Gun Violence: The Real Costs (Studies in Crime and Public Policy)

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9780195153842: Gun Violence: The Real Costs (Studies in Crime and Public Policy)

100 billion dollars. That is the annual cost of gun violence in America according to the authors of this landmark study, a book destined to change the way Americans view the problem of gun-related violence.

Until now researchers have assessed the burden imposed by gunshot injuries and deaths in terms of medical costs and lost productivity. Here, economists Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig widen the lens, developing a framework to calculate the full costs borne by Americans in a society where both gun violence and its ever-present threat mandate responses that touch every aspect of our lives.

All of us, no matter where we reside or how we live, share the costs of gun violence. Whether waiting in line to pass through airport security or paying taxes for the protection of public officials; whether buying a transparent book bag for our children to meet their school's post-Columbine regulations or subsidizing an urban trauma center, the steps we take are many and the expenditures enormous.

Cook and Ludwig reveal that investments in prevention, avoidance, and harm reduction, both public and private, constitute a far greater share of the gun-violence burden than previously recognized. They also employ extensive survey data to measure the subjective costs of living in a society where there is risk of being shot or losing a loved one or neighbor to gunfire.

At the same time, they demonstrate that the problem of gun violence is not intractable. Their review of the available evidence suggests that there are both additional gun regulations and targeted law enforcement measures that will help.

This urgently needed book documents for the first time how gun violence diminishes the quality of life for everyone in America. In doing so, it will move the debate over gun violence past symbolic politics to a direct engagement with the costs and benefits of policies that hold promise for reducing gun violence and may even pay for themselves.

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About the Author:


Philip J. Cook is the ITT/Sanford Professor of Public Policy at Duke University and Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He has been conducting research on firearms and violence for over 25 years, and has served as consultant to the Departments of Justice and the Treasury. He has written extensively on alcohol control, gambling, the economics of crime, and other topics, and is co-author of The Winner-Take-All Society (1995) and Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America (1989).
Jens Ludwig is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University and Affiliated Expert of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. He conducts research on public policies related to crime and education, and has provided testimony on gun policy to state legislatures and other groups in California, Kansas, and Minnesota.

From The New England Journal of Medicine:

In 1997, guns claimed the lives of more than 32,000 Americans, and another 81,000 suffered serious nonfatal injuries. Yet these figures fail to reveal the full toll of firearm violence. Not included, for example, are the costs of personal efforts to manage risk, expenditures for prevention by public agencies, and a general reduction in our quality of life. In Gun Violence, Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig attempt to quantify the total annual expense of firearm misuse. They settle at an estimate of $100 billion. While developing their accounting scheme, they concisely but thoroughly discuss the major issues in gun-policy research. The scope of the book is therefore broader than its title suggests, and it should appeal to a wide audience.

Monetary estimates of the value of human lives or the costs of fear and worry will always contain a subjective element. The methods used by the authors also require many assumptions, and the available data are often spotty. Some readers are certain to object to the conclusions. Still, Cook and Ludwig's approach is ambitious and pathbreaking. Theirs is the first attempt to document the many ways in which gun violence affects the United States, and they consider outcomes that are overlooked in most discussions. Their estimate -- however imprecise -- permits comparisons with other social problems, and it provides a basis for further refinements. Their analysis also guides preventive measures toward strategies with the largest net payoffs. This important book will be a model for other research, and it should influence discussions of public policy.

Cook and Ludwig conclude that the costs of medical care and of lost productivity contribute only a small fraction to the costs of gun violence. They estimate an annual gross expenditure of about $2 billion for the treatment of firearm injuries. After allowing for worker replacement and injuries that victims would have suffered anyway, the net figure becomes smaller. Productivity losses are lower still: if gunshot victims consume as much as they produce, the net effect on the community is essentially zero.

Beyond its effects on medical care and productivity, firearm violence causes harm in other ways. Victimization is among these, and in an interesting chapter the effects on work patterns, choice of residence, and the criminal justice system are discussed. Worries about personal and collective welfare impose additional burdens on many Americans. According to the book, the costs of prevention and victimization are enormously higher than the costs of lost productivity or medical treatment.

Cook and Ludwig contend that the best way to measure these costs is to find the amount that the public would willingly spend to eliminate victimization and the need for prevention. Of several possible methods to estimate the costs, they prefer "contingent valuation" surveys. With this approach, people are simply asked how much they think a given level of risk reduction is worth. To estimate the cost of firearm assaults, Cook and Ludwig presented the following scenario to a national sample:

Suppose that you were asked to vote for or against a new program in your state to reduce gun thefts and illegal gun dealers. This program would make it more difficult for criminals and delinquents to obtain guns. It would reduce gun injuries by about 30% but taxes would have to be increased to pay for it.

The respondents were then asked whether they would vote for the program, with the specified size of the tax increase varied. Aggregating the results, Cook and Ludwig found that citizens would be willing to spend about $1 million dollars to avert a single gun assault. Given the volume of firearm crime in 1997, eliminating crime-related gunshot injuries would thus be worth $80 billion annually. Using other methods, the authors conclude that eliminating suicides and accidents would be worth an additional $20 billion.

A large literature in economics considers the validity of contingent-valuation studies, and this book presents a persuasive argument in favor of the approach. Still, skeptical readers might wonder whether a different question would yield different results. The lower bound on the tax increase was zero, for example, but a fervent opponent of firearm regulations might wish to specify a negative value. More generally, the question did not address inconveniences to legitimate gun owners. Even small barriers to access to guns might dramatically erode the support found by the survey.

In the final section of the book, Cook and Ludwig discuss possible interventions to reduce the frequency of firearm injuries. This short chapter can largely stand on its own, and it gives a reasoned assessment of many current policy proposals. Overall, this interesting and well-written book is not likely to produce a consensus about how much the misuse of firearms costs the nation. Given the care and detail of their work, however, Cook and Ludwig's analysis sets a very high standard for alternative estimates. Perhaps more important, the book offers a valuable framework for thinking about how gun violence affects American life. Anyone with even a casual interest in the topic will profit from reading it.

David McDowall, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2001 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

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