Assault Rifles: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

Beto O’Rourke answered with a lusty “hell yes” when asked if he favored mandatory buybacks of assault-style rifles during the recent Democratic presidential candidates debate. After the former Texas congressman’s bold stance, the nation soberly debated the merits of allowing ready access to such powerful weapons.

Just kidding. A lone star state lawmaker and proud gun owner immediately threatened O’Rourke’s life.

Emotions run high over guns. But perhaps clear-eyed number crunching is needed. Cost benefit analysis, where government and industry analysts dispassionately count the benefits of an action or situation before subtracting the costs of that action or situation, could point to an answer.

A quick definitional note: let’s stipulate that when we say assault weapons, we mean guns that can fire significantly more rounds per minute without reloading than a standard handgun or hunting rifle. We’re also talking about add-ons like high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, the kinds of weapons and modifications that together enabled the Dayton shooter to kill and wound 36 people in well under a minute, for instance.

Now back to our analysis. We need to come up with a dollar figure representing the cost of shootings involving rapid-fire weapons. Luckily for us, multiple government agencies have already set a price on a human life.

Many may recoil at the idea, reflexively declaring that each person is priceless. But to write safety regulations that affect tens or hundreds of millions of people, bureaucrats need firm numbers to work with. The Environmental Protection Agency valued an average American at $10 million as of 2016 while the Department of Agriculture estimated a comparatively paltry $8.9 million figure. The Food and Drug Administration meets those numbers in the middle, saying people are worth $9.5 million.

Using that last figure, the Dayton shooting clocks in at a whopping $85.5 million for the fatalities alone. We’ll go with this estimate even though it is very conservative, not taking into account costs of treating the wounded, potential litigation, losses to businesses as well as the price of new safety protocols and infrastructure many American communities are adopting to combat gun massacres.

Now for the benefits side of the equation. For gun rights absolutists, that’s a bit tricky. Assault-style weapons are really only good for providing suppressing fire in combat and killing lots of people quickly. Hunters don’t use such weapons and they’re not practical for personal defense (imagine living next door to the twitchy guy who empties a clip at 3 a.m. when he mistakes a raccoon in the garbage cans for an intruder).

Thinking about AR-15s and kindred firearms in these terms helps undercut some of the more common (and absurd) arguments that get rolled out in the wake of a mass shooting. Pro-gun people will often point out that knives, for instance, take far more lives than automatic weapons do, which is true, but vastly insufficient. Knives aren’t the only everyday item that can become a lethal weapon; as any hardened ex-con can tell you, even a toothbrush can be converted into a weapon. The standard can’t be a ban on anything that can possibly kill, but only a ban on those items whose costs vastly outweigh their tangible benefits. Steak knives and toothbrushes pass muster, drum magazines that can hold 100 rounds do not.

Powerful guns could fall into a class of items that have no practical use but offer joy to their owners, as Mike Huckabee made clear with a lame attempt at humorously putting down O’Rourke. “Dozens are killed every year on skateboards. Thousands injured. Hey Beto! Heck yes, we’re going to take your SKATEBOARD!” Sarah Sanders’ dad tweeted.

Cost-benefit analysis does come into play when an agency like the Consumer Product Safety Commission decides what toys (of the kid and grown-up variety) are safe enough for sale in the United States, but Huckabee just shows himself to be funny in a way he didn’t intend by trying to draw a direct comparison between a skateboard, which will almost always only injure or kill the skateboarder in a mishap, and the weapons like those used by the Las Vegas shooter, who killed 59 and wounded more than 400.

There’s a final potential “benefit” to private ownership of rapid-fire weaponry by the masses: as a check on government tyranny. But this fringe argument, with its frightening implications, falls outside a cost-benefit rubric. For one thing, what proponents are really saying is that they’re prepared to kill U.S. soldiers, which is ironic, given the floridly performative patriotism exhibited by virtually all diehard Second Amendment fanatics.

Modern civilization would collapse if we attempted the Sisyphean task of trying to protect ourselves from all conceivable harm, which is why cost-benefit analysis is invaluable. But such an analysis also reveals that if banning these powerful weapons saves just a single innocent life, it would be completely worth it. Go get ‘em, Beto.