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An Assault Weapon Proposal

I am shocked by the recent shootings in our schools and moved by the pleas for help from students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They motivated me to try to think of solutions, implementable in the short-term, that can soon reduce the harm from these terrible gun violence tragedies.

In a blog post here in September 2016, I wrote a comprehensive 10-point strategy for reducing violent crime in Chicago.

Now I am focusing more narrowly on containing violence from military-style guns and accoutrements of assault. The starting point is that guns have negative externalities, a term economists use for harmful side effects imposed on third parties (neither the buyer nor the seller).

Guns owned by law-abiding persons can be lost or stolen and get into the wrong hands; a mentally healthy person owning guns can become stressed, depressed, paranoid or delusional; guns usually handled surely and safely, may become objects of accidents that can harm others. The harms are magnified greatly when the guns are automatic or semi-automatic weapons of assault - weapons that can rapidly fire with magazines that have capacities larger than five cartridges.

My policy suggestion is that people be allowed to own semi-automatic and even automatic weapons and accoutrements but that the weapons have to be registered, licensed, trackable, traceable, insured and used and stored only at gun clubs, hunt clubs or shooting ranges, where these clubs and ranges would be regulated, inspected and insured.

Noncompliance would be a felony offense. The cost of regulation is to be borne by excise taxes on these types of weapons at the point of sale. The cost of storage and gun club membership is to be borne directly by the owner of these weapons.

I would exempt ordinary handguns and rifles, and semi-automatic weapons with magazines using five cartridges or less, from this regulatory, tax and restrictive-use framework.

The issue with negative externalities is that user-costs do not include compensation to society for adverse third-party side effects, and are thus too low, leading to overuse.

An increased burden on assault-weapon owners better balances the personal benefits of owning these items with their full cost on society.

This is similar in nature to what a vehicle owner faces: gasoline taxes, licensing, VIN numbers, titles, pollutant monitors, and substantial restrictions on where one can use their vehicle - and how (speed, for example).

Restricting where these weapons are stored and used would also help keep them out of the hands of troubled people by narrowing the range of places where they would be available. It would be up to the clubs, for example, to vet the mental stability of their members.

The biggest holes in this approach are that some assault weapons may nonetheless be illegally stored or sold in the underground economy, and that there may be burglaries at gun clubs, hunt clubs and shooting ranges. This is where regulation and enforcement has to be especially tight and penalties especially high, and where insurance markets can help. Traceable and trackable assault weapons falling into illegal uses will result in insurance premiums increasing and/or sizeable liability claims to the manufacturer, seller and owner.

At gun shows, weapons purchases of this type would be directly and securely delivered to the gun club, hunt club or shooting range of the owners' choice. Owners of existing weapons who wanted to sell them would have to go through an approved licensed gun broker.

Undoubtedly there would be some non-compliance by street gangs, drug cartels and extreme gun enthusiasts. Over time, however, even they may appreciate the de-escalation of violence which threaten their own children.

Some gun control advocates demand an outright ban on assault weapons, but in our country's entrenched gun culture, that is a very tough political sell. Further, most proposed legislation focuses on banning assault weapon sales in the future. But how does one remove the millions of assault-style weapons already in private ownership? These weapons are durable goods and relatively easy to hide. My suggested policy doesn't ban people from owning or buying assault-style weapons but instead restricts where people can store and use these weapons. This allows gun enthusiasts to use and enjoy their assault-style weapons within a secure regulatory framework. This may be a way forward.

I would like to thank the policy analysts, gun users and economists who let me pick their brains for this piece.


Previously by (or including) Steve Balkin:
* The Maxwell Street Muddle.

* Maxwell Street Malfeasance.

* City Needs New Policy For The Maxwell Street Market: An Open Letter To Mayor-Elect Emanuel.

* The Maxwell Street Market Vendors Association Wants You To Like Them.

* The Olympic Bid That Could Have Been.

* Lil Scotty: 'Give Him His Flowers While He Lives.'

* Remembering Lil Scotty: Bluesman, Buttonman.

* Remembering Lacy Gibson, Master Bluesman.

* Here's To Bobby Too Tuff.

* Continuing The Political Revolution.

* Reducing Chicago's Violence: A 10-Point Plan.

* New WPA Stamps Are a Good Reminder To Bring Emergency Public Employment Infrastructure Programs To Violent Neighborhoods.

* Item: Chicago Efforts To Stop Genocide Of Rohingya People In Myanmar.

* Saving The Rohingya: Stopping Genocide And Volunteering In Chicago.

* Blues Jam Memorial For Chicago Great Arthur "Sambo" Irby.


Steve Balkin is a professor emeritus of economics at Roosevelt University. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on February 26, 2018

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