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.