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Gun Violence and Gun Control


This short essay was commissioned by the London Review of Books, but in the end we decided not to publish it, in part because we felt that there were empirical issues that we were not in a position to assess. A longer working paper that develops the argument further and contains supporting material is posted on SSRN under the title "Rethinking Gun Violence." We welcome comments on either paper. The essay takes Joyce Malcolm's Guns and Violence and Jim Jacobs's Can Gun Control Work? as jumping-off points for sketching a new way of approaching the problem of gun violence, synthesizing features of a number of successful initiatives. The essence of the strategy is to focus on keeping guns out of the wrong hands, rather than on reducing or increasing the number of guns generally. Although most writers (to the extent they consider the matter at all) assume otherwise, there is strong reason to conclude keeping guns out of the wrong hands – and doing so without reducing the number of guns in circulation – is a tractable problem, which is not to say that it is an easy or completely soluble one. The strategy has two parts, a demand side and a supply side. On the demand side, the strategy begins from the fact that a disproportionate amount of violent crime is committed by a very small number of identifiable persons. Moreover, although it is not generally appreciated, the criminal justice system has tremendous leverage over these recidivist offenders, for example, because most of them are subject to parole supervision. On the supply side, the crucial starting point is that the black market that supplies criminals with guns depends substantially on the legitimate market, and in particular on purchases of guns from licensed firearms dealers (as opposed to, for example, haphazard thefts). Powerful tools are available for cutting off the flow of guns from licensed dealers into the black market. The widely held view that there are simply too many guns already in circulation for supply-side policies to work is unjustifiably dismissive of suppositions about human behavior that are fundamental to the law, as well as of the admittedly tentative empirical evidence of recent gun-violence reduction initiatives.

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