How Staggering is the Briggs-Tabarrok Effect?
By Bryan Caplan
Rumor has it that GMU’s Justin Briggs and Alex Tabarrok have hammered the final nail into the NRA’s coffin. Zack Beauchamp of Think Progress explains:
A new study, coauthored by a libertarian-aligned economist, has found
strong evidence that the spread of gun ownership around the United
States is a threat to public health…
Tabarrok and his coauthor, Justin Briggs, put together a bunch of
data on gun ownership and suicide. After controlling for a series of
potentially confounding factors, Tabarrok and Briggs ran a series of
regressions to establish any links between guns and suicides.
Their results were staggering.
Using a variety of techniques and data we
estimate that a 1 percentage point increase in the household gun ownership rate
leads to a .5 to .9% increase in suicides.
Note the lack of superlatives. So how “staggering” is this Briggs-Tabarrok Effect?
To answer, you need to know two additional facts.
1. The total number of suicides in the U.S. is roughly 40,000 per year (38,285 for 2011).
2. There are about 310 million people in the United States.
Thus, the Briggs-Tabarrok effect says that depriving 3,100,000 people of their guns (a 1 percentage-point decrease in the gun ownership rate) would save about 200-360 lives (.5*40,000=200; .9*40,000=360). In ratio form, the Briggs-Tabarrok effect says that to prevent a single suicide, 8,600 to 15,500 people – the vast majority of whom are not suicidal – must lose their guns.
Is that a good deal? A standard $7M value of life implies a critical value of gun ownership between $452 and $814 per person per year. If the marginal person’s value of gun ownership is less than that, gun deprivation passes the cost-benefit test. If the marginal person’s annual value of gun ownership exceeds that, gun deprivation fails the cost-benefit test. Note that this is not a value per gun; it is a value per person of having any guns.
If, like me, you’ve never held a gun, this might sound like a no-brainer. How could anyone value gun ownership so highly? If that’s what you think, though, you really need to get out of your Bubble. About 40% of American households own guns. Self-defense aside, firearms are the foundation for several of the most popular hobbies in America – shooting and hunting for starters. Anyone who rails against “gun nuts” can hardly deny that many folks adore gun ownership.
Not convinced? The Briggs-Tabarrok story implies that you can unilaterally cut your family’s suicide rate by getting rid of your family’s guns. (The same does not hold, of course, for your family’s murder rate). So suppose every gun owner in America were fully aware of the Briggs-Tabarrok Effect. How many of these gun owners would get rid of their guns in order to avoid an extra 0.01% chance of suicide for each person with access to their guns? How many would deem such a risk “staggering”? If you say, “Not many,” you are conceding that most gun-owners value their guns more than a tiny risk to those they hold dear.
But is a pure cost-benefit approach to gun suicides even appropriate? Probably not. Everyone makes fun-but-risky choices – on diet, lifestyle, and sex for starters. The risks you take affect not only you, but the people who care about you. Many are far riskier than the Briggs-Tabarrok Effect. Yet almost thinks it’s wrong to use cost-benefit analysis to veto these personal decisions: “My body, my choice.” So why single out gun owners for welfare-enhancing persecution?
If you personally know a lot of gun owners, the Briggs-Tabarrok Effect should concern you. Accessible guns probably do slightly increase the chance that someone you care about will kill himself. So be more cautious and spread the word. But if you don’t personally know a lot of gun owners, you should mind your own business. Gun owners reasonably discount sermons about “staggering” risks from people who utterly fail to appreciate their hobby. Want to help people? Focus your nudging on risky activities prevalent among the people you personally know. You’ll sound less intolerant, be more persuasive, and do more good.
* Beauchamp accurately quotes Tabarrok’s initial claim that “A 1% increase in the household gun ownership rate leads to a .5 to .9% increase in suicides.” Tabarrok revised his post after I emailed him for clarification.