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 that 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 1997 statistics for types of accidental deaths of children from
birth to age 14: drowning (1,010), auto (2,608), bicycle (201), pedestrian
(675) and gun accidents (142). Gun homicide in the same age group totaled
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,” 15 national
polls, by groups such as the Los Angeles Times, Gallup and Peter Hart
Research Associates, have found 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
carjacker, 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 (1,010) by closing swimming pools, save 201 lives by banning
cycling and 675 by banning pedestrian activities. Again, if we only look to
the benefit (saving lives), we might outlaw 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 gunlocks are just another nuisance factor toward that end.