In the wake of tragedies such as the shooting in Orlando this week, the conversation turns to how society should address gun crime. As the people of the United States recover from their shock, both sides will roll out their standard arguments: Ban specific firearms, increase concealed carry, a more watchful State. These arguments will continue, and I agree with the authoritarians that something must be done. However, I wish to take a different path with this argument; to envision how a free society would address gun crime. For those interested in applying policy within the current system, I will attempt to show here that the answer is fewer laws, not more.
While each state in the US is different, all states depend as their primary line of defense on prohibitions against violence. Punishment of violent offenders gives some closure to victims and serves to deter would-be offenders. However, it is not always possible to punish people commensurate with the harm they cause. Both sides of the debate agree on this problem, but offer differing proposals on how to solve this issue, usually in the form of additional legislation.
In a free society, we imagine the case of someone who purchases a weapon and goes on to misuse it, harming or killing others. In this instance, defense agencies would take the person into custody. After the requisite hearings, the sentence would be carried out. On occasion, the guilty party would be able to repay his or her victims, but we must also consider the occasion where they could not. The defense agencies would then expand the scope of their recourse. In a free society, there would be nothing to prevent them from holding the weapons dealer responsible.
In an extreme example, someone purchases a shoulder-fired missile from a dealer and shoots down a passenger aircraft with it. At list price, a Boeing 787 costs $265 million. Each of the families of the victims will demand compensation, and clearing away the rubble isn’t free. By the time everything is tallied, the damage could exceed $1 billion. Considering that very few people have that kind of cash, life in prison or even the death penalty isn’t going to squeeze it out of them.
In the free society, the defense agencies go after the dealer because his product caused damage which they can’t recoup from the offender. If the dealer’s assets aren’t sufficient, they go after the manufacturer, or even their suppliers. Seeing this, other weapons dealers are faced with tremendous risk if their customers misuse their products. So they do what is natural and they pay someone to manage this risk for them. In fact, they don’t sell to a customer unless that customer pays to manage the risk by buying insurance.
The first thing we notice is that the amount is not equal for all weapons because the risk is not the same. The premium would vary based on the damage the weapon could cause and the likelihood it would be used in a crime. A Hi-Point might enter the market at $150, but carry a $500 insurance premium because of the probability it would be used to hurt people. Likewise, the aforementioned MANPADS might retail for $25,000, but the risk to civilian aircraft might push the actual cost over $1 million. The effect is to price out people who would be least likely to use the weapon responsibly.
The second thing we notice is that dealers who sell lots of problem guns have lots of claims, which makes it difficult and expensive to secure coverage. This addresses the “bad apple dealer” problem.
The third observation we make is that not all people pay the same for coverage. Just as auto insurance rates males under 25 differently, it is a safe bet that insurers will be keenly aware of the demographics of mass shootings. Likewise, insurers may insist on a background check before deciding the risk a person poses.
Having dealt with the abstractions of the free market, we ask what such a solution would look like in the society of today. My proposal would consist of several legislative changes:
- Repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act
- Removal of liability limits granted by incorporation (ideally for all corporations)
The former removes specific protections granted to the gun industry, while the latter removes the ability of a dealer or manufacturer to hide behind a corporation.
I don’t envision this as a perfect solution, but one that greatly reduces the risk posed by firearms without creating lists that worry conservatives or creating yet another contraband law. Most of all, it reminds us that the best solutions lie not in restriction, but in freedom.
Andrew Slanker is a voluntaryist, engineer, and husband. His hobbies include economics, camping and travel.