Jumping off of W. Jerome’s recent post on gun control, I think that the potential utilitarian benefits of permissive gun laws are under-appreciated by pro- and even many anti-gun folks alike.

Aside from giving individuals a means of defending themselves in absence of police protection, permissive gun laws act as a deterrent to potential criminals.  If you’re a criminal, and your victim has a gun, that’s a pretty significant impediment to your committing a violent crime against that person.  The more people own guns, the greater the chance that a criminal encounters this impediment when committing a crime.  Anybody who know a bit of economics knows that when you raise the cost associated with something, people tend to do less of it, so if the potential cost associated with committing a crime is increased, then there should be fewer crimes.  Of course, you’d need some good empirical studies to prove this (and maybe there are some out there), but I think it makes sense in theory.

If this is true, then increased rates of gun ownership are, in the technical sense of the term, a public good.  Because public goods tend to be under-provided by the free market,  this argument could be extended to support something like the compulsory gun ownership bill that Vermont State Rep. Fred Maslack notoriously introduced ten years ago.  To be clear, I agree with the consensus that Maslack’s bill was crazy for a bunch of reasons.  But I do think that people should have a greater appreciation of the potential benefits of gun ownership.  And I also think that a mandatory gun ownership law is at least as well justified as a mandatory voting law, though for some reason, support of the latter is considered much more respectable.

An old person in a bad neighborhood in Chicago has yet again used a gun to defend herself against some hooligans.

Margaret Matthews, 68, said she had been harassed for more than a year by a pair of boys in her South Shore neighborhood. On Tuesday, the boys stood on a shed in her front yard hurling bricks at her. Matthews, exasperated and uncertain whether police would respond, pulled out a gun and shot at them.

In this instance, Ms. Matthews was clearly being threatened. She is a frail old lady and was being harassed by boys who were throwing bricks at her. One of the bricks hit her in the chest. She had called the police shortly before this incident occurred, in response to the boys breaking her windows as she returned home.

Given this situation, what do gun control advocates suggest Ms. Matthews do? She called the police. They didn’t do anything. How is she to defend herself? Doesn’t she at least have a right to? She lives in a frightening neighborhood and was hit in the chest by a brick. If everyday citizens aren’t allowed to defend themselves and must only depend on the state for protection (which clearly didn’t work here), the people who need protection most aren’t going to get it. Short of a policeman on every corner – aka a “police state” – people at some point will inevitably have to defend themselves. This instance is a pretty good example, I think, of how the right to own a gun actually deters crime.