Saturday, April 06, 2013

Firearm liability insurance - my preferred alternative to universal background checks (Part 1)

A NY Magazine piece by Dan Amira claims to debunk "every objection to expanding background checks," but I think it falls short of that mark.

First, Amira dismisses one particular objection-- that universal background checks wouldn't have prevented Newtown, Columbine, or a host of other shootings where the guns were taken from other people who had passed background checks.  Amira says it's "beside the point," but it's exactly the point-- the policy should prevent the unwanted activity.

If I said "Let's prevent forest fires by closing national parks," and Amira responded "But most forest fires aren't started by people in national parks," and I responded "That's besides the point. Some forest fires will be prevented that way," I suspect Amira wouldn't agree I "debunked" his argument.

Design of optimal policy needs to be aided by marginal analysis. Why not aim for optimal policy instead of saying "it might help some" without comparing to cost?   ECO 100 example (from a bestselling textbook):
A town with several traffic lights is considering adding an additional one. Is it worth paying any cost? Rational cities consider costs. The light would cost $10,000. It reduces probability of a life being lost by 0.5% and actuaries value the average American life at $10 million.  The benefit of the light is therefore: .005 x $10,000,000 = $50,000.  Benefit outweighs the cost, the streetlight should be built.

But what's the cost-benefit analysis of expanding universal checks? I haven't seen one.

Our current system requires licensed firearm dealers do background checks using a national registry that depends upon states putting in mentally unstable people into the system. The NRA claims that 23 states still don't submit information to that database as required (There are more specific stories on states' lack of reporting). Since the costs of maintaining or entering data into the current system are evidently too high, why not fix that problem first before requiring more people to use the system? I think it's good that the system is denying some potential murderers weapons, but if the point is to deny more, then fixing the already-existing system seems smarter than further overburdening it. Amira says this line of thinking is "irrelevant."

If I say "12 houses burned to the ground here last year. We should require the fire department buy more trucks," and the Mayor says "But the fire department doesn't have enough manpower or training to use the trucks it already has," I suppose Amira would have to respond "that's irrelevant, buy the trucks."

Licensed dealers already accept the burden of background checking. Licensed alcohol venders also require ID (a much smaller transaction cost). But the universal background check would put the onus on private parties. Something that has always been sold as easily as a baseball card now requires a much larger transaction cost to be legal-- it's hard to think of a similar precedent. Grandpa George trying to trade his old .22 rifle on Craigslist? The system has to be designed so he can use it and be confident that he won't be held liable if a crime is committed or the background check was wrong. The current holes in the nationwide registry don't leave me with such confidence. The system also has to protect the buyer from potential identity theft-- giving his Social Security number to Grandpa George might not be such a good idea, for example.

And what of the 300 million guns out there that have registered owners-- some of which are dangerous or unstable but bought their guns before background checks were required? Universal background checks wouldn't prevent their future crimes. Is there a system that might be more likely to deal with the guns already in their hands?

I think so, and I'll get into it in Part 2.

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