For the Exhibit Entitled "Truly Dumb Ideas"

by Don Boudreaux on February 26, 2008

in Myths and Fallacies

In this excellent op-ed in the Oakland Tribune, my GMU colleague Alex Tabarrok (who also, of course, blogs at Marginal Revolution) shoots a bazooka blast through the absurd notion that government schemes to buy guns from citizens will reduce the supply of guns on the street.  Here’s a slice:

Imagine that instead of guns, the Oakland police decided, for whatever strange reason, to buy back sneakers. The idea of a gun buyback is to reduce the supply of guns in Oakland. Do you think that a sneaker buyback program would reduce the number of people wearing sneakers in Oakland? Of course not.

All that would happen is that people would reach into the back of their closet and sell the police a bunch of old, tired, stinky sneakers.

Gun buybacks won’t reduce the number of guns in Oakland. In fact, buybacks may increase the number of guns in Oakland.

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Chris February 26, 2008 at 3:07 pm

Alex's analogy is off. If the police had a sneaker-buyback program, I would turn in the sneakers I have lying around in my closet and garage. But, I probably would not buy a new pair to replace those beaters. And, I don't think I'd be saying "Hey! I'll spend another $70 on sneakers. After all, I'll be able to turn them in for $2.50 when I wear them out."

There are probably a few people who have guns lying around who are no longer particularly want them. Guns, it seems to me, are probably harder to get rid of than sneakers — do you toss a gun into the trash? If not, then they just sit around at home collecting dust, waiting for their 9-year-old's friend to find and pay with it.

shawn February 26, 2008 at 3:23 pm

sneaker buyback used to illustrate complete elasticity of gun supply, not as a perfect correlation. makes more sense if you read the whole article.

Lee Kelly February 26, 2008 at 3:37 pm

This reminds me of those well-meaning people who decided to buy slaves from Sudan. The idea was simple. Wealthy Westerners could outbid many of the locals, thus buying the slaves and then setting them free. Great idea, right? Of course, an elementary appreciation of basic economics could have prevented a great deal of subsequent grief, because the increased demand and higher prices stimulated an increase in the supply of slaves.

The unintended consequence was that many more people were forced into slavery than would have been otherwise. Note: I cannot remember my source for this story, and it may be entirely fictitious. Even if so, it certainly could happen.

Lee Kelly February 26, 2008 at 3:56 pm

There is another horrible flaw in this scheme that Alex Tarrabok only touches upon. Even if we suppose that these other problems could be ironed out, perhaps by buying the guns at some price equal to, or less than the current market price, then it is worth reflecting what kinds of people would take up the offer.

The group with the least incentive to give up their firearms are criminals, especially when law abiding citizens are currently disposing of theirs' to such well-meaning schemes, since the value of a firearm to a criminal is the relative power it affords over others, and thus increases as your victims are less able to defend themselves.

In other words, the price necessary to give criminals an incentive to disarm will be greater than law-abiding citizens, and will increase as more and more law-abiding citizens give up their weapons. The unintended consequence would be to make criminality a less dangerous and more lucrative lifestyle, or so I suspect.

Methinks February 26, 2008 at 8:37 pm

Guns, it seems to me, are probably harder to get rid of than sneakers — do you toss a gun into the trash?

You sell them. It's not hard.

Doug February 26, 2008 at 9:42 pm

Chris: Alex's analogy is off because that's not what you would do? That's a pretty weak argument. Also, you should be more worried about pools, cars and plastic bags all of these items kill VASTLY more children then guns.

Fortunately, we have first hand reports from people who have a vested interest in guns, FFL dealers. There are plenty of first hand accounts of FFL dealers who, when a gun "buyback" comes around, will gather up all of their guns worth less the then amount of the buyback turn them in. They will also scout the line the make sure no one is turning in any gun of value.

Also, if the price for the buyback were high enough I suspect that we see criminals out stealing a lot more guns because the buyback is usually no questions asked. All of this, of course, ignores the moral aspect of taking money from one group of people at gun point to buy guns (not back, the government never owned them to start with) from another group of people.

brotio February 27, 2008 at 1:32 am

"Gun buybacks won't reduce the number of guns in Oakland. In fact, buybacks may increase the number of guns in Oakland."

One can only hope!

mpkomara February 27, 2008 at 2:54 am

===There are 150 to 200 million guns in the United States, so there are plenty of low-quality guns to be sold. An Oakland gun buyback is like trying to drain the Pacific — every bucket of water you take out is instantly replaced.===

Wrong! The Pacific has 161 million cubic miles of water, or 1.77 x 10^20 gallons. A typical bucket is 5 gallons. For a better analogy (unless you change the size of the bucket to a cubic mile), the amount of guns should be compared to the reservoir in Central Park, New York.

brandybuck March 1, 2008 at 2:47 pm

mpkomara: Please look up the word "analogy". It does not mean exact correlation between two things, rather it means a resemblance between two things. Bailing out the Pacific ocean with a five gallon bucket is every bit as futile as bailing out the Central Park reservoir.

When you shout "Wrong!" at people for such trivialities, you aren't enhancing the discussion, but instead waving a big flag that you're an asocial nerd who would rather nitpick meaningless details than to actually engage in rational discourse. You are no better than those who think they have won a crucial political argument just because they've pointed out a spelling error in someone's post.

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