way.

    For other policies, such as sentencing enhancements for gun use in crime, the evidence of effectiveness is more clear cut. But knowing that a policy of this sort saves lives isn't enough for setting public policy, given the considerable costs of increasing our society's already high rate of incarceration.

    The effort to place a value on increased safety expands the discussion. As in the Littleton example, the cost of gun violence is not limited to the immediate damage but has broad consequences for peace of mind, private investment in protection and avoidance, and the expenditure of tax revenues. With this broader perspective comes a surprising answer to the question of whose problem this is: While gun assaults and unintentional injuries are concentrated to a remarkable degree among a narrow demographic slice of the population—younger black or Hispanic men—the rest of the population is by no means immune. And in seeking to reduce our vulnerability, or paying our share of the public bill for responding to violence, the burden is widely shared.

    This more comprehensive approach, defining gun violence as, in effect, a tax on our standard of living as well as a public health or crime issue, may help in the effort to create and sustain public attention on the problem. Too often, gun policies are adopted in response to highly publicized shootings. The tendency is to focus on preventing similar events in the future, rather than on those policies that hold the most promise for reducing gunshot injuries over the long run. For example, because some of the weapons used in the Columbine school shootings were obtained from a gun show, a number of proposals have been made to regulate gun sales at gun shows—even though only a very small share of teens and convicted criminals obtain their firearms from this source. Scarce public attention and government resources are thus diverted toward programs that have narrow scope. Documenting the ongoing shared costs of gun violence may provide a more broad-gauged perspective on policymaking.

The Benefits of Reducing Gun Violence

Can we assign a monetary value to a human life, or to the suffering of someone who has been paralyzed by a gunshot wound, or to the effects of such injuries on the lives of family and friends? As difficult and unpleasant as this task may seem, the fact is that the courts regularly place a price on life and limb in setting damages for personal-injury suits; more to the point, legislatures and regulatory agencies are routinely required to decide how much an increment in safety is worth. When Congress established a national speed limit of 55 in 1974, the highway fatality rate dropped dramatically. But much of the public, including the commercial trucking interests, eventually demanded a return to higher speed limits despite the likely increase in fatalities that would result, and Congress complied. Individual consumers are also forced to make decisions in the face of what might be thought of as a "quantity-quality" tradeoff for our lives. Should we spend extra to obtain a car with dual air bags or antilock breaks, or save the money for a cruise in the Bahamas? Is that job cleaning windows on the exterior of the Empire State Building worth the extra pay? Should we pay an extra $10,000 to buy a house that is farther away from the local nuclear plant? And so forth.

    To be clear, policymakers and private citizens are making judgments about the value of ex ante reductions in the risk of injury, before the identity of those who will be injured is known. While most people would give up much of their net worth to save themselves or a loved one from certain death, their willingness to pay for small reductions in the risk of death is more limited. It is the summation of what people will pay for small reductions in the probability of death that defines what is known as the "value of a statistical life," with values defined similarly for statistical injuries and other health hazards. If each person in a community of 100,000 is willing to pay $50 to reduce the number of injury deaths in that community by one per year, then the value of a statistical life to these residents equals $5 million.

    What people will pay to reduce the risk of gunshot injury will presumably depend on how it affects them, their families, and their communities. Sometimes the monetary value of greater safety comes right off a spreadsheet. For example, the sharp declines in the rate of violent crime during the 1990s have brought windfall gains in property values to many property owners in urban neighborhoods. But most of what's at stake here are intangible commodities not traded in the marketplace—freedom from the threat of gun violence, relief from the necessity of taking steps to reduce the threat.

    The most straightforward way to determine what people will pay to reduce gun violence is to ask them. When 1,200 American adults were asked such a question in 1998 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, the average household was willing to pay around $240 per year to reduce gun crime by 30% in their community. Multiplying by the total number of households in the United States implies that a 30% reduction in gun assaults is worth nearly $24 billion, or approximately $1 million per gunshot injury. Extrapolating from that, we find the total cost of gunshot injuries from crime is about $80 billion per year.

    Many economists (and other people as well) are understandably dubious about how seriously to take responses to surveys, particularly when they relate to what respondents would hypothetically be willing to pay for government programs (rather than for items with which they may have more direct knowledge). Nevertheless, the results of this survey imply a value per statistical life that is remarkably consistent with those derived from studies of actual behavior in other contexts. Further, an extra $240 per year to reduce gun assaults by 30% does not seem unreasonable compared with the $1,800 that crime-prevention efforts cost the average American household each year, especially since people's fear of crime seems to be motivated largely by the fear of violent crime.

    Moreover, the use of survey data is preferable to the main alternative, which is to extrapolate the value of what people would pay to reduce gun violence from the implied value of improved safety as revealed in workplace and other settings. On the one hand, a large percentage of gunshot victims are engaged in highly risky activity and appear to place relatively little value on their own lives. On the other hand, the payment that people will require to accept riskier jobs only captures the value of improvements in personal safety and excludes some of the most important benefits from reducing gun violence, such as a diminished risk of injury to loved ones and reduced need for caution in everyday life.

    However, our survey data cover only assault and homicide. To place a value on unintentional shootings or gun suicides, we do, with some trepidation, borrow numbers from other arenas. After adjusting for differences in age and risk between those at high risk of gunshot injury and the population as a whole, our calculations suggest that the elimination of unintentional gunshot injuries and gun suicides is probably worth as much as $20 billion per year. Adding these estimates to those obtained from our survey data for gun assaults suggests that the annual costs of gun violence are on the order of $100 billion.

    These results serve to highlight the importance of using the right accounting framework. Traditionally, policymakers have focused on a framework known as the "cost of illness" method, which in practice is the sum of victims' medical expenses (and other "direct costs" of injuries) and the value of their lost earnings. In spirit, this method borrows from national-product accounting and ignores most of what is captured in the willingness-to-pay approach: the subjective value of safety, concern about others' welfare, and the costs of prevention and avoidance. The bottom line is that medical expenses and lost productivity make up very little of the societal burden of gun violence.

Policy Evaluation

With more than 200 million guns in private hands, many people are understandably skeptical about the ability of public policy to reduce the burden of gun violence. Yet there are interventions that hold promise in reducing the volume of gunshot injuries in America and may have benefits that exceed the costs.

    Efforts to keep guns away from those deemed at high risk for misusing them has been an important goal of gun policy, though these policies have been criticized for their potentially negative effects on the ability of citizens to defend themselves. For example, James Q. Wilson has argued that "Guns are almost certainly contributors to the lethality of American violence, but there is no politically or legally feasible way to reduce the stock of guns now in private possession to the point that their availability to criminals would be much affected.... And even if there were, law-abiding people would lose a means of protecting themselves long before criminals lost a means of attacking them." Yet we believe that Wilson exaggerates the difficulty of discriminating between law-abiding adults, on the one hand, and teenagers and criminals on the other. Restrictions on gun sales and background checks to enforce them have the potential to produce some increase in the effective price of guns to high-risk people, while imposing only minor inconvenience to people outside of the disqualified groups.

    In our view, perhaps the top priority for gun policy is to close the gaping loophole in the current regulatory system, which exempts private sales of used guns from the background-check requirements imposed on licensed gun dealers. In order to regulate these private sales, law-enforcement authorities must be able to hold owners accountable for their firearms. Requiring that all transfers be channeled through federally licensed dealers, and holding owners responsible for misuse of their guns, would be a good start. This requirement would affect about 2 million gun transfers each year, each of which would be required to go through a dealer. If the extra hassle to the seller, buyer, and dealer is worth a combined $100 worth of their time, then by our calculation the requirement is worthwhile if it prevents only 200 gunshot injuries per year.

    The regulation of firearms as consumer products also has the potential to reduce gun misuse by improving gun design. The most promising new option in design is to "personalize" guns, thereby preventing them from being fired by persons other than the authorized owner. This technology—really a variety of different technological options—holds some promise for saving lives by making guns inoperable to despondent teenagers, curious children, or others (including burglars) who acquire guns in unauthorized fashion. While it is too soon to evaluate the net effect on public health, since even modest beneficial effects can make personalized gun technology worthwhile, we believe this technology is likely to provide considerable gains to society.

    More traditional law-enforcement activities can also have a substantial effect in reducing criminal gun misuse. One demonstration found that less than $200,000 in extra funding for targeted police patrols against illegal gun carrying may have substantially reduced the number of gunshot injuries in the impacted neighborhoods. Our estimates suggest that the value to society from this change in gun violence is on the order of $20 to $100 million. Similarly, sentence enhancements for the use of guns in crime may also produce benefits far in excess of costs.

    In sum, there are a variety of programs to reduce gun violence that enjoy widespread popular support, have little effect on the ability of most private citizens to keep guns for personal use, and have benefits that exceed costs. The last point is easy to justify once we recognize the magnitude of the burden that the threat of gun injuries imposes on our society.

Table of Contents

Gun Violence and Life in America
Victimization Risks
How Guns Matter
What Counts?
Medical Costs: Gross versus Net
The Mythical Importance of Productivity Losses
Avoidance and Prevention
Willingness-to-Pay to Reduce Gun Violence
Appendix A: Data Sources for Injury and Mortality Rates 135(14)
Appendix B: Computation of Net Medical Cost Estimates 149(26)
Appendix C: Computation of Productivity Losses 175(6)
Appendix D: Computations of Contingent-Valuation and Quality-of-Life Estimates 181(16)
Notes 197(22)
References 219(16)
Index 235

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