Gun sales
Firearms counter at Keesler Air Force Base, © Kemberly Groue

Could we fix America’s gun problem by just charging more for guns?

There's more to the price of a gun than what you see on the tag

How much do guns cost? It seems like a pretty obvious question – go to a store, check out the price tag.

But two economists, Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, believe that the true cost of guns is actually a lot higher. Putting a number on it, and figuring out who could pay, might just be the answer to gun control – if only we knew who actually owned the guns.

When a gun owner misuses a weapon, it’s the rest of society that feels the repercussions. The cost of gun-related medical expenses due to deaths and injuries is around $12.8 million. Factor in other health costs like long-term disability expenses or the mental health care needed to treat people for trauma, and the bill mounts to a whopping $410 million. These are called – the price associated with a gun that you won’t see on the tag.

So what if we charged gun owners for the full cost of their purchase, taking the burden off society and making the people buying the weapons pay the bill themselves?

Some economists think the hidden costs associated with gun ownership should be reflected in the price – which would likely stop a lot of potential gun owners from making that investment. But pinning down what that price is, getting people to agree it’s fair to make gun owners pay it, and enforcing that law has proven to be a pretty difficult task.

One basic problem is that we’re not even close to knowing how many people possess a gun.

A lot of guns are sold illegally, meaning people can get one without reporting it to local authorities. Estimates of how many guns really exist vary wildly – most sources say total number of guns in the US range from 270 to 310 million, but others make far larger guesses. What's certain is that far more guns are in circulation than the government is aware, which makes policing their use incredibly difficult, let alone applying a tax or other forms of regulation to their sales.

Secondly, setting a price that incorporates a social cost is making some big assumptions about how the gun owner is going to use the gun.

A 19 year old gang member buying an illegal gun with the intention of using it for violent crime isn’t the same as a 55 year old father registering his gun for use in the case of an attack on his family. A study in 2012 claimed that around 260 homicides committed by gun owners were defensible, in contrast to around 8300 criminal homicides. Charging the owner using the gun for self defense for the crime caused by the criminal is a difficult judgement call, especially when we don’t even know who illegal gun owners actually are.

So how could we make sure it’s the gun owner, and not society, that gets charged?

One proposal is a uniform tax.

Uniform tax is a common solution for products which have what’s called a ‘negative externality’ – basically a term for the cost that society pays for a good that an individual consumes. It’s worked for things like cigarettes, which, like guns, cause harm to people who didn’t choose to buy the good – so why not for guns?

Unfortunately, the gun problem is a lot more complicated. The uniform tax solution doesn’t solve the whole unfairness issue – why should a father protecting his family have to pay a tax to fund the firearm used for violent crime? Secondly, if criminals are managing to illegally purchase their gun and avoid registering it with authorities, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll figure out how to avoid paying the tax too.

A second proposal by some economists is a ‘liability insurance’ on guns.

What this means is that gun owners would have to pay different rates based on how risky it is for them to possess the weapon. It would work a little like car or home insurance. When a person wanted to purchase a gun permit, their health and financial records would be evaluated. The individual’s age, mental health, and current place of residency would all determine the rate the gun owner would have to pay. A higher risk level for owning a gun would lead to a higher rate.

Liability insurance addresses some of the problems of a uniform tax by acknowledging that there are differences among gun owners. But it still doesn’t solve the issue of making illegal gun owners pay for the damage they cause to the rest of the public.

As of now, the debate over how to impose a cost for the reckless use of firearms remains unresolved.

Ironically, any additional costs would probably end up affecting responsible gun owners the most. Until we figure out a way to bring the people avoiding the system, into the system, it seems like it’s doomed to fail.

Recent articles

Reader Comments