Matthew Rousu is an associate professor of economics at Susquehanna University.
Economists are trained to be as analytical as possible when dealing with controversial issues, focused on using limited resources for maximum benefit. While this makes us unpopular at dinner parties, economics can yield insight into what actions should be taken to maximize the impact for the greater good.
If you intend to spend money to save lives, the goal should be to maximize the lives saved per dollar. For example, suppose you have $20 million to spend. If one option will save 20 lives while the other will save 10 lives, economists will naturally choose the action that saves 20 lives. This should seem like common sense, but in the wake of a tragedy, this type of reasoned approach is often lacking from politicians and interest groups.
December's school shooting in Connecticut has prompted many proposals by politicians and interest groups that vary dramatically. Many on the left are looking to ban certain types of guns. Many on the right are calling for fewer gun-free zones. The National Rifle Association proposed placing an armed guard in every school building. Their proposal merits special attention, as analyzing it can give us insight into not only whether we should accept the NRA's proposal, but also on what additional spending, if any, we should incur to improve school security.
Would spending money to place armed guards at every school building be an efficient way to save lives? In the past 14 years (going back to 1999, the year of the mass shooting at Columbine High School), there have been 182 victims from 80 school shootings, including shootings at colleges like Virginia Tech. That averages out to 13 victims per year. One independent analysis from the New York Daily News found that the NRA's proposal would cost $3.3 billion. At this cost, even if armed guards were able to prevent every school shooting victim, we would be spending $250 million per life saved.
This isn't an efficient use of public money. Contrast the number who die in school shootings with the number of children in the United States who die in swimming pools (over 100 per year), the number who die in car crashes (over 30,000 Americans annually), or the number who die from various other illnesses, and this is a bad investment. There are dozens of interventions that could save lives for less than $1 million per life saved. Some examples include better vehicle designs, regular mammograms for women over age 50, and vaccinations.
And what of other actions we might take? Suppose that instead of taking the NRA's proposal, a suggestion is made to increase security at schools that costs $1,000 per year for each school building in America. Using a low estimate, this would cost $100 million dollars annually. The cost per life saved would be over $7 million per year, which is still a bad investment in terms of lives saved per dollar. There are other interventions being proposed as well, but given that schools right now are quite safe, it's difficult to think of law changes that will pass the benefit-cost test on this issue.
After a tragedy, it is human nature to ask: What should we have done differently? Sometimes, however, "doing nothing" is the right answer. There are better ways to save lives. If we really want to save lives, we should not impose additional costs on society to make schools safer.