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Guns & Butter and…or Just Guns

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

The raging debate around gun control has appeared to, for once, unify the right and the left (in some capacity) against one of Washington’s most powerful and financially ever-present lobbies: the NRA. While the days of what appear to be a sensible partnership with the NRA regarding industry direction and proper regulations appear to be long gone, this in no way absolves Congress of action.

While I don’t necessarily subscribe to Constitutional textualism like Antonin Scalia (Supreme Court Justice), I do firmly believe in the living-breathing document that is our Constitution, and the intent of the framers. The need to define limits on the second amendment, however well intention, fall into two categories for citizens: (1) A clear will by Congress to encourage and forever protect gun ownership by citizens, or (2) An abrogation of that will in favor of sensible limits based on the intent to logically protect oneself from the tyranny of government (Note: the missing outer limit of normal regulation, that is, regulation of a market to non-existence is not applicable due to the Constitutional threshold which appears to guarantee some individual right to gun-ownership).

Thus, we are left with a series of behaviors that must be regulated in some capacity. While there are multiple behavior-altering tools, the most prominent include (1) taxation, (2) regulation, and (3) transparency. The efficacy of each is open debate, but I would argue that a each is altered significantly and should be far more prevalent in 21st century regulatory policies: that of technological innovation. In this case, the answer would center on technological regulation.

Macroeconomics has long established that innovation, creation, and technology are the true drivers of growth in an economy (the right regards this as the private sector’s penultimate charge to innovate and thus create jobs on a business level, the left appears to value these ideals on an individual producer/worker level). Nonetheless, the economic infrastructure of technological growth and the subsequent impact on bottom lines is settled theory.

The question then becomes one of solution: What are the most feasible alternatives that have (1) the most benefit to the industry from a safety perspective, and (2) the least disruption to the practice of using a device? The answer should seem a fairly straightforward conglomeration of existing technologies.

First, the rise of microcomputing on a minute scale would easily allow for the placement of technology in any number of areas inside the gun or ammo cartridge. We can already put entire computers on microchips the size of a credit card…given that the component requirements for a device would require far less power than the average cell phone. Requiring a user to register their biometric identification (grip and finger placement patterns) and combining that new technology with a geo-placement trigger lock that would bar users from using new guns in any designated place (i.e. school areas, malls, sports arenas, etc) would likely prevent future tragedies use to a significant degree.

(EDIT): In a recent perusing of the 2013 Consumer Electronic Show’s offerings, one in particular caught my eye: A linux-powered rifle that offers a digital tracking scope that feeds information to the operator. It offers image recognition (who’s to say this couldn’t be modified to disalow a gun to fire when pointed at an individual), and most importantly, contains a small wi-fi connectivity server that allows the gun to connect to a wireless network and stream the digital scope’s display. Wi-Fi connectivity? Check. On board computing power? Check. ability to easily add in geo-location? Check.

Thus, the tools exist. The argument against such regulations, or a perception that that would amount to a tax is the quintessential debate of regulation in ANY sense: it always adds a cost. Instead, the analysis should focus on: (1) does the imposed burden/cost of the new regulation (i.e. new sensors in guns) counteracted by the societal benefit, and (2) if the new imposed regulation would render the prior activity worthless (this is, in effect, a specific extension of the first component).

How does one remove the existing guns from society without criminalizing the possession of older non-compliant guns? Many jurisdictions have experimented with distributing cash in response for those turning in guns). Combining a subsidized program for a program exchange for new guns (whereby the owner would receive a similar gun back only one that complied with the new technological regulations) would be an effective way to increase the safety of such weapons as well as incentivize individuals to take the action to exchange their existing hardware.

Slate.com has an excellent article[1] with some useful statistics. It cites research conducted as a result of Heller v. District of Columbia (the case centered on the 2nd amendment’s application to federal gun rights) that discussed the total of NICS background checks. The site cited a projection by NRA research coordinator Mark Overstreet done for the case that estimated the existence of between 2.45 and 3.26 million assault style rifles (depending on whether one includes questionable projections about the inclusion of guns from overseas jurisdictions).

The New York Daily News recently projected that violent gun deaths accounted for approximately 12,000 deaths a year in the United States alone[2]. I perused a gun sale cite for automatic weapons; most models were priced between $500 and $1500 (outliers existed as low as a couple hundred and as high as many thousands of dollars). Taking a (very) rough estimate of approximate $1200 per gun, we can begin to analyze the cost of saving a human life.

If a government program were to completely subsidize an exchange program that covered this new gun product in its entirety, rough $1,200 price of a gun would cost the federal government between $2.94 billion and $3.91 billion. Taking some liberties with projections, suppose that new regulations cut gun violence from 12,000 deaths to 9,000 deaths. This turns out to an average of from $980,000 to $1,087,000 per human life on the low end. Remember this is a permanent solution that only takes into account the lives saved in 1 year. Suppose, much like the length of time you regret posting college photos on Facebook, that this reduction occurs for five years. The numbers drop to between $196,000 to $217,400 per human life saved.

We can decrease this number further by altering our model’s variables in one of the following ways: A) decrease the cost of the gun (economies of scale and group bargaining would likely allow for cheaper production), B) change the number or duration of lives saved or C) decrease the amount of guns that exist. Thus, our equation for cost of saving a life as a result of gun violence becomes a function of the following inputs:

Cost of a life saved = (Gun Cost x # of Guns) / (lives saved x duration of lives saved).

William Osler once said that “by far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy – indifference from whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self-satisfaction.” Regardless of the solution, no calculations regarding the cost of a program to regulate guns can compare to the very real and tragic human loss that occurs on such a stunningly frequent basis. It is possible to align the ideals of gun rights advocates with the policy goals of safety advocacies by utilizing technological innovation. However, only through timely and concerted Congressional action will our country move forward with freedom from these horrific actions and our full suite of Constitutional freedoms.

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