It is a romantic ideal: If we could save one precious life, particularly that of a child, we would willingly pay any price, bear any burden. This sentiment has been at the heart of the argument for increased firearm regulation, particularly the assault weapons ban. An image Tweeted by President Obama states, “If there’s even one thing we can do — even one life we can save — we have an obligation to try.”
When challenged with the statistic that rifles were documented in only 3.76% of 2011 firearm homicides, and 2.55% of all murders, I have personally witnessed Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) use this line to shut down discussion on multiple occasions. They declare that any policy change is worth the cost, in dollars, in liberties, in general, if it saves a single child.
This correspondent does not wish to introduce his opinions into a factual policy debate, yet feels obligated to note that every benefit comes at a cost, often measured in lives broken or lost in the context of policy. Every taxpayer cent and law enforcement man-hour spent on a firearm regulation is unavailable for the best alternative use. Since resources are rarely if ever distributed with optimal efficiency, the “opportunity cost” of an action generally outweighs its benefit.
Because human knowledge is limited and judgement is flawed, markets probably fall short of this ideal of a rule, to say nothing of policymaking legislators and bureaucrats. The question of moment is whether these individuals are willing to consider the potential costs outside the spotlight they shine on le cause célèbre du jour.
Mass shootings are frightening but exceedingly rare. The time and other resources consumed by the assault weapons ban debate were arguably squandered. Your humble correspondent fears that our political leaders are more interested in claiming to champion the innocent than taking the time to consider how best to do so.