A fatal neighborhood shooting spree in Roseville and a decision to not prosecute a Minneapolis policeman who fatally shot a legally armed, innocent citizen in a no-knock warrant both highlight an important economic fact: tabulated Gross Domestic Product is not the same as human well-being. These local news items from last week also exemplify the economic phenomena of “negative externalities” and “path dependency.”
As context here, our nation has gone bat-guano insane about firearms. This affects us economically. But before you Second Amendment absolutists rain down reactions upon my head, understand my background: I have enjoyed shooting since age 11, currently own nine firearms, four of which are semi-automatic and, counting .22 rimfire, possess thousands of rounds of ammunition. One gun in my collection meets the 1990s legal definition of an “assault rifle.” So don’t waste time emailing me that I don’t understand firearms or the U.S. Constitution.
The economics issues here start with the obvious fact that people in our nation spend tremendous amounts of money on firearms and ammunition. Yet we cannot fully quantify how much because of laws forbidding government recording of gun purchases and ownership.
Still, in the U.S. we have at least 300 million operable guns, and perhaps as many as 400 million, for a population of 333 million. Yet fewer than half of all households own even one gun. That some 1.3 million background check requests were submitted on one frenetic weekend in 2020 says much. Perhaps as many as 40 million sales were completed that year.
Gross domestic product measures the market value of new goods and services turned out in an economy over a set period of time. These products can be for consumers — food, clothing, shelter, or businesses — locomotives, software, warehouses. Governments buy police cruisers, aircraft carriers and textbooks. Soybeans are bought and exported to the Netherlands and sawlogs to Japan.
Services are counted in GDP as well, “luxuries” as well as necessities. After necessities, households may buy baseball and theater tickets, camping gear, pedicures and books. Others opt for tattoos, pitchers of margaritas, lap dances or porn.
All this promotes further economic activity. A fitness craze prompts production of exercise gear, Fitbits, and yoga mats. Greater bar-hopping spurs liquor production — and residual demand for EMTs, police officers, wreckers, ER surgeons and treatment programs. Increased demand for guns has analogous effects.
Economists tend to shun value judgments. There is no objective proof that $1,000 spent on kids camps, gymnastics and cello lessons benefits society more than if it was spent on AR-15 clones, spare pistol magazines, under-dashboard holsters and body armor.
But I’d argue most people would find an “our kids will be happier and healthier if they go to camp next summer,” decision better than “each of us needs to carry a pistol everywhere and we need an AK47 with 5,000 rounds of ammo in the house.”
That last, of course, is an extreme. Some people buy guns because they like to hunt or target shoot and have these recreational activities ingrained in their families. Some start carrying guns because they are gang members and everyone in rival gangs has guns. Some QAnon believers buy guns because they foresee bloody apocalyptic battles for survival of the white race. And many millions of others buy guns because of nonspecific but pervasive fears that our nation, or our city, has become a more dangerous place. Self-arming becomes a necessity and this is a tragedy of our national psyche.
Does this all, however, represent a major use of economic resources? In 2021, the Wall Street Journal, using FBI data, asserted that 40 million guns had been sold in our country in 2020. If all were new and were semiautomatic pistols such as Glock or Sig-Sauer or AR15 or AK47 wannabes, minimal costs, with accessories and some ammunition, would range from $1,000 to $2,000 each.
This estimated total outlay of $40 billion to $80 billion is piffling compared to a $22 trillion GDP for 2020, less than half of 1 percent. The upper sum is about two-fifths of household spending on toiletries or half of spending on household cleaning products.
On the other hand, $80 billion is 14 times annual outlays for the U.S. government’s WIC food supplement program and 13 times those of federal Child Development Block Grants for early childhood education. Families could send 40 million kids to a two-week overnight summer camp. So make your own judgements about the opportunity costs of spending this much on new guns that may or may not ever be used.
Then there are what economists call negative externalities. Despite the gun lobby mantra that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” accidental shootings, suicides and intentional homicides all increase with higher rates of gun ownership. And the relationships are not all linear with numbers of guns. When most Minnesota farm and small-town households had a .22 rifle or pump shotgun for plinking or occasional hunting, there were relatively fewer opportunities for accidents or for impulsive-rage shootings. Most gun owners had grown up in a culture of safe usage. But when tens of millions of people who never owned guns before start carrying semi-automatic pistols on their persons or tucked under car seats or sofa cushions, potential for accidental or impulsive shooting burgeons.
Gun control advocates often imply that excessive gun ownership in the U.S. facilitates suicide. But suicide is also culture-specific. Some nations, such as Belgium or Japan, have rates near the United States despite strict gun controls. Canada has a similar culture to ours overall, but only a fourth of the number of guns relative to population. Their suicide rate is a third lower, but not zero.
There are spillovers in policing. U.S. police are far, far quicker to shoot than those in any other wealthy industrialized country. No-knock warrants such as what occurred in February in Minneapolis are extremely rare in other countries. “Suicide by cop” is virtually unknown. And while there are school shootings or incidents in which an apparently mentally disturbed individual shoots up a neighborhood, as in Roseville, these occur at only a tiny fraction of rates here. But the caveat, of course, comes back to pervasive gun ownership: U.S. police must assume that they will have a gun pointed at them at any time, that any knock may evoke a burst of bullets back through the door.
This is all glum, but can get gloomier: “Path dependency” is how economists explain how, once a commitment is made to a certain path, change is difficult — even if change makes economic sense. Think 56.5-inch rail spacings or employer-provided health insurance. It also implies that simply reversing the path often is impossible. Once you have 300 million or 400 million guns floating around, measures like background checks at gun shows are mere symbolism. Banning and confiscating the guns would be impossible, even with a politically unlikely repeal of the Second Amendment. The result, very likely, would be civil war. Reclining loveseats and crossover sedans wear out, but civilian firearms hardly ever do. Two of my guns were made more than a century ago. Both remain deadly.
St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at email@example.com.