What’s Your Best Idea to Cut Gun Deaths? A Freakonomics Quorum

Are there more guns in the U.S. or more opinions about guns?

Hard to say. This blog has featured a variety of posts about guns in the past; today we present a quorum with a very narrow focus: what are some good ideas to cut gun deaths? Let’s put aside for a moment the standard discussions about the right to bear arms and deal instead with the reality on the ground: there are a lot of gun deaths in this country; how can they be lessened?

In response to the recent Supreme Court decision to revoke the D.C. gun ban, Levitt made clear his preference: enforcement is a much bigger deal than ownership.

Or, as Jens Ludwig puts it below:

“A big part of America’s problem with gun violence stems from young guys walking or driving around with guns and then doing stupid things with them.”

We asked a group of people who give a lot of thought to this issue — Ludwig, Jesus Castro Jr., Eric Proshansky, and David Hemenway — the following:

What’s your best idea to cut gun homicides in the U.S.?

Here are their answers. Comments welcome.

Jens Ludwig, McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

“Flashing a gun at a party might still score points, but it would now massively increase your legal risk.”

We should give out rewards — I mean big, serious rewards — for tips that help police confiscate illegal guns.

More people die from gun suicides than homicides in the U.S., but gun crime accounts for most of the $100 billion in social costs that Phil Cook and I estimate gun violence imposes each year. Most murders are committed with guns (around 75 percent in 2005 in Chicago). We also know that young people — particularly young males — are vastly over-represented among offenders, most murders happen outdoors, and a large share of all homicides stem from arguments or something related to gangs. A big part of America’s problem with gun violence stems from young guys walking or driving around with guns and then doing stupid things with them.

Young guys carry guns in part because this helps them get some street cred. For a project that Phil Cook, Anthony Braga, and I conducted with sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh (published in the November 2007 Economic Journal), Venkatesh asked people on the South Side of Chicago why they carry guns. As one gang member said, in the absence of having a gun:

“Who is going to fear me? Who [is] going to take me seriously? Nobody. I’m a [unprintable five-letter word that starts with the letter “p”] unless I got my gun.”

Guns are something that a lot of guys seem to have mostly to take to football and basketball games or parties and to show off to their friends or girlfriends. At the same time, the costs of carrying guns might be low. A previous Freakonomics post by Venkatesh notes that cops are less likely to be lenient for other offenses if someone is caught with a gun. But the chances of being arrested with a gun are probably modest, since the probability that even a serious violent crime or property crime results in arrest is surprisingly low.

Giving out serious money for anonymous tips about illegal guns would increase the costs of carrying a gun and reduce the benefits; flashing a gun at a party might still score points, but it would now massively increase your legal risk.

These rewards might help undercut trust among gang members and could be particularly helpful in keeping guns out of schools. A bunch of logistical issues would need to be worked out, including how large the rewards would be (I think $1,000 or more wouldn’t be crazy) and how police should respond to tips and confiscate guns while respecting civil liberties.

But this idea does have the big advantage of getting us out of the stale public debate about gun control, and it gives us a way to make progress on this major social problem right away.

Jesus “Manny” Castro Jr., 33, became an active gang member at the age of 12. After being incarcerated for two and a half years, he joined Cornerstone Church of San Diego and now runs the G.A.M.E. (Gang Awareness Through Mentoring and Education) program at the Turning the Hearts Center in Chula Vista, Calif.

“If parents knew that they would/could do time for their children’s behavior, perhaps they would stay more involved in their lives.”

Growing up in gangs and living the gang lifestyle, I have firsthand knowledge [of this issue] after seeing so many people die from gangs and guns! One great idea that can help to cut gun deaths in the U.S. is having the perpetrator’s family be financially responsible for all emotional, mental, and physical damages that result from the victim’s family’s loss.

This should include (but not be limited to) garnishing their wages for their entire lives and having them pay all funeral arrangements and all outstanding debts. If the perpetrator is under 18, then not only will he have to do time in prison but his parents should also be required to serve at least half of the time on behalf of his crime. Everything starts and stops in the home!

The greatest way to make this happen is to make it law and set up organizations that educate parents on how to stop gun violence and clearly teach them the consequences that result from gun violence. At Turning the Hearts Center, through our G.A.M.E. program, we found that the young people we are working with care about their parents and what they think.

I get parents’ input on what goes on at home so that I can implement and address their issues into our G.A.M.E. curriculum. Kids have respect for their parents — and if parents knew that they would/could do time for their children’s behavior, perhaps they would stay more involved in their lives.

If the people in communities around the U.S. can model what we do at Turning the Hearts Center, we can make a difference in the world. Hard-core issues like gun deaths need hard-core consequences.

Eric Proshansky, deputy chief of the Division of Affirmative Litigation, New York City Law Department. He has been part of Michael Bloomberg‘s legal team in his campaign to eliminate illegal guns in New York City.

“The elevation of the gun to sacred political status explains in part why 30,000 annual gun deaths have not given rise to anything like the complex regulation of, for example, the automobile or pharmaceuticals.”

Elect public officials who are, in fact, committed to reducing gun deaths in the U.S.

If deaths on the scale caused by guns were caused by any other consumer product (face it, that’s all guns are) solutions like those that have provided us with air bags (and other legally mandated fixes of useful products with the capacity to kill or maim when placed in the wrong hands) would have long since emerged.

The elevation of the gun to sacred political status explains in part why 30,000 annual gun deaths have not given rise to anything like the complex regulation of, for example, the automobile or pharmaceuticals.

What evidence there is suggests that who you vote for does affect the gun death rate. See L. David Roper, “Gun Deaths and Political Parties.” See also “Policies to Prevent Firearms Trafficking” by Jon Vernick and Daniel Webster, published in Injury Prevention in 2007.

It remains to be seen whether more or fewer gun deaths will result from a political process that in recent years: 1) engineered the appointment of a tipping-point Supreme Court vote aimed at overturning settled Second Amendment precedent; 2) gifted near-total legal immunity to the gun industry through the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (when did laws begin to be entitled by spinmeisters?); and 3) via the Tiahrt Amendments, concealed from the public previously available public gun-trace data that identify negligent (and worse) gun dealers.

Our preliminary experience in New York City has been that by identifying (through the now Congressionally suppressed gun-trace data) those retail gun dealers whose business practices foster gun trafficking and providing them — through the incentive of a lawsuit — with the motivation to sell with greater care, we reduced the number of guns that wind up in the hands of New York City criminals. Should the ultimate effect of that effort be fewer New York City gun deaths, that result will be directly traceable to policy choices made by the city’s elected officials.

No one knows exactly what regulatory measures will reduce gun deaths. But that ignorance is fostered by a political process that will not even permit experimentation. The notion — expressed recently by the Supreme Court in its decision on the Second Amendment — that “the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table” is pure circular reasoning; the judges and those who appoint them determine the architecture of that shrine.

David Hemenway, professor of health policy, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health, and author of Private Guns, Public Health.

“It’s time to take some of the politics out of firearm safety.”

Create the National Firearm Safety Administration.

A milestone in the history of motor vehicle safety in the United States, and the world, was the establishment (40 years ago) of what is now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (N.H.T.S.A.). The N.H.T.S.A. created a series of data systems on motor vehicle crashes and deaths and provided funding for data analysis. This enabled us to know which policies work to reduce traffic injuries and which don’t. The N.H.T.S.A. mandated many safety standards for cars, including those leading to collapsible steering columns, seat belts, and airbags. It became an advocate for improving roads — helping to change the highway design philosophy from the “nut behind the wheel” to the “forgiving roadside.” Improvements in motor vehicle safety were cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a 20th-century success story.

A similar national agency is needed to help reduce the public health problems due to firearms. Firearms deaths are currently the second leading cause of injury deaths in the United States; more than 270 U.S. civilians were shot per day in 2005, and 84 of those died. In response, Congress should create a national agency (as it did for motor vehicles) with a mission to reduce the harm caused by firearms.

The agency should create and maintain comprehensive and detailed national data systems for firearms injuries and deaths and provide funding for research. (Currently the National Violent Death Reporting System provides funding for only 17 state data systems and no money for research.)

The agency should require safety and crime-fighting characteristics on all firearms manufactured and sold in the U.S. It should ban from regular civilian use products which are not needed for hunting or protection and which only endanger the public. It should have the power to ensure that there are background checks for all firearm transfers to help prevent guns from being sold to criminals and terrorists.

The agency needs the resources and the power (including standard setting, recall, and research capability) for making reasonable decisions about firearms. The power to determine the side-impact performance standards for automobiles resides with a regulatory agency, as does the power to decide whether to ban three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles (while allowing the safer four-wheeled vehicles).

Similarly, each specific rule regulating the manufacture and sale of firearms should go through a more scientific administrative process rather than the more political legislative process. It’s time to take some of the politics out of firearm safety.


I can think of a number of ways to reduce gun violence.

(1) Set up housing projects for the poor at opposite ends of each city. On one side, run them as they are run today. On the other side, only people with clean criminal records can live in them. Get caught with drugs or have a child arrested for theft and you have to move to a project on the lenient side of the city. The opportunity to live in a safe neighborhood will give poor people a greater incentive to obey the law. (Even better, forbid from the strict side any man or woman known to have had a child out of wedlock.) That should cut the violence in half.

(2) Have the police identify street gang members and exterminate them. Drop them out of airplanes into the ocean, like Argentina did to Leftists in the 1970s.

(3) Radically lower the penalties applied to murderers who use the kinds of murder weapons we prefer, namely, those weapons which make killing harder, or which have a legitimate sporting purpose. (E.g. fishing spear guns with poison-tip harpoons, crossbows with poisoned bolts, strangulation cords, sharpened sticks, fire-bombs.) Murderers will be much more likely to forgo gun violence if they know that their effort applied to an alternate means of murder will not go unrewarded.



I am so intrigued by this question and the postings, that I would like to offer a free copy of QuickPlanner Plus to anyone who would like to start developing these ideas into a real, dynamic, plan. Just email me through the QuickPlanner Plus website.


I like how guns are made. Ban them...go ahead. In fact, tripple ban them, you'll see more than ever before.

Technology is amazing, I shall procure the means of production, and the death toll shall take quantum leaps!

And the brits will suffer more than they do now.

Andrew M.

A lot of these comments address reducing gun violence, but the post didn't ask that. It asked how to reduce gun *deaths*. If we want to reduce gun deaths, we can simply improve our medical care, so that more gunshot victims survive.


Poster number 250 makes a heck of a lot of sense.

When I was a kid (a heck of a long time ago) there were guns in almost every house I was in. All of us knew where they were, and knew what would happen to us if we handled them without permission.

We also knew what these guns were capable of.

Despite the fact that we all had guns available, I never heard of an accident or a shooting by any kids or teenagers. I don't know of anyone who considered using one on someone even if he lost a fight.

Now you hear of the occasional accident due to a child finding a gun and knowing nothing about it.

Oh yeah - there were actually CONSEQUENCES if we didn't obey our parents. Now parents and teachers can go to jail if they even touch a child, much less discipline them. No wonder criminal teens have no fear of using a gun. They've never been subject to real discipline or consequences for their actions.



First off, guns don't kill people, people kill people.

Second, shouldn't we be worrying about other things?
Aren't there a hundred other things that kill more people than people? I believe that I may be more likely to be stuck by lightning that to be shot to death.

Finally, the answer lies in enforcement, not legislation. The laws are there. We need more police... with x-ray vision. (haha)

And draconian punishments. Instead of violating the second amendment, let's disregard number eight.


Stop preventing good people from having guns.

Ned W.

There are many dead giveaways that illustrate that a lot of hoplophobes have no real idea what they are talking about in these posts.

The first one is any statement that basically says: "Make such and such happen."

What that really means is: "I wish my masters - government agents - would solve this problem by making more laws."

And the ideas from the lads and lasses who project what they "feel" that gun owners "think" obviously can be immediately dismissed.

As for the ones who use flawed statistical claims as the foundation of their proposed solutions can pretty much be dismissed as well.

But what always amazes me is the fact that some people apparently believe that we would all somehow be safer if only the police, military and government agents only have weapons. These are often the same people who are ACLU members and flame George W. Bush. The fact that you hate Bush and at the same time trust him with all the guns demonstrates a problem with consistency, to say the least.

The bottom line is that in the 20th Century, governments were by far the largest murderers. (I suggest buying and watching "Innocents Betrayed" produced by Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

It's easy enough to trust your security to the state. There are numerous countries who only allow their police and military to own guns. You can also move to any of the jurisdictions in this country who already make it difficult - if not impossible - for a law-abiding citizen to own guns. But typically the murder rate is much higher in those places as opposed to, say, Vermont, a state in which anyone who is not a prohibited possessor can own and carry a concealed weapon.

Your choice.


Kent McManigal

The obvious solution is to stop mystifying guns to children. Teach them how to safely handle firearms from a young age, take them shooting so they understand how a gun works and see the damage that can be caused if used incorrectly or unsafely.

The adult victim-disarmament crowd is a lost cause. They don't understand guns and want fear and ignorance to surround the issue. If "water safety" were taught the same way, this is what we would do: Don't let kids near water... don't teach them to swim.....marginalize those who enjoy water sports, and blame them for drownings, floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis..... forbid drawings or discussions of water.... make exceptions to "water bans" for professionals such as firefighters..... demonize The Little Mermaid for glamorizing water to kids..... Then act shocked when children drown.

Do they not realize the absurdity of their approach; their "campaign"? Or, as is more likely, do they not care? Their advocacy kills children. Their campaign seeks to take away the most effective tool for defending the small and weak from the big and strong. Yet, they pretend moral superiority. Lest they whine "but water is essential for life" I would remind them that "self-defense is also essential for life". Taking away either one is murderous and insane.


B. Riley

Who cares?

I'm a heck of a lot more afraid of being killed, or incapacitated by a DRUNK DRIVER. How about we focus on something with more significance than gun deaths. There is a very small minority of people taking a bullet in a year that are just innocent bystanders, or aren't committing suicide.

On the contrary, MOST of the people who die from drunk drivers are just trying to make it to work, or home.


Disarm all minority males and all law enforcement personnel.
Problem Solved!


#5 - I agree. This will quickly yield the greatest percentage decrease in non-suicide related gun deaths and injuries.

Easy availability and widespread distribution of birth control to at risk youths who are more likely to be a single parent and less likely to adequately raise and supervise a child. Ditto abortion.

Stricter laws regarding illegal gun ownership.

Guns for money or guns for drugs exchanges.

Or we could prioritize:
(The following numbers are ball-park for the anal among us.)Some 12,000 people a year are homicide victims. Some 1,000,000 people a year die from heart disease. Some 300,000 people a year die from smoking-related diseases. 50,000 people die a day from starvation or starvation-related diseases world wide.


"The best way to cut down on gun violence, with the exception of all the gang related stuff in the slums of big cities, is to allow anyone and everyone to carry a gun anywhere they want"

That's not going to be sufficient. The reason certain types of crime ("hot" burglaries, for example) are so low in places like Texas and Georgia is not (only) because gun ownership is high there, but because in addition to that, citizens have a pretty much unrestricted right to kill criminals in the act of committing a crime without fear of any legal repercussion.

“One simple but very effective measure would be to mandate the registration of each gun's unique fingerprint, the lands and grooves that mark the bullets fired from it. That would give detectives a starting point for each gun homicide, and more and speedier convictions would reduce the number of new assaults.”

A simple but effective idea for a new TV show would be a series about prosecutors who have to deal with jurors who think what they see on CSI represents reality.


Mike the Limey

The need isn't to reduce "gun deaths" per se: The need is to reduce the number of law abiding citizens killed by guns. Let the criminals reduce their own numbers but ensure law abiding citizens of those cities most plagued by gun crime (those same cities that most restrict LAWFUL firearms ownership) have available the means to defend themselves.
You CANNOT legislate against those who already break the law but what you CAN do is make their criminal behaviour so dangerous as to dissuade them.
Removing restrictions on lawful possession of a firearm is the first step.


Subsidize Kevlar.


"If you dig into the numbers a little deeper, you find that in nearly half of those murders, both the killers and the killed are black males. So a demographic that only makes up 6% of the US population is responsible for fully half the murders."
What we need is the opposite of Affirmative action.
"Negative Action"?
Since it is already acceptable in our society for the government to give rights and privileges to its citizens according to race, gender and national origin, the so called minorities that together make up the vast majority of our population, (everybody except for the white male), we could have "Negative Action" on groups that cannot handle the right to own firearms.
We target those groups, pardon the pun, and leave the law abiding citizens alone.
Finally, a solution that makes sense!


If you can sue the gun industry for people using guns for evil, then why can't we sue beer makers for drunk driving, or car makers for fatal car accidents, or junk food makers for high cholestrol, or condoms for unwanted preganciy, or cigarette companies for smoking, and so forth?

You want to get rid of lenient policies and reduce gun violence? Let us start with no longer being lenient against felons; if someone commits a crime that is punishable by 25 years in the slammer, then make them spend that time in the slammer, instead of giving them six months with a year probation. If you stop letting crooks out of jail ten years before their time is up, then maybe people will be less willing to commit crime, and convicts will decide to turn their lives around instead of becoming repeat offenders. Since alot of violent felonies are committed by people with looooooong prior serious records, maybe keeping these time-proven losers and repeat offenders off the street will significantly reduce crime in general without even having to touch the gun issue.



Posted by Michael: "Make firearms education and range time a mandatory part of school and you'd see multiple benefits."

The kids would demand their training in the first 3 weeks of grade 6. Then we'd see 2 benefits:

1) They'd immediately drop out, saving the school system lots of cash.

2) They'd now have a skill they could use to "earn" a living.


30,000 People die in a given year by gunfire. Half of them are suicides, so about 15,000 of those deaths are actual murders. If you dig into the numbers a little deeper, you find that in nearly half of those murders, both the killers and the killed are black males. So a demographic that only makes up 6% of the US population is responsible for fully half the murders.

The point I am trying to make is that the gun violence problem is a lot smaller and more concentrated than the media and government would have us believe. Shouldn't we concentrate more on combatting criminals rather than inanimate objects?



This is what the public has come to expect from liberal establishmentarians - yet more government bureaucracy and intrusion, this time to regulate that which the BoR clearly says is proscribed from infringement.

Heller v. D.C. is only the opening volly in a defensive response of a constitutional right. The mechanism by which the legal system works is that only narrow issues are considered by SCOTUS, one at a time, as a case becomes "ripe", and only rulings specifically tailored to those narrow issues are handed down. Hence, Heller now only applies to D.C. and probably other federal jurisdictions. But to dismiss incorporation would be folly - every other individual right in the BoR has been incorporated, and SCOTUS could not avoid incorporation if it honestly uses the same standard. Therefore, all of this jabber by the predictable statists is immaterial long-term. Eventually, the proper delineation of how this right applies, piece-by-piece, to what and to whom, will be sorted out by SCOTUS, and incorporated. I project that any small arm that meets the Miller test will be held to be protected (including select-fire firearms and short shotguns; remember, no evidence that the military employed short shotgus was presented in rebuttal to the Miller court), destructive devices (real ones, not the blanket redefinition of certain small arms for ideological purposes) will still not be protected, and that will be that.

Take it to the bank.