Time for Real Gun Control, Not Just Window Dressing

In this Jan. 16, 2013 photo, assault weapons and hand guns are seen for sale at Capitol City Arms Supply in Springfield, Ill.
In this Jan. 16, 2013 photo, assault weapons and hand guns are seen for sale at Capitol City Arms Supply in Springfield, Ill. The FBI says the week following the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting massacre saw the greatest number of background checks for firearms sales and permits to carry guns conducted within a one-week period since 1998. The FBI says the second highest week was when President Barack Obama announced sweeping plans to curb gun violence. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

I have been a hunter and gun owner throughout my life; prior to moving to Massachusetts two years ago, I owned three guns, a shotgun, a rifle, and a semi-automatic 9mm pistol. I enjoy hunting and target shooting and believe there are legitimate uses for guns. I am also an applied economics professor in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research focuses on the costs, benefits, and effectiveness of policy. I have therefore followed the discussion of gun control with interest.

The United States has a long history of regulating firearms. Normal citizens cannot bear nuclear arms, they can't bear rocket launchers, tanks, or a long list of other arms. There are also severe restrictions on owning fully-automatic guns. These restrictions effectively make them illegal for most of us. Given this history, policymakers should focus on how best to balance the enjoyment citizens get from owning and operating certain types of guns with the obvious real danger such weapons present.

Discussions of gun control have centered on whether policymakers should adopt an "assault weapon" ban -- something that seven states currently have, or have had, in the past.

Let's not kid ourselves: An assault weapon ban is purely window dressing. An assault weapon is merely a semi-automatic rifle that carries its bullets in a magazine and looks vicious. There is nothing, other than its looks, that necessarily differentiates an assault weapon from a semi-automatic rifle that also carries its bullets in a magazine but has a traditional looking stock and is used for big-game hunting. If an aspiring mass murderer can no longer buy a .223 Bushmaster, he or she can instead buy a high-powered semi-automatic deer rifle and an aftermarket high-capacity magazine. Such deer rifles are commonplace and often carry more killing power than the Bushmaster. While high-capacity magazines for hunting rifles are less commonplace than for those rifles that look vicious, a ban on "assault weapons" will surely make them more commonplace.

Meaningful gun control starts with banning semi-automatic weapons that carry their ammunition in magazines. Such a ban would limit the speed in which prospective mass murderers could kill by: (a) requiring an additional action to be made before he or she shoots again, and (b) increasing the amount of time required to reload his or her killing device.

But, what about the legitimate uses for guns? Such a ban would still allow hunters to use bolt-action rifles and pump-action shotguns for hunting mammals and birds. These are the same weapons I used in the past to hunt deer, pheasants, ducks, doves, and more. A pump-action shotgun or a single-action revolver are also quite effective home-defense weapons.

Such a ban, while reducing the ability for people to kill other people, does not come without costs. Millions of law-abiding citizens get more enjoyment out of carrying and shooting semi-automatic weapons than they do from their close cousins. Many also get enjoyment from of carrying vicious looking "assault weapons." Again, this is the fundamental trade-off: lowering the enjoyment law-abiding citizens get from shooting semi-automatic weapons, while reducing the number of Newtown-like events. This is not unique to gun control. Any regulation of consumer products carries similar trade-offs. By how much we value each of these is the conversation that policymakers should be having. I fear they are not. Instead, the focus has been on whether to outlaw a mean-looking weapon, while leaving just-as-effective killing devices on the market. Window dressing.

But, what about the semi-automatic weapons that currently exist? I do not, necessarily, propose to make owning such weapons illegal. Instead, I propose we adopt an aggressive buy-back program that is funded through a tax on gun and ammunition sales. While the level of taxes required would need to be worked out, policymakers could phase in such a program to minimize expenditures. For example, the first year of the program could pay $200 for such weapons. The next year could pay $300. And so on. While there is an incentive to wait for the higher levels, those that can use the money will choose to turn in their weapons sooner. I would be happy to volunteer my services to estimate how consumers would respond to such a buy-back program and the exact parameters that would be most cost-effective.

Anything other than a ban on semi-automatic weapons and a buy-back program is likely counterproductive. A ban on assault weapons will make it appear as though policymakers have done something, staving off meaningful regulations. I'd prefer no policy to a ban on assault weapons. At least that way, citizens who do not know much about guns will understand that nothing has come from the tragedy in Newtown.