"According to the economic approach, criminals, like everyone else, respond to incentives."
he Chicago boys are at it again. This time the economists at the University of Chicago are making headlines in today's hotly disputed debate about gun control. Milton Friedman set the general standard a generation ago by insisting on rigorous empirical work to support sound (though often unpopular) theory and policy. More recently, Gary Becker extended Chicago-style economic analysis into contemporary social problems such as education, marriage, discrimination, professional sports, and crime.
Now John R. Lott, Jr., until recently the John M. Olin Law and Economics Fellow at Chicago, is making the case that a well-armed citizenry discourages violent crime. Lott analyzed the FBI's massive yearly crime statistics for all 3,054 U.S. counties over 18 years, the largest national surveys on gun ownership, and state police documents on illegal gun use. His surprising conclusions, published in his recent book, More Guns, Less Crime:
States now experiencing the largest drop in crime are also the ones with the fastestgrowing rates of gun ownership.
The Brady five-day waiting period, gun buy-back programs, and background checks have little or no impact on crime reduction.
States that have recently allowed concealed weapon permits have witnessed significant reductions in violent crime.
Guns are used on average five times more frequently in self-defense than in committing a crime.2
According to Lott, recent legislative efforts to restrict gun ownership may actually keep many law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves from attack. (There's that Law of Unintended Consequences again.)
The Incentive Principle
Underlining Lott's findings is a basic economic concept, the law of demand: If the price of a commodity goes up, people use less of it. In the case of criminal activity, if the cost and risk of committing a crime rises, less crime will be committed. This is often referred to as the market's incentive principle.
Gary Becker has showed that increasing the cost of crime through stiffer jail sentences, quicker trials, and higher conviction rates effectively reduces the number of criminals who rob, steal, or rape.3
Similarly, Lott argues that state laws permitting concealed handguns deter crime. "When guns are concealed, criminals are unable to tell whether the victim is armed before striking, which raises the risk to criminals. …