Writing at the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas journal, New York University law professor Richard Epstein argues that strict gun control laws are unlikely to prevent horrific incidents like the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting:
It is always hard to design licensing systems to stop dangerous behaviors like driving automobiles, controlling the sale of hard drugs, or using guns. The root of the problem is this: The ex post remedy that goes after wrongdoers runs only a small risk of over-breadth, which can usually be limited by having suitable punishment procedures. Licensing regimes, in contrast, are always overbroad. They will result in social losses by stopping the use of guns, cars, or drugs (think medical marijuana) by people who will make perfectly legitimate use of the dangerous instrument in question.
Perhaps those like Mayor Bloomberg will respond that these losses are a small price to pay for the prevention of unnecessary deaths. But even that generalization may turn out to be false, as the bad actors whom the licensing system targets are the most willing to circumvent that system. The selective enforcement of these tough prohibitions could easily cause more harm than good: Think of the black market trade in drugs fostered by the war on drugs.
This same dynamic could be at work in dealing with guns. Today, upwards of 200 million firearms of all descriptions are available for general use in the United States. Amnesty programs have made only a tiny dent in that number. The imposition of a tough registration program will lead to a substantial reduction in the number of guns in circulation. But even tough gun laws may have had little impact on people like James Holmes. Holmes showed no danger signs, except perhaps that he was a bit of a loner, not an uncommon trait. He had cleared all background checks when he purchased his weapon. If Colorado banned guns, would he have acquired the same weapons out of state or in the illegal market? No one knows.