Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Listing Gun Owners Might Help Criminals

Copyright, The New York Times Company

Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois is considering signing a bill that would prohibit state officials from publicizing lists of registered gun owners. The economics of crime suggests that such a list would put potential victims at a disadvantage and help criminals.

Earlier this year, the state attorney general, Lisa Madigan, asked the Illinois State Police to make public its list of registered gun owners. Proponents of Ms. Madigan’s request say the Freedom of Information Act requires the state to release such information when requested.

The police are concerned that a public list would discourage some gun owners from legally registering their weapon, and, as a result, the owner database would be less accurate precisely because it was public. A more accurate list, the police say, helps them protect officers and facilitates law enforcement.

(Disclosure: I am a resident of Illinois and, for the reasons discussed in this post, I do not disclose whether I own a gun.)

Economists know that information affects criminal activity – that crime is reduced when criminals see a greater likelihood that they will be caught or that they would face a stiffer penalty when convicted. As in other areas of activity, studies show that criminal behavior is, on average, sensitive to the costs and benefits of committing a crime.

Potential victims recognize this sensitivity and take steps to protect themselves. Sometimes they install locks and alarms, knowing that criminals may get through them but would rather spend their effort on another victim who is less well protected.

Just as most criminals would rather avoid locks and alarms, many of them would rather commit their crime without being shot by a victim brandishing a firearm. Without access to a gun-owner database, criminals in Illinois may expect that any victim might use a firearm for defense.

Making the list public would also permit criminals to select victims who do not appear on the gun-owner list, to lower the odds that their victim has a firearm for self-defense.

Some criminals intend to steal guns. A public gun-owner list would help them, too. Either way, the public gun-owner list gives criminals choices — to target a gun owner or a nonowner, whichever better serves their purpose.

This is not to say that all criminals are sensitive to costs and benefits. Certainly some would not consult the gun-owner list. But as long as some do, a public gun-owner list would put those who do not own guns at risk. (To the best of my knowledge, no empirical study of the gun-owner list question has been conducted.)

Although some gun owners might refrain from registering their guns to keep their ownership private, other people might consider purchasing and registering their first firearm to avoid being known as someone who could not protect himself with a gun.

In this way, a public owner list could increase the number of households owning guns and thereby increase the number of accidents and other undesirable outcomes associated with gun ownership.

When it comes to Illinois’s gun-owner database, both gun owners and nonowners can benefit from privacy.

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