Friday, December 17, 2010

Cheap Guns

Caleb goes on about “Life being too short for cheap gear” and a lively argument has broken out in the comments about whether the “one-bedside-gun” owner should save up for a $300-$400 gun or buy a $100-$200 used gun. The reliability goes down quite sharply at the low end and an unreliable gun in the hands of a novice is a bad idea, goes one side of the argument; they are better served by paying double for the security of knowing that their bedside conversation starter will speak for them all the time.

Which brings me to my thought: why are guns so durn expensive. Answer is two-fold: “economies of scale,” and “purchaser conservatism.” The first is at least partially due to government meddling; the harder it is to manufacture, purchase, own, and transport firearms, the less people will do any of those, and the smaller the market for firearms. It’s terribly hard to be a garage-shop innovator in firearms due to the insane over-regulation of firearms manufacturers, for example; and the smaller the market, the less customers you have to spread the fixed costs of innovation over. This should get better as we move closer to Constitutional scheme for firearms regulation, thankfully, as the forces driving lower firearms ownership will be reversed.

The second is harder to overcome. For a number of reasons, purchasers of firearms aren’t looking for the Next Big Thing; in fact they prefer the familiar to an astonishing extent. The continued wild popularity of the 1911-pattern pistol is one of the best examples. The validity of the reasons is outside the scope of my post; so I’ll take it as given. But I don’t have any good arguments against dependence on proven designs, either.

There’s a third reason that the market space for new firearms is lower than you might think; firearms are durable goods. There’s no reason in the world that you can’t continue to use a smokeless-powder firearm manufactured a hundred years or more ago today, if the weapon itself if sound; and there are plenty of mechanically-sound firearms kicking around. However, this should force down the costs of new firearms, because they have to compete with used firearms – which doesn’t help innovation because that meanst here’s less profit margin on the new guns.


  1. I'd argue that regulation of the distribution chain probably drives up costs, too. I find it very hard to believe that a product that can only be legally sold in a face-to-face transaction at a brick-and-mortar store licensed by the feds will ever be as affordable as a similar product you can order on Amazon.

    This is why, though I'd say a background check can't reasonably be called unconstitutional per se, I can't imagine a way to enforce the requirement that would pass honestly applied strict scrutiny, straw purchasing being as trivially easy as it is.

  2. I can't see retail-level non-FTF sales ever happening again (despite, as noted, the reduced cost to the consumer this will deliver). There is no way that the entire sales industry, from US manufacturers to wholesalers to the gun store on the corner will stand by and allow their industry to be crushed between Amazon and Wal*mart. Remember, they actively assisted in detroying catalog sales in 1968.

    For what will always be a "niche" sales category, this isn't necessarily a bad thing for the consumer in the long term. The needlework (knitting, cross-stitch, embroidery) hobby was nearly destroyed by Wal*mart entering the playing field, finding out that there weren't enough profits in it, and leaving, but only after destroying the profitability of the local craftwork store. Likewise the RPG hobby was nearly destroyed by the CCG bubble, and CompUSA &c were destroyed by Tiger Direct and Newegg - leaving me with no-place to go on a Friday night when my CPU craps out to get a replacement.

    Stores with attached ranges would survive, especially ones that rent, but that's a luxury that not every store can afford, or even implement in some parts of the country - even with the most lax of permitting regimes, a store with a range in NYC will be rare and unlikely, given the costs of space in NYC.

    (This is precisely the same reason we will never see direct sales of automobiles - except that automotive dealerships are far more active in local politics than the freedom lobby could possibly be - thankfully the explosion of information regarding the true cost of cars is bringing low some of the reprehensible practices in that industry).

  3. Like I said, I can't see the de facto ban on mail order passing honestly applied strict scrutiny. The chances of getting that kind of honesty...

    I suppose if the Court ends up treating the 2nd more like the 1st than the 4th, if you follow me, then we have a much better chance of freeing up the gun market (for good or ill) than the car market, because the laws interfering with the free market can be legitimately stricken down by the Court.

    I'm also skeptical that guns would remain a niche market if you could get a decent one mailed to your doorstep for a hundred bucks or so. Not that I don't follow _your_ meaning: as much as I like Magic and 3rd edition D&D, I'll never forgive Wizards for buying up all the local gaming stores and then deciding to close up their retail wing.

  4. Congress has the explicit Constitutional power to regulate interstate transactions. As long as obtaining and retaining a sales FFL is not onerous (and remember, unless we do away with all taxes on firearms, which also isn't going to happen and taxing firearms at least at the level of sales taxes and excise taxes is presumptively constitutional, so a retail outfit has to be licensed to collect taxes) even strict scrutiny preventing Congress from having the ability to license vendors of firearms tavelling in interstate commerce. BATFE needs a spectrum of remedies to apply to non-compliant FFLs short of revocation, of course, and a lot of the regulations of FFLS themselves would be unconstitutional under Strict Scrutiny.

  5. I'd be interested in what case law we have relating to federal regulation of the interstate trade in newspapers. Sounds like a complicated niche.

  6. Well, you can't tax printers ink specifically, but you can charge sales tax on a newspaper or a magazine.

    Likewise, content-neutral restrictions on speech are constitutional.

    All together, I figure Pittman-Robertson is constitutional, as are sales taxes, but taxes that are not fractional of the sales price (AOW, SBS, SBR, suppressors) are out, nor would be taxes specific to firearms, ammunition, or components.

  7. " . . . as the forces driving lower firearms ownership will be reversed."

    If those forces are reversed and many many more people buy firearms legally, I'd expect prices to go up. Supply and demand.

    However, I guess that there's more demand than we are aware of and that demand has been satisfied illegally, driving prices even higher than they would be in an above-board market.

    As laws in the coastal states are brought to the RKBA model, the underground market will come above ground, and the demand can be satisfied legally. Prices might come down.

    The AOW, SBS, SBR and other taxes should be an easy challenge in the courts in our lifetimes, because they can be shown to have been intended to discourage transactions.

  8. @Fuz - Oh, I've got a post brewing on why SBS, SBR, are unconstitutional at a much lower bar than strict scrutiny

  9. Ian, have you read US v Rock Island?

  10. Aware of it, haven't read it. That's the one that probably knocks out the Huges Amendment, right?


Please keep it civil