Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Guns, Alcohol, and Lawsuits

In an excellent post, Eugene takes the arguments in favor of holding gun manufacturers liable for the criminal actions of some gun users and applies them to the alcohol industry, with naturally absurd results.

What I fear, of course, is that this will turn into another instance of reductio creep. Eugene’s facetious arguments might sound crazy now, but I won’t be at all surprised to hear Eugene’s facetious arguments being made in all seriousness a few months or years from now.

It’s also worth adding an economic perspective to Eugene’s legal one. Quite aside from the inequity of imposing liability on the makers of a product with lawful uses, thereby punishing the law-abiding users of the product through higher prices, it’s also likely that imposing liability on manufacturers will fail the efficacy test. When the price of any product rises, the first customers to cut back their purchases will be the most elastic, i.e., price sensitive, customers. Other customers, the less price-sensitive ones, will continue to buy. With respect to guns, my strong suspicion is that it will be mostly lawful gun buyers who restrict their gun purchases, whereas most criminals (whose livelihood depends on possession of guns) will continue to buy at the higher price. With respect to guns, it will mostly be the moderate drinkers who will reduce their alcohol consumption, while the irresponsible binge drinkers continue to buy at the higher price. The result? Placing legal liability on the manufacturers of guns and alcohol will deter exactly the wrong groups of people from using them.

It is true that gun and alcohol manufacturers could adopt more targeted marketing and pricing schemes, but I doubt most people would like the consequences of their doing so. Lacking better information, the manufacturers would have to rely on statistical correlates of the undesirable behaviors -- by, for instance, charging African-Americans higher prices for guns because African-Americans are more often convicted of violent crimes. Or, if they couldn’t do that, maybe they’d just shut down the gun shops in areas of town where the “undesirables” live. And even if they managed to adopt such policies without raising public outcry, the effect on crime would still probably be negligible or opposite that intended, as blackmarkets would emerge to transfer the products from the preferred to the unpreferred buyers. Ultimately, products will move to the buyers who value them most, through illegal channels if necessary.

No comments: