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America’s Gun Problem is a Police Problem

In the wake of a crisis, proposals for reform are often radical and ill-conceived. Seattle radio host John Carlson’s gun reform proposal, outlined in theWall Street Journal, boils America’s violent crime problem down to one issue; people who shouldn’t have guns do. But Carlson’s proposals ignore the role of police violence in criminals’ decisions to use guns.

Carlson writes that only 11 percent of America’s gun crimes are committed with legal weapons. That means most of America’s gun crimes, including mass shootings, could be prevented simply by applying the existing laws designed to prevent dangerous and irresponsible people from obtaining guns. For instance, the Parkland, Florida shooting could have been prevented by simply following FBI protocol.

But Carlson wants to take even stronger action to reduce the number of illegal firearms on the street. By imposing mandatory minimum four-year sentences for illegal possession of firearms, Carlson says criminals will avoid stealing guns or using them to commit crimes.

This is probably true in a vacuum. Criminals have to weigh the risks of their schemes against their rewards, just like everyone else. It follows that a gun thief weighing a year or two in prison against the profits from selling an illegal rifle or handgun would be dissuaded from his mark. He probably won’t go straight and join productive society, but he might instead steal a TV or something more innocuous. Similarly, a burglar is less likely to use a gun while he’s robbing your house if doing so puts an extra four years onto his sentence automatically.

Additionally, curbing the demand for illegal guns among otherwise non-violent criminals will reduce the number of illegal guns and make it more difficult for people looking to commit explicitly violent crimes to obtain a weapon. In this way, punishing crimes that involve guns more heavily than crimes that do not should reduce gun crime and gun violence overall.

Yet in Baltimore and many other U.S. cities, mandatory minimum sentences for gun violence has proven ineffective in reducing violent crime. So why do criminals still use guns to commit crimes if the risk is so high? To answer that question, consider America’s other perennial gun problem: police shootings.

In the United States, police fatally shootmore criminals than police in other OECD countries by powers of ten. As of the writing of this article, U.S. police have shot and killed 146 people in 2018 alone. When a criminal is deciding whether or not to use a gun in the commission of an otherwise non-violent crime, the likelihood that she will meet deadly force increases her incentiveto use deadly force herself. Thus, gun crime is driven in part by an increasingly violent police force, just as increasingly violent police encounters are driven by higher rates of violent crime.

The situation is not unlike nuclear mutually-assured destruction (MAD). Under conditions of MAD, each party is willing to take extreme measures to assure their own safety by threatening that of their adversary.

Because death is at stake in MAD situations, criminals will be willing to pay very high prices and take extreme risks for guns to use in the commission of otherwise non-violent crimes, such as burglary. Criminals’ high demand for guns greatly increases the pool of illegal weapons on the street, and because that demand is driven by criminals’ fear of fatal encounters with the police, harsher punishments for illegally-obtained weapons would likely fail to reduce the number of illegal guns on the street.

However, if paired with reforms that reduced the likelihood that criminals would encounter fatally violent police resistance, the costs and benefits of using guns in the commission of a crime could change entirely.

If burglars thought that encounters with law enforcement would end in tasing rather than a shootout, then using a gun in an otherwise non-violent crime at the risk of a mandatory additional four years in prison seems like an unnecessary risk. In this way, fewer criminals would use illegal weapons in committing otherwise nonviolent crimes.

This would decimate the demand for illegal firearms, meaning fewer guns will enter the black market. With a smaller number of illegal weapons on the market, those explicitly looking to commit violent crimes (e.g. mass shootings) would also have a much harder time getting their hands on an illegal gun.

Several developed countries already make the use of firearms a special case for police, rather than the norm. All of these countries have much lower rates of violent crime than the United States, and encounters with the police are much less likely to end in fatalities—in some cases 500 times less likely.

Correlation is not causation. Just because some countries have xpolicy towards police carrying guns and have youtcome in gun deaths and zoutcome in police shootings, does not mean allcountries that do xwill also get yand z. Demilitarizing the police has not been empirically proven to reduce crime. Still, it’s safe to say that as crime policy, it works at least as wellas the United States’ heavily weaponized approach to policing.

As gun policy, making the use of guns by police rarer, combined with a crackdown on illegal weapons, could drastically reduce the availability of the weapons responsible for most of America’s non-police shooting deaths—illegally-obtained guns.

Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and irresponsible persons should be a goal common to all sides of the gun debate. Making police force less deadly and aggressively cracking down on illegal firearms simultaneously could reduce the abuse of firearms in a way that the right can’t call “gun-grabbing” and the left can’t call “do-nothing.”

Albert Gustafson writes about economics and public policy for Young Voices Advocates. He’s a senior at Indiana Wesleyan University. Follow him on Twitter @apgustafson.

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