Professor Topher McDougal Shares Lessons From Modeling the US Firearms Market

The United States has the world’s largest free market for firearms. That's one of the main findings in a recently published article by Vision of Humanity, co-authored by Topher McDougal, PhD, associate professor at the University of San Diego Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies. 

The United States suffers from the highest rates of gun violence in the high-income world. With an average of over 14,500 firearms homicides per year in 2017, the U.S. has a rate of gun homicide 4.5 per 100,000 people per year — over 13 times that of Canada (National Center for Health Statistics, 2018). Informed fundamentally by the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, the United States also has some of the laxest laws on gun sales globally. The result is the world’s largest free market for firearms: in 2017, there were 56,638 federally licensed gun retailers in the United States and a total of over 12 million firearms sold, about 37.6% of which were supplied by foreign imports (ATF, 2019). The Small Arms Survey estimates that the United States, at 120.5 firearms per 100 people, has a higher rate of gun ownership than anywhere in the world — more than double the rate of war-torn Yemen (52.8) and thrice that of postwar Serbia and Montenegro (both at 39.1) (Karp, 2018).

A functional characterization of firearms markets is prerequisite to making informed policy decisions designed to reduce gun violence. Despite its large size and prominent role in early American industrialization (Brauer, Montolio, & Trujillo-Baute, 2017, footnote 2), the U.S. civilian firearms market remains largely uncharacterized from the point of view of economic analysis. One key limitation is data (Muggah & McDougal, 2014). We used a uniquely constructed dataset of yearly firearms prices and quantities from 1946 to 2017 to simultaneously model supply and demand.

Over our study period, inflation-adjusted prices have exhibited considerable year-to-year variation, with a significant upward shift post-1980 due to demand for increasing technological sophistication. The post-1980 period also saw a growing proportion of imported firearms as a percentage of total sales (see Figure 1).


Justin Prugh
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