I’m Ready to Give Up On Gun Control–But Let’s Close the TSA

by Benjamin Studebaker

I know, right? Depressing headline. But it’s true. After some years of writing about gun control, I can’t do it anymore. As a society, we’ve made our choice–we’ve decided that it’s worth it to have a much more dangerous society in the name of freedom. But if that’s the principle, I want to abolish the TSA and go back to 90s airport security. Remember the 90s? You could just walk into the airport and go straight to the gate. No lines. No fuss. Sure, 2,996 people died on 9/11. But guns were used in 13,286 homicides in 2015 alone. There were zero terrorist attacks involving passenger planes in the 17 years before 9/11. But guns kill another 13 or 14 thousand people every year. Gun rights advocates might think the right to travel unmolested by the TSA is worth only a fraction of what the right to own a gun is worth. But we sacrificed our travel rights over only a tiny fraction of the number of lives guns take from us. I’m giving up on taking people’s guns, but I want them to give me back my airports.

Why We Can’t Win on Guns

I’m ready to accept that gun control isn’t going to happen. More mass shootings make no difference, and they’re not going to make a difference. The courts are interpreting the Second Amendment in a way which kills any gun control legislation that stands a serious chance of bringing us into alignment with the control laws they use in Europe or Japan. The comparative international research is pretty clear–fewer guns, fewer homicides:

Guns and Homicide by Country

But the courts won’t let us do it. It requires a constitutional amendment, and the gun control movement doesn’t even try to amend the constitution. Instead, it pushes for “common sense” gun control laws. But “common sense” laws don’t actually reduce the number of guns in the country to European or Japanese levels. With 300 million+ guns floating around, it’s never going to be very hard for a determined person to find one. Real gun control, the kind that is proven to work, requires mass confiscation on an unprecedented scale. Australia’s buyback took 660,959 weapons at a cost of $500 million. We’d need to take more than 200 million to achieve Australia’s guns per capita figure. If we were as efficient as the Australians, we’d need $170 billion. We could do tuition-free college for more than two years with that money. I know, I used to say we should do it. As recently as three years ago, I wrote pieces like these:

I still believe our gun laws should look like Japan’s in principle. If we had Japan’s homicide rate, we could save more than 90% of our homicide victims. That’s easily ten thousand lives a year. That’s like stopping three or four 9/11’s. But getting there? I don’t see how we can. The constitution is in the way. The cost is too prohibitive. The political will isn’t there. The “common sense” policies we are organising around are largely a waste of time. They don’t even begin to take seriously the scale of the challenge.

So I’m done on guns. I concede. They win. They think the lives we’d save aren’t worth the freedom they think guns buy for them. I don’t agree, but we’re not winning them over, and an amendment requires ratification in too many blood red states.

But now I want my airports back.

If Gun Control Costs Too Much Freedom, Let’s Talk About the TSA

Every year the TSA costs around $8 billion. In the 17 years since 9/11, that’s about $136 billion. It’s not quite as much as full blown gun confiscation, but it’s in the neighborhood. That’s $45 million for every person killed on 9/11. If we spent our entire police budget exclusively on preventing and investigating murders, we’d only spend $15 million per homicide victim. If our healthcare system devoted itself exclusively to saving the Americans who die each year from death, it would spend $1.1 million per victim (and just $605,000 if we had Britain’s single payer system).

People think the TSA prevents attacks. It doesn’t. The TSA fails 95% of airport breach tests. People don’t attack planes because one way or another it’s a suicide mission. Either the passengers will kill you or the plane crash will. There were no 9/11 style attacks before 9/11 for a reason. 9/11 didn’t suddenly make hijacking fully loaded airplanes a rational, smart thing to do.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the TSA does prevent one 9/11 style attack every year. Even if that were true, the TSA would still cost us $2.6 million per life saved. That’s still more than twice what our healthcare system would spend on every single person who died if it devoted its entire budget to stopping those deaths and did nothing else. Even if the TSA “worked”, it wouldn’t make any sense.

The TSA also has documented negative effects. The delays it causes have cost the airline industry at least $1.1 billion since 9/11, and the time passengers lose is time we can’t spend doing fun or useful things. 6% of people stopped flying because they hate the TSA that much. That chips away at our productivity–some of these people end up telecommuting more and they miss vacations. The rest take to the roads. According to a Cornell study, the TSA has increased traffic fatalities, killing 130 travellers every three months. That adds up–annually, it’s equivalent to four Boeing 737 plane crashes every year.

I see the writing on the wall. Too many people think the freedom guns buy is worth the cost of the lives we lose. But the TSA doesn’t save any lives, and even if it did the price in freedom it exacts is too high. As a society, we have to decide how to balance our desire for freedom with our desire for security. I don’t agree with the way gun control opponents want to balance it, but I respect their decision to give priority to a freedom they feel is important. But if I have to watch kids die in the name of that freedom, I want my airports back. It’s not too much to ask.