The Real Costs of Our American Gun Obsession – Twin Cities


A fatal shooting in a Roseville neighborhood and a decision not to prosecute a Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot and killed a legally armed innocent citizen under a no-knock warrant highlights an important economic fact: the tabulated gross domestic product is not the same as human well-being. be. This local news from the past week also illustrates the economic phenomena of “negative externalities” and “path dependence”.

Edward Lotterman

As context here, our nation has gone guano crazy about guns. It affects us economically. But before the Second Amendment absolutists rain reactions on my head, understand my background: I’ve loved shooting since I was 11, I currently own nine firearms, four of which are semi-automatic, and in counting .22 rimfire, I own thousands of rounds of ammunition. A 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 guns or the US Constitution.

The economic problems here begin with the obvious fact that people in our country spend huge amounts of money on guns and ammunition. Yet we cannot fully quantify how much due to laws prohibiting the government from recording gun purchases and possessions.

Yet in the United States we have at least 300 million serviceable firearms, and possibly as many as 400 million, for a population of 333 million. Yet less than half of households own even a single firearm. The fact that some 1.3 million background check requests were submitted over a frenetic weekend in 2020 speaks volumes. Perhaps as many as 40 million sales were made that year.

Gross domestic product measures the market value of new goods and services produced in an economy over a period of time. These products can be for consumers – food, clothing, shelter or businesses – locomotives, software, warehouses. Governments buy police cars, aircraft carriers and school books. Soybeans are purchased and exported to the Netherlands and sawlogs to Japan.

Services are also counted in the GDP, “luxury goods” as well as basic necessities. After necessities, households can purchase baseball and theater tickets, camping gear, pedicures, and books. Others opt for tattoos, pitchers of margaritas, lap dances or porn.

All of this promotes continued economic activity. A fitness craze is prompting the production of exercise equipment, Fitbits and yoga mats. Greater pub crawls are boosting alcohol production — and residual demand for paramedics, police, convenience stores, ER surgeons and treatment programs. The increase in the demand for weapons has similar effects.

Economists tend to avoid value judgments. There is no objective evidence that $1,000 spent on children’s camps, gym and cello lessons benefits society any more than if it were spent on AR-15 clones, spare gun magazines , under-dash holsters and bulletproof vests.

But I would say that most people would find a decision “our children will be happier and healthier if they go to camp next summer” better than “each of us has to carry a gun everywhere and we need an AK47 with 5,000 rounds of ammunition. in the House.”

The latter, of course, is an extreme. Some people buy firearms because they enjoy hunting or target shooting and these recreational activities run in their families. Some start carrying guns because they are gang members and everyone in rival gangs has guns. Some QAnon believers are buying guns because they are planning bloody apocalyptic battles for the survival of the white race. And many millions more buy guns because of unspecific but pervasive fears that our nation, or our city, has become a more dangerous place. Self-armament becomes a necessity and it is a tragedy of our national psyche.

But does all this represent a major use of economic resources? In 2021, the Wall Street Journal, using FBI data, claimed that 40 million guns had been sold in our country in 2020. If all of them were new and were semi-automatic pistols such as Glock or Sig-Sauer or AR15 or AK47 wannabes, minimal costs, with attachments and some ammunition, would cost between $1,000 and $2,000 each.

This estimated total expenditure of $40-80 billion is daunting compared to a GDP of $22 trillion for 2020, less than half of 1%. The top 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 the annual spending of the US government’s WIC dietary supplement program and 13 times that of federal child development grants for early childhood education. Families could send 40 million children to a two-week overnight summer camp. So make your own judgment on the opportunity costs of spending so much on new weapons that may or may not be usable.

Then there are what economists call negative externalities. Despite the gun lobby’s 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 the number of firearms. When most farm households and small towns in Minnesota owned a .22 rifle or pump-action shotgun for plinking or occasional hunting, there was relatively less opportunity for mishaps or impulsive rage shooting. Most gun owners had grown up in a culture of safe use. But when tens of millions of people who have never owned a gun start carrying semi-automatic pistols on their person or hidden under car seats or sofa cushions, the potential for accidental or impulsive shooting increases. developed.

Proponents of gun control often imply that excessive gun ownership in the United States facilitates suicide. But suicide is also culture-specific. Some countries, such as Belgium or Japan, have rates close to the United States despite strict gun control. Canada has a culture similar to ours overall, but only a quarter of the number of guns to population. Their suicide rate is a third lower, but not zero.

There are spinoffs in policing. American police are much, much faster to fire than those of any other wealthy industrialized country. No-knock warrants like the one that happened in February in Minneapolis are extremely rare in other countries. “Suicide by cop” is virtually unheard of. And while there are school shootings or incidents in which a seemingly mentally deranged individual shoots a neighborhood, like in Roseville, those only happen at a tiny fraction of the rates here. But the caveat, of course, goes back to widespread gun ownership: American police must assume that they will have a gun pointed at them at all times, that any hit can evoke a flurry of bullets through the door.

All of this is dark, but can get darker: “path dependency” is how economists explain how, once a commitment is made to a certain path, change is difficult – even if change has an economic sense. Consider 56.5-inch rail spacings or employer-provided health insurance. This also implies that simply reversing the path is often impossible. Once you have 300 or 400 million guns, things like background checks at gun shows are just tokenism. Banning and confiscating guns would be impossible, even with a politically unlikely repeal of the Second Amendment. The result, most likely, would be civil war. Reclining loveseats and crossover sedans wear out, but civilian firearms almost never do. Two of my guns were made over a century ago. Both remain mortal.

St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at


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