What would be the impact of removing “assault weapons” from the legal market? In a perfect world of course, we would be granted with a securer and safer society in which not even the evilest, most morally backward criminals would be able to use these firearms in another horrific massacre. In this imaginary world too, we would never have to lock our doors for the fear of thievery, no one would ever die from a heroin overdose and murder would be a long-gone remnant of our pre-legislatively crafted utopia. Lamentably however, this paradise can only exist in our imagination - a far cry from the reality that we are bound to - no matter how many laws are passed to try and force it into existence.
The issue of gun control has, understandably, been one heavily driven by what are unmistakably sincere emotions and reasonable moral questioning. However, the economic factors that play a role in this debate should not be overlooked, and by this I don’t mean to simply argue to save a couple jobs in the firearms industry, which in some irony is performing incredibly well right now.
What I intend to bring attention to in reference to economics are the dangerous impacts of implementing such a prohibition of “assault weapons”. When a consumer good is made to be illegal, the rational demand, or the reasons for which people seek to acquire the good, i.e., its functions, are not impacted by its newfound illegality. Instead the general impacts are as follows:
1. The good leaves the legal market and fulfills its demand in the black market.
2. The supply of the good goes down due to the attempts to restrict its sale and production – thus increasing the price.
3. General demand goes down due to the risk involved with breaking the law – thus making the net-benefit of purchasing the good less.
With both supply and demand lowering, taken at face value, these impacts may seem to favor those who seek to lower gun violence by banning “assault weapons” and in turn show why those people would gravitate to such a position in the first place. However, some clarification on the practical consequences of such a law will reveal that these effects are not as positive as they may seem to be and are instead counterproductive in deterring gun violence.
Whereas it is true that supply and demand are both diminished in a black market, the degree to which they are lessened is not equal. The decrease in supply is significantly greater than the decrease in demand. This is why goods become more expensive in a black market. Applied to the issue at hand, there are two main factors in determining who would be deterred from purchasing “assault weapons” following the passing of their prohibition.
Firstly, those who value the functions of an “assault weapon” the most would be the ones least discouraged by the increase in prices, as those who still perceive the value of the weapon as a greater value than its higher price will not be economically dissuaded from purchasing it on the black market. This would likely mean that those who might be interested in purchasing an “assault weapon” for home defense would be more easily swayed into choosing another type of legal firearm at a better value whereas someone looking for something to use as a tool of mass carnage or trying to gain an advantage on those handling less powerful weaponry would be more apt to consider the price of the illegal weapon to be worthwhile. Similarly, the same person who might consider that price worthwhile may now be driven instead into purchasing even more dangerous weapons on the black market, such as an automatic weapon, since the price between the two guns are now closer due to the fact that they are now both illegal.
Perhaps a more important factor than economic dissuasion is that of the consumer’s attitude towards the law. Clearly, someone who intends to use the firearm they are purchasing to murder someone, a blatantly unlawful act, is not likely to allow the potential consequences of illegal activity to change their mind, as the penalties for the crimes that could be committed with the weapon are much greater than those associated with its possession. Naturally, it’s those citizens who plan to comply with the law that will be prevented from purchasing an “assault weapon”, in other words, those who aren’t going to be murdering anyone in the first place.
In both these cases we see that the demand of those who the proponents of the “assault weapons” ban seek to restrain would generally be accommodated by the black market whereas those who wish to use the weapon for self-defense are the ones who end up being deprived. Still however, it may be argued that the decreasing supply and increasing prices may create a reduction in the circulation of these weapons, thus, in time, creating a net-reduction of overall gun violence and justifying prohibition.
Overlooked in this presumption however are the indirect consequences of shifting an industry from the legal market to the black market. When the sale of a good is completely unrestricted there is no demand for it in the black market. With a prohibition of “assault weapons” and the subsequent shift in their demand into the black market, a new and profitable source of income would be provided for those already involved in the sale of prohibited goods, such as other weapons that are already illegal.
Since gang-related violence is already a primary source of gun crime in the United States already, creating another source of revenue for these gangs doesn’t seem to be an effective way of curtailing gun violence. One could never downplay the sickening circumstances of some of the mass murders we’ve seen recently in this country, at the same time however, these horrific massacres are anomalistic in comparison to the number of gang-related homicides that occur frequently in major cities all across the nation, costing many innocent bystanders, and innocent children their lives.
Moving an industry from the legal market to the black market also creates a distortion in the natural division of labor. Unhampered legal markets allocate laborers into specific industries based on their economic efficiency and productivity. People naturally look to find jobs in legal markets rather than black markets simply for the reason that the constant threat of imprisonment makes them want to look for an alternative, less perilous career path.
Yet, while potentially being locked up in a cage is certainly undesirable, what’s worse is starving, sleeping in the street, or being unable to feed your children. This is why people stuck in the lower classes often find themselves working in the black market. As long as the demand still exists, there is always a market for things like illegal guns, and whereas well-educated, financially stable people who can afford to acquire qualifications and assimilate themselves into the legal markets do not have to concern themselves with these industries, those who are not as well-off will always be driven into them.
We have seen this with things like drugs, prostitution, and guns that are already prohibited. Inner cities are locked-down by criminal gangs and condemned to carry the burden of the demand of prohibited goods. Were such goods left to the legal market, there would be room for these people at the bottom of the division of labor, allowing them to move up naturally in the workforce. Instead, they are either thrown in prison or driven into a kill or be killed sub-culture where their competitors in the market are the enemy (ironically increasing the demand for high-powered weaponry), and innocent people often pay the price.
Though good intentions undoubtedly fill the hearts of those who mourn the shootings at Sandy Hook and Aurora and consequently demand the prohibition of the weapons used at these massacres, a practical overview of the effects of prohibition, both generally and specifically to the situation illustrates a point that must be better understood by all those who seek to use the power of the state to cure society’s ills – utopia cannot be created with the law, and to the extent that it is tried, we are only made to become more and more vulnerable to those who act outside of it.
It’s not impossible that such a prohibition could prevent some future massacre from ever occurring, yet the overall consequences of such a law will be to create a greater imbalance in the struggle between those who use guns to protect and those who use them to attack. Well the passing of these laws could conceivably keep “assault weapons” out of the hands of a couple people who might have used them for malicious purposes, the ultimate effect will be that violent gangs will be able to afford more AK-47’s.
If the purpose of the proposed law is to decrease violence, creating a new black market is not the answer. The creation of a black market always leads to more violence. If the purpose of this proposed law is to make the public feel good about themselves so that we can pretend these atrocities have been rectified then perhaps, to these ends, it will be effective. But the truth is that prohibiting “assault weapons” will lead to a net-increase in gun violence by empowering those very same people who would use these guns to kill.