Can the U.S. afford the massive cost of gun violence?
For those directly affected by the Las Vegas massacre, which left 59 people dead and hundreds wounded, the shooting is a devastating tragedy whose emotional toll is incalculable.
Yet gun violence in the U.S. also has an enormous financial cost, rippling through the economy in the form of lost wages, medical bills, higher taxes for law enforcement and lower property values, among other factors. Some estimates put the total annual tab of shootings at well over $100 billion, while others put it even higher.
The economic devastation caused by gun violence tends to get overlooked because Americans may not think it impacts them, especially if they live in a safe neighborhood or away from cities beset with crime.
Yet taxpayers are picking up the bill by paying for the medical care of victims on Medicaid and by forking out more in taxes to fund law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and jails and prisons, said Mike McLively, senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
"The usual discussion is: There's a mass shooting, we talk about political inaction, and then everyone turns to the next thing that's happening or next disaster," he said. "The cost of gun violence goes undiscussed, and it's super important because it's silently affecting everyone, whether you live in a safe community or not."
The cost, McLively added, "is extraordinarily high."
His group, which tracks firearms legislation and works with lawmakers to promote legislation that will reduce gun violence, is now assessing the state-by-state cost of gun violence in the U.S. One of the first states they studied, Minnesota, incurs direct and indirect costs of $2.2 billion each year due to the more than 900 gun deaths in the state each year, McLively said.
Those costs "doesn't include things like lowered property values and lost business opportunities," McLively noted. "Often in areas with high gun violence, businesses are closed early, people move away and there are costs of security measures."
Across all 50 states, he said, gun violence likely surpasses $100 billion in costs. That's equal to the country's annual federal spending on education and surpasses the federal transportation budget.
One estimate, from Mother Jones, pegs the cost as high as $229 billion per year, including $8.6 billion in direct expenditures such as for prison for people convicted of homicide or assault. Another $221 billion stems from indirect costs, such as lost wages.
Even tracking the data on gun violence can be difficult, since some states don't record non-fatal gun violence as well as they track homicides and suicides. Non-fatal shootings can have higher costs, due to years of ongoing rehabilitation and medical costs for the victims.
Another way to view the issue is to consider how gun violence lowers the quality of life for individuals and communities, said Philip Cook, professor of economics and sociology at Duke University and the author of "Gun Violence: The Real Costs." People who live in neighborhoods that are affected by gun violence tend to have a diminished quality of life and suffer from lower property values, while businesses may move away because of higher costs.
"That creates a different story about what the problem with gun violence is," Cook noted. "People who live in high-violence neighborhoods have to go to extraordinary measures to keep themselves and their families safe. They have high blood pressure and are anxious. Those neighborhoods have stunted economic growth."
Cook and his co-author, Jens Ludwig, took an interesting approach to assessing the impact of gun violence: In 1998, they asked how much people would be willing to pay in higher taxes to lower gun violence by 30 percent. The answer? $100 billion.
That number may be higher today, he noted, partly because Americans may be more concerned with gun violence than they were two decades ago, and partly because households are wealthier and may be more willing to pay for safety.
If gun violence has such huge costs, why isn't there more of an outcry over it? Wealthier Americans may believe they are at a safe remove from such acts, especially if they live in safe neighborhoods. Victims of gun homicides tend to be black men, who may be politically disenfranchised, as well as their families and the people who live in their neighborhoods.
"I would guess that if there were anything like that in a prosperous community, at the rates we see in some of the tough neighborhoods, that the response would be much more massive," Cook noted.
In a politically polarized nation, the enormous economic toll of gun violence may be one area where liberals and conservatives can find common ground, McLively said. Instead of fighting over gun regulations, lawmakers could work on funding violence intervention efforts, such as one program in Connecticut that the Department of Justice hails as an effective method for decreasing violence.
Other initiatives could include adding taxes to pay for databases or screening programs, such as California's Dealer Record of Sale system, which adds $19 for each firearm purchase to fund a background check.
As for the gun industry itself bearing the cost of gun violence, that's unlikely at the moment. Gun makers may not be sued for liability under a 2005 law, although they can be sued if a gun has a design defect. The law was passed by Congress after New York City sued gun manufacturers, alleging their products should be safer and should be tracked better.
Changes may first come at the local level, ranging from new state and city regulations and campaigns to business groups advocating for safer neighborhoods, McLively said.
He added, "I don't know that anything will change at the federal level, but I do think these events wake people up and make them think about the issue."
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