The first post in this series addressed general principles for identifying and analyzing possible regulatory actions that either could have prevented Sandy Hook or prevent future such events. Subsequent posts discussed, in general terms, various regulatory options including changes in physical security and changes in personal security at elementary schools.
Today we look at gun control. The focus here is on a pragmatic question (would regulation be effective?) and a technical one (would regulation be efficient — i.e., less costly than other alternatives of equal effectiveness?). Debating legal and constitutional matters is left to others, but such debates should be irrelevant for any regulatory alternative that would not be effective. Regulations that are ineffective have no social benefits, and it is therefore impossible for them to ever be efficient.
The place to start is with existing gun laws in Connecticut, which are relatively strict. The anti-gun activist group Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence grades the States with respect “gun death rates” and infers that these statistics are indicators of the relative stringency (effectiveness?) of State gun laws. If this inference is stipulated to be true, then Connecticut’s gun laws are both comparatively stringent and comparatively effective. As shown in the adjacent map, Connecticut is one of the 10 States identified by the Center as having the “lowest gun death rates,” and thus presumably the most stringent gun laws.
Indeed, the Center says the Nutmeg State ranked 4th out of 50 States on its index for the stringency of its gun laws, “having enacted some of the strongest gun violence prevention laws.” The Center gave Connecticut a “B” because it did not limit the number of firearms that could be purchased at one time, impose design safety standards or microstamping requirements on handguns, or regulate ammunition sales.
Despite the relative stringency of Connecticut’s gun laws, they were insufficient to prevent Sandy Hook. Of course, that does not mean they did not prevent similar events from occurring. For example, there could be individuals who were inclined to commit mass murder at an elementary school in Connecticut, but were prevented from acquiring guns for this purpose by Connecticut law. This is not analysis, however, but mere speculation. There is no to test this hypothesis.
The only thing we know for sure is that Connecticut’s stringent gun laws did not prevent Sandy Hook and that they cannot prevent similar events in the future. This conclusion is inescapable because, as has been reported, the weapons Adam Lanza used had been legally acquired.
For a State’s gun laws to have prevented an event like Sandy Hook, it must be shown that Lanza would have been unable to commit the crime but for some regulatory provision. In addition, the provision in question must be capable of being enforced, and enforced in fact. Regulatory provisions that are not enforced cannot be effective.
Proposals to strengthen gun control laws face an obvious analytical problem precisely because Sandy Hook occurred in Connecticut, not in one of the States the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence decries for having weak laws. Had it occurred in a State with weak gun laws, it would at least be plausible that making gun laws more stringent would be an effective deterrent. That argument cannot be be credibly made after Sandy Hook. For regulatory effectiveness to be even plausible, it must address some aspect of the Sandy Hook case.
Whether additional gun regulation would be efficient (e.g., less expensive than other alternatives for the same level of effectiveness) also is relevant to regulatory policy. After all, enacting inefficient regulations means accepting more fatalities from mass murder than could be obtained some other way. It is difficult to imagine the public preferring a regulatory approach that saved fewer lives at the same cost.
Still, regulatory effectiveness is a prerequisite for any analysis of relative efficiency. Regulations that are ineffective cannot be efficient.