James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Americans Willing to Spend $125 Billion to Reduce Gun Violence? [Sixth in a Series on Gun Violence]

by James G. Beldock on September 2, 2008

As the last post (“A Costly Problem”) in my on­go­ing se­ries on gun vi­o­lence point­ed out, gun vi­o­lence is again on the rise in the United States. If your life has nev­er been per­son­al­ly af­fect­ed, then per­haps you might say “that’s some­body else’s prob­lem.” Think again. By one es­ti­mate pub­lished in JAMA, 67% of the so­ci­etal spend­ing as a re­sult of gun vi­o­lence comes out of your pock­et and mine: 49% is paid by gov­ern­ment (and we all know where that mon­ey comes from), and an­oth­er 18% comes from in­creased in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums.1 The to­tal reach­es $3.1 bil­lion per year. And that’s just med­ical costs. We still haven’t fac­tored in in­ves­ti­ga­tion, pros­e­cu­tion, in­car­cer­a­tion and broad­er eco­nom­ic costs. (More on that in a fu­ture post.)

What would so­ci­ety be will­ing to pay to elim­i­nate this $3.1 bil­lion a year med­ical cost? It turns out that two of the au­thors of that JAMA ar­ti­cle tried to es­ti­mate it in a pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cle in the Harvard Health Policy Review, which I wasn’t aware of when I made my pre­vi­ous post­ing. According to their ar­ti­cle, Duke pro­fes­sor Peter J. Cook and University of Chicago Professor Jens Ludwig be­lieve the num­ber was per­haps as high as $100 bil­lion in 1998 (or $125 bil­lion in my back-of-the-en­velope es­ti­mate of 2008 dol­lars).2 Here’s there log­ic: in a 1998 study con­duct­ed by the National Opinion Research Center, the thou­sand US house­holds sur­veyed were, on av­er­age, will­ing to spend an ad­di­tion­al $239 dol­lars each to re­duce gun vi­o­lence by 30% in their state. Do a lit­tle math us­ing 2008 dol­lars3 and 2008 house­holds4 and get:

Calculating US Households' Willingness to Pay to Reduce Gun Violence

$34 bil­lion. How do we get to $120 bil­lion? The above cal­cu­la­tion re­flects what the US house­holds would be in­di­vid­u­al­ly will­ing to pay to re­duce gun vi­o­lence by 30%. Assuming a lin­ear in­crease in will­ing­ness to pay to re­duce by 100%, the Cook and Ludwig sug­gest the tab looks like this:

Amount US Households Willing to Pay to Reduce Gun Violence by 100%

(In fair­ness, I have some con­cerns about this ex­trap­o­la­tion. Saying I am will­ing to spend $239—or $303 in today’s dollars—to re­duce gun vi­o­lence by 30% does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean I’m will­ing to spend $1,010 to elim­i­nate it com­plete­ly. And cer­tain­ly, as the au­thors point out, there may be some re­al costs to elim­i­nat­ing gun vi­o­lence by 100% that a lin­ear ex­trap­o­la­tion will not ac­count for, even if I were will­ing to pay for it. Nevertheless, if the pre­cise fig­ure is wrong, sure­ly the scale is not.)

Add to this $113 bil­lion the rough­ly $10-20 bil­lion an­nu­al­ly in costs at­ten­dant to sui­cides and gun-re­lat­ed ac­ci­dents and you land some­where be­tween $123 bil­lion and $133 billion—call it $125 bil­lion in nice round fig­ures. That’s a big num­ber no mat­ter how you look at it: it rough­ly equals the com­bined an­nu­al bud­gets for the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Education, or some­what more sur­pris­ing­ly, the com­bined an­nu­al bud­gets of the US Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, Department of Justice, Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation, and NASA.5 (By the way, think this is an ab­stract com­par­ison? Perhaps, but re­mem­ber: we pay for all of the­se gov­ern­ment agen­cies, so we al­ready per­ceive their val­ue, just as we per­ceive a val­ue in re­duc­ing gun vi­o­lence.)

Federal Departmental Budgets v. Perceived Value of Eliminating Gun Violence

If all this talk of big num­bers is giv­ing you a headache, the good news is there are sim­pler and more cost-ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions than seek­ing the American peo­ples’ col­lec­tive bud­getary al­lo­ca­tion for half again as many fed­er­al agen­cies as they’re al­ready fund­ing. Take a look at sim­ple and ef­fec­tive pro­grams like Speak Up! and Ask!, both run by my friends at PAX, which seek to elim­i­nate school gun vi­o­lence by en­cour­ag­ing kids to speak up if they know of some­thing which might hap­pen (in the case of Speak Up!) and en­cour­age par­ents to ask if the hous­es at which their chil­dren are play­ing con­tain guns (in the case of Ask!). These are fab­u­lous­ly cost-ef­fec­tive pro­grams, and their re­sults (here and here) are speak for them­selves.

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  1. Philip J. Cook; Bruce A. Lawrence; Jens Ludwig; Ted R. Miller The Medical Costs of Gunshot Injuries in the United States JAMA. 1999;282(5):447-454. []
  2. Philip J. Cook; Jens Ludwig; The Costs and Benefits of Reducing Gun Violence Harvard Health Policy Review. 2001; Vol 2, No. 2. []
  3. http://www.westegg.com/inflation/infl.cgi []
  4. Day, Jennifer Cheeseman, Projections of the Number of Households and Families in the United States: 1995 to 2010, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P25-1129, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1996 []
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_budget []

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