Reducing Gun Violence: Change the Incentives

By Don

While we tend to think that all crimes are crimes of passion, likely because we can’t conceive of a “rational criminal,” few crimes are that spontaneous and most criminals are, in fact, rational actors. According to the FBI most homicides are committed by criminals against criminals. So why do people become criminals? Because in many circumstances crime pays. For a relatively small risk, the rewards can be quite large.  Also according to the FBI – no surprise – most homicides happen in large metropolitan areas, generally in neighborhoods with high levels of drug related gang activity . . .

A major flaw people exhibit when thinking about homicide is that they make no allowance for the fact that not all homicides are created equally. We tend only to look at the method and result. But that conflates different kinds of crime and obfuscates possible solution paths. That’s like treating a brain tumor and a tension headache with the same remedy because they share a few symptoms. To have any indication of how to solve the problem we need to to look deeper, at both motive and incentive.

Much of the street crime in the US is drug-related and this is where much of the deaths occur as well. When you think about it, it makes sense. There’s huge consumer demand for illegal drugs, especially marijuana and cocaine. This demand means huge potential for profit and therefore a significant, completely rational reason to get involved in the drug trade for someone without a lot of other options.

A criminal involved in the drug trade has plenty of incentive to arm up. For example, drug gangs need to defend themselves against what’s usually the biggest gang in the city, the city police, AKA the drug warriors. They need to defend their market-share against encroaching business competition. In their line of business, there’s no such thing as a sanction or a leveraged buy-out.

The biggest thing motivating homicides are probably the huge piles of cash and product that float around on the streets. A drug dealer can’t get banking services or take credit cards. Their profit and operating cash doesn’t exist as a number in a computer attached to an account. It’s held in hard currency representing a huge carrot for anybody with enough stick to try to score.

Same goes for inventory. A drug dealer can’t very well keep their product in a fixed secure and alarmed warehouse or open a store up with bars on the windows on the corner (unless they operate in Colorado or Washington). A drug dealer can’t have his product insured against theft to mitigate his financial risk. There is, therefore, huge incentive for criminals to arm up to try to steal all of that cash and product floating around. And there is the obvious complimentary need to arm up to defend it. Again, this is rational behavior, as there really are no other options.

This violence happens in cities because that’s where the drug trade is predominately centered and that’s where most of the customers are. These are the nodes to which the national distribution networks link up. And it’s where the money ends up. If people want to get serious and cut down the amount of homicides that occur in this country, we need to un-motivate it. Guns aren’t the reason for the violence. The opportunity to acquire a ton of money is. The piles of cash to fight over makes homicide a simple means to a lucrative end. And then innocents are frequent collateral damage in the war taking place in the streets.

So unless people are willing to starve the drug market into extinction by boycotting the product, the violence won’t stop any time soon. Judging from some of my most ardently anti-gun acquaintances’ personal activities and predilections, not to mention the history of mankind, people aren’t going to stop being drug consumers. Funny that my recreational activity (guns) contributes nothing to the gun violence we see in the streets in this country, and their recreational activities are literally its lifeblood. So . . . the blood is on whose hands?

Instead of depending on an impossible solution (everyone voluntarily giving up recreational drug use), it’s possible to get creative and solve the problem another way.  We could dilute the market instead. Make pot and coke legal. Legitimize it so that other businesses can get involved. Make it legal so that drug dealers can establish businesses in fixed locations with insurance and banking services so there isn’t a ton of cash sitting on the street tempting armed theft and requiring armed defense.

If you get the money off the street and into a bank, then it isn’t sitting out there for people to try to steal it or have to defend it violently. If you get the product out of apartment buildings and the trunks of cars and into a storefront with bars on the door and an alarm system, that makes it less tempting to go after. If you make it such that becoming a ruthless killer isn’t an occupation likely to result in financial for success  you’ll see a lot less violence.

56 Responses to Reducing Gun Violence: Change the Incentives

  1. avatarMatt7184 says:

    If you want to reduce violence, legalize drugs.

    • avatarBlindKyle says:

      Agreed. We as individuals in a free state should be solely responsible for our actions and the effect those actions have on ourselves and the community at large. You wanna shoot up? Go for it? You OD’d in your basement? Well that’s on you. You knew the risks.

      Further to that point, it boggles my mind that marijuana is still illegal on a federal level. How many potheads get stoned and eat someone’s face or rob a liquor store? Zero. Not to mention, at this point it’s common knowledge that it’s harmless to one’s health, unlike alcohol, tobacco or the untold amounts of Adderall and other amphetamine-based pharmaceuticals we willingly and legally give our children.

    • avatarGreg says:

      Legalizing drugs would kill the profit potential and the ancillary industries associated with it. The billion dollar jail business would dry up.

      Never gonna happen when there are crooks on both sides of the law.

    • avatarRambeast says:

      Drug enforcement is big money to LE. The ability to keep confiscated property, and grants for arms and personell is a huge cut in their livelyhood. There is no way they will let that go without a huge fight.

      • avatarSammy says:

        That’s a no go. Legalizing drugs collapses the prison indusrial complex. It would reduce the need for a large percentage of:

        Police
        Lawyers
        Judges
        Prison Guards
        Prisons
        Prison Builders
        Prison Support Business
        Parole Officers
        E/R Personnel

        Whew, I’m sure I’m missing some, but you get the idea. A considerable piece of an economic pie. Crime is big business on both sides of the court room. That’s also why there are parking tickets, for parking on streets we pay for and maintain.

        • I don’t see why it would result in a reduction in law enforcement budgets. They should stay the same and free them up to spend time on other areas of public safety.

        • avatarJarhead1982 says:

          Since 30-40% of the prisoners are in for drug crimes, and the BATF has refused to prosecite more than 1% of those felons & crazies caught attempting to buy from a licensed source (1.83 mil since 1994) it would be very easy to replace that 30-40% with bad guys who tried to buy guns.

          Then of course there is the 1 mil plus open felony warrants in the US that ties into that #.

      • I don’t see why it would result in a reduction in law enforcement budgets. They should stay the same and free them up to spend time on other areas of public safety.

        • avatarChris Mallory says:

          Because they spend most of their time now on the War on (some) Drugs. Without that citizens might start asking why we need some many tax parasites on payroll. Law enforcement has very little to do with public safety and every thing to do with raising revenue for the government.

    • avatarCA_Chris says:

      Drug use, like alcohol, leads to more crimes of passion. How do we regulate the number of users and their rate if use in a legalized drug market?

      Currently, the illegality of the drugs does somewhat regulate their availability and discourages potential new users. How do we keep the regulated flow while excising the incentives for violence?

      For myself, the answer is simple. I don’t use illegal drugs, and I consume alcohol and caffeine in what I consider to be minimal amounts. I might have a cigar once a year or less, but otherwise I do not use tobacco. But this is only one approach and won’t suit everyone. And that is one of the problems I see in the war on drugs and drug violence, the solutions proposed are too often a “my way or the highway” approach.

      People see the problem as drugs must be illegal or everyone will be an addict. Not everyone is susceptible to addiction. This is not opinion, this is known to be a fact. Not everyone who tries a drug becomes hooked. People who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses which make them vulnerable to addiction are more likely to be attracted to drug use, or are more vulnerable in general to the sort of exploitation that leads to drug use. This is also known to be a fact. Not everyone tries drugs. Most who do have other risk factors that suggest a vulnerability to exploitation and addiction. Finally, the money in the illegal drug trade does not just incentivize violence, it also incentivizes the exploitation of “clients.” The buyers are the root source of the money, and drug dealers want to keep customers at any cost.

      • avatarScott Henrichs says:

        How exactly are we regulating the number of users now? Percentage of drug users before the war on drugs was 8%. After 60+ years of fighting this war on drugs the percentage is still 8%. We have shredded the bill of right, allowed bloated police agencies to form, and overcrowded our prisons to reduce drug use by zero. Sounds like an epic fail to me.

      • avatarChris Mallory says:

        It is very doubtful there are very many crimes of passion by marijuana users.

        • avatarSiliconValleyAlphaGeek says:

          Depends on whether shoplifting sweet and salty goods constitutes a crime of passion. The stoned perpetrator would likely argue that it does.

  2. avatarSteve says:

    No kidding. too bad no one in Washington is all that interested in reducing violence.

    They are dense. like wood.

  3. avatarJustLeaveLawfulGunOwnersAlone says:

    +1
    secondary benefit, we free up LE and prisons to deal with the violent criminals that continue to do harm.

  4. avatarMichael B. says:

    But then the boys in blue, who is the most important group we should listen to, won’t have asset forfeiture money to spend playing soldier with new toys like machine guns, huge boats, helicopters, drones, and armored personnel carriers!

    The drug war has corrupted our legal system beyond belief and debased what’s left of our republic. It’s led to police departments and the feds behaving like organized criminals (or worse). It’s led to no-knock raids, innocents jailed, innocents killed, thousands of animals destroyed and an entrenchment of the Us vs. Them mentality. It’s led to regular non-police citizens being referred to derisively as “civilians.” It’s led to the death of the peace officer. It’s led to police referring to themselves as the robotic and cold “law enforcement.” I don’t want law enforcement officers. I want peace officers who keep the damned peace. The law is often the tyrants’ will.

    Here’s the latest high profile example of drug war insanity:

    http://reason.com/archives/2013/01/28/drug-dealing-and-legal-stealing

    This drug war is far more costly in both monetary and human costs than drug use ever will be. It is being used as an excuse to scrap the constitution and ruin the relationship between citizen and government.

  5. avatarAharon says:

    People usually become criminals because they have had a weak upbringing, and lack ethics and good values. Getting rid of cash and requiring debit cards for all transactions would limit crime. Unfortunately, it would add to the police state control of law abiding good citizens and reduce personal freedom and privacy from government tyranny. BTW, there are long-term USG plans to get rid of cash and currency and move to using the plastic digital cards for all transactions.

  6. avatarTanner says:

    While it is hard to argue with much of this article, the problem remains that a majority of people in the U.S. still perceive legalizing drugs like marijuana and cocaine as the next big tobacco and will eventually lead to massive numbers of drug crazed lunatics all over the country. Probably the worst that would happen is a few people who have never done drugs for the simple reason that they are illegal would try them and a certain percentage of those would become regular users. But I find it hard to believe that a large number of citizens would be wandering the streets in a daze because of legalized drugs.

    The only major issue I see is developing a system that can measure toxicity levels similar to an alcohol breathalizer. It would definitely be necessary to keep the users from behind the wheel.

    If the government offered a reward for the best systems developed by a certain date at least a year or two from now, I would be willing to put money down that we would have multiple solutions available very soon, similar to the way the DARPA program has created incentives for defense related tech.

    • avatarChris Mallory says:

      How about instead of trying to come up with a number that designates intoxication, we start making the government actually prove that a person was unable to safely drive a vehicle? If they can’t point to a definite combination of physical and mental impairments the driver exhibits then there should be no crime.

  7. avatarCarrymagnum says:

    I never really understood why we have laws against drugs. Look how expensive it is trying to fight it.

  8. avatarST says:

    Here’s the dilemma. IMO, while legalization of pot is a good idea all around, its foolish to believe it would cure most violence. People intent on fast money don’t care about the commodity. In the 1920′s the commodity was booze. Today its drugs. Tomorrow it’ll be stolen cars or some other criminal enterprise.

    • avatareconprof says:

      But you see, it is the fact that Alcohol was 1. Banned, and 2. had a big market.
      And MJ is 1. Banned, and 2. has a big market.

      Both those lead to big profits which lead to big incentives to deal.

      Stolen cars would not fill the vacuum of crime, because cars are already legal, and so the illicit market isn’t going to grow.

      As we can see with the recent run on guns and ammo, a govt banning an item only strengthens demand.

      • avatarLemming says:

        Also, as the article points out criminals can’t write enforcable contracts. Gangsters during prohibition could only settle their differences through force. Today when Jack Daniels and Jim Bean have a dispute they can go to court instead, which saves everybody a bunch of tsuris.

    • avatarmountocean says:

      It won’t stop crime, but eliminating the artificial scarcity and allowing legal protections would reduce alot of it. Boosted cars and fake rolexes will always happen, but the margins are alot slimmer than drugs.

  9. avatarOld Ben turning in grave says:

    Yep. The government won’t do it though. They WANT the violence to help further their agenda.

  10. avatarNathaniel says:

    Great post Dan. I agree with everything you said.

  11. avatarCarl says:

    The big problem with legalizing drugs is the same reason prohibition failed. The recent legalization efforts in Washington state resulted in a giant bureaucracy and a stifling tax structure that makes the illegal trade even more lucrative than before! Now there is a larger potential profit margin and less threat of being hassled by the local and state lawmen.

    As usual, the Government, in “trying to help”, has placed us in greater danger and financial peril.

  12. avatarMy Name Is Bob says:

    Agreed! End prohibition now!!!

  13. avatarGov. William J. Le Petomane says:

    Legalizing drugs would cut off a large source of funding for crime organzations (gangs), but it would hardly eliminate them. The Mafia didn’t go away when prohibition was repealed. Not that it wouldn’t be worth doing, at least IMO with marijuana. 60% of the Mexican drug cartels money comes from pot and taking it away would also greatly diminish the illegal traffic on our southern border.

    But I think there is a larger problem here. Half of all the murders are perpetrated by just 13% of the population and half of the victims are also from that same 13%. In the late 1940s a 19 year old black man had a better chance of holding down a job than a 19 year old white man. Black on black crime was not a problem then. Children grew up with a mother and a father. Every morning Dad got up early and went off to work and their children watched and learned. Today a large percentage of children (black and white) grow up having never once watched a parent go to work. The willingness to work is not an innate characteristic. It’s learned. Why go work hard for $7.25/hr. when you can go stand on a street corner and make $100/hr.?

    This is what happens when the state makes parenting optional.

  14. avatarAccur81 says:

    TTAG has greatly changed my thinking on legalizing pot and cocaine. My biggest issue with it is that I don’t want my taxes increased to go towards the rehab. Cold, perhaps, but there you have it. I don’t want legal drugs to increase government size or intrusion. With the mess that Obamacare is, I trust that there is no job too simple for this administration to complicate.

    And I still consider myself to be a Peace Officer. After my wife has our baby, I’ll post an I Am a Gun Owner.

    • avatarScott Henrichs says:

      Would the cost of rehab exceed the 15 billion a year we currently pay for the war on drugs? I get your point and to some extent agree with you but we as taxpayers are already spending billions without our consent.

      • $9 billion is a very conservative estimate. Housing “criminals” convicted of drug possession costs at least $7 billion. You are paying for drug “rehab” whether you like it or not.

    • avatarg says:

      It’s easy to shift the burden of rehab on the legalized drug industry itself – just some common sense taxes and/or fees, a percentage of which goes to rehab and education.

      “Kids, if you get STONED and drive a car, you’ll get in the same amount of trouble as if get DRUNK and drive a car…”

    • avatarSixpack70 says:

      We need more PEO’s who think like you. I know a few who feel the same way.

    • avatarSiliconValleyAlphaGeek says:

      A81, I strongly believe that legalizing marijuana and cocaine would cause a net reduction in taxes even if we provided proven, effective Netherlands-style treatment options for drug abuse. As it is, we’re already bearing the direct and indirect costs for drug abuse through both the judicial system AND the healthcare system.

    • avatarMerits says:

      My thoughts too. I can certainly see legalizing some drugs, especially at the federal level. Let states and communities decide themselves. However, libertarian drug policy won’t work well with socialistic health policy (or any other socialism). Natural consequences must act as checks on individuals who make poor choices, which will initially increase with legal drugs. It would be disastrous to allow the individual to destroy themselves and then have taxpayers fix them.

  15. avatarDBeans says:

    You da man! Just the fact that this message is getting out there tells me this country might not be as screwed as I thought

  16. avatarNoah Yetter says:

    Very happy to see this line of thinking gaining traction with the gun rights crowd. Too often it seems advocates of gun rights are so blindly Right Wing that they reflexively reject any scaling back of Prohibition out of misguided ideological purity.

    The War on Drugs is America’s greatest failed policy of all time. It must come to an end. Otherwise we’ll end up losing not just the 2nd Amendment, but all the rest (indeed the WoD has already claimed the 4th and 5th).

  17. avatarKevin Stevens says:

    But what about meth and Heroine? These drugs are harmful and would never be legalized. So you would have a market shift.

    Up the ante a bit…captial punishment for all crimes committed with a firearm. Not the drawn out 10 years on death row crap. More like the old west. Judge convicts in the trial, the next day they are hung.

    This would free up many prison resourse and reduce the incentive quickly.

    How many current Offenders have priors? MOST of them. The three strikes rule of California is a perfect example of what not to do.

    • avatarChris Mallory says:

      Heroin was once legal in the United States. Why not return to that period of freedom.
      As for meth, sell pharmaceutical grade meth over the counter at a price reflecting mass production and you won’t have so many problems.

      • avatar16V says:

        As well as cocaine, which you could order from the Sears catalog.

      • avatarAlphaGeek says:

        I am not at all sure that I’m on board with legalizing meth, crack or other similar highly processed addictive drugs.

        It’s one thing to legalize plant-derived drugs (weed, coke, hashish, etc.) but quite another to legalize a chemistry-lab product like meth. Perhaps this is simply exposing the limits of my small-L libertarian streak, but I consider meth to be a highly addictive toxic substance with no redeeming pharmaceutical value.

        • avatar16V says:

          I don’t necessarily prefer that folks have it around to do it, but that’s part of the messy nature inherent to actual freedom. Most folks (statistically speaking) still don’t get hooked.

          People may choose not to wear seatbelts, talk on their cell while driving, and not wear a helmet riding a motorcycle. I don’t think it’s a good idea, the science often says it’s not a good idea, but frankly, their choices are not my business in a free society. Whether I approve or not.

          If (and only if) their choices lead to directly harming others, they should be punished. But until then it’s a fine line between societal contract and choices one may have gotten “wrong”. Much like the death penalty, I’d rather 20 guilty men go free than one innocent man is punished for making a victimless and consequenceless bad choice.

    • avatarBill says:

      Oh yes, because giving the State more power always works out so well. Legalize them NOW! As stated, whether drugs are legal or not approximately 8% of the population will do them. The war on some drugs is really the war on freedom.

  18. avatarg says:

    Pot was recently legalized here in WA state, while at the same time, the state monopoly on alcohol sales was ended. There’s still a lot of groundwork being done on fully licensing dealers / manufacturers, but I imagine the state will use much of the former alcohol regulation structure to regulate pot. Smart move, IMO.

    Once WA and CO see a reduction in a crime, a boost in state tax revenues, and a happier, healthier population, it’ll be only a matter of time before more states follow suit with full marijuana legalization. Mark my words.

  19. avatarThomasR says:

    It comes down to the idea that most people can be trusted to make the immediate decisions for themselves; when all thse drugs are illegal, pot, cocaine, heroin and crack; the most commonly used illegal drug is pot, thirty to forty percent of people have used pot; where as cocaine, heroin and crack is used by the general population in the single digits, why? Because the vast majority of people know how dangerous these drugs are.

    Do you really think these percentages would change much if these drugs were decriminalized?

    • avatarSixpack70 says:

      There could even be a decrease of the nastier drugs being used if other drugs were legal.

    • avatarMerits says:

      Yes, for a while. If the consequences were realized by the users only, then *that* would become a strong deterrent though.

  20. avatarWilliam says:

    Don: if you were referring to legal marijuana growers, there are fourteen states now with various degrees of regulation, and only in Colorado are they legal. Perhaps that’s what you meant, but it doesn’t make them “drug dealers.”

    It makes them LEGAL PROVIDERS.

    • avatarDon says:

      Didn’t say anything at all about state-legal federal-illegal growers or anything in the emerging quasi-legal system now… so I don’t understand the question. By drug dealers I mean drug dealers according to the consensus definition and most commonly understood sense.

  21. avatarBeninMA says:

    Well said. This is even more true of violence in Mexico. It drives me nuts to see liberals argue for more gun control to prevent Mexican violence, when they well know it’s profits from the drug trade that fuel it.

    It’s time to end the war on drugs.

  22. avatarWA_2A says:

    Interesting website:

    http://www.drugsense.org/cms/wodclock

    Fun fact: The War on Drugs has had little to no beneficial effect in curbing drug abuse.

  23. avatardirk diggler says:

    Another benefit of legalization is quality of the drugs will improve w competition. Instead of OD’ing on crap, users could have the very best. The govt could tax it and that industry could pay for its related costs (treatment) vis-a-vis the tax.

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