Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Property Rights Analysis of Gun Rights, Stand Your Ground Laws, and "The Verdict"

I've tried not to comment too directly on the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. I wanted to take some time to think about the situation more clearly, and whether the verdict itself reveals anything useful that can help us think better about policy. What limited comment I have made about the George Zimmerman verdict is that it should present an opportunity to rethink the wisdom of "Stand Your Ground" and other laws that seem to embolden armed citizens into doing stupid (but perhaps not criminally stupid) things. For one thing, such laws have been linked to increases in the homicide rate.
But I felt the need to ground my thinking with some theoretical foundations. Here's what I came up with: We need more laws to extend full "rights" to gun owners. Before anyone's head explodes, let me clarify what I mean by "rights." In economics, "property rights" can be thought of as a "bundle of sticks." A narrow interpretation of property rights over a good or an asset is your "ability, in expected terms, to consume the good (or the services of the asset) directly or to consume it indirectly through exchange" (Barzel 1989, emphasis in original). Basically, this means that you have the right to use your property how you want, the right to sell it, and the right to dispose of it in whatever way maximizes your own utility. Barzel also notes:
The distinction sometimes made between property rights and human rights is spurious. Human rights are simply part of a person's property rights. Human rights may be difficult to protect or exchange, but so are rights to many other assets. 
Thus, we can include civil liberties (such as free speech), other constitutionally-granted rights (such as the right to bear arms), and the right to live to be, in a way, property rights.
But, there's a flip side of the coin. Property rights also entail certain responsibilities. One such responsibility is the responsibility of protecting your property from capture by others. Another is the responsibility for how you use that property should that use infringe upon the property rights of others.
So what does this have to do with the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case? As we all know, the night Trayvon Martin was killed, George Zimmerman was exercising his second amendment right to bear arms, and his right, under Florida law, to carry a concealed weapon. The same night, at the same time, in the same neighborhood, Trayvon Martin was exercising his own right to use the public streets. Mr. Zimmerman felt suspicious that Mr. Martin might have been up to some criminal activities, but that appears not to be the case. Regardless, Mr. Zimmerman felt, for whatever reason, that Mr. Martin did not belong in that neighborhood at that time of night. He felt that Mr. Martin was infringing (or intended to infringe) on his or his neighbors' property.
So, Mr. Zimmerman pursued Mr. Martin, first in his car and then on foot. The result was an altercation in which Mr. Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. What was said or done between Zimmerman leaving his car and Martin's death is unclear.
Before getting into the legal dimension let me first say that I realize that Zimmerman did not invoke the "stand your ground" protections of Florida law during his defense, although it seems he may intend to do so in the event of a civil trial. My concern is not to re-litigate Mr. Zimmerman's case, but rather to focus on how policy could be reshaped to prevent the next tragedy of this kind.
I am no fan of guns. I am no fan of the second amendment. But they are embedded in our constitution, and we need to shape our laws around them. For this reason, I oppose strict regulations and bans on the types of weapons individuals can purchase. I prefer a registration process, as well as taxes and fees with the goal of reducing the overall number of guns, mostly because there are more than 16,000 gun-related suicide deaths that get far too little attention in the gun control debate.
With my views on guns in the open, let's return to Florida law. Broadly speaking, stand your ground statutes broaden the scope of "self defense" and also provide immunity from both criminal charges and civil litigation in the event that one person kills another when there is reasonable belief that her or his life is in danger. In economic terms, it reduces the level of responsibility assigned to an individual who uses deadly force (often with a firearm), and thus it actually weakens gun ownership rights (thinking of rights in economic terms as a vector of rights and responsibilities). Repealing stand your ground laws, and even replacing them with strong laws outlining strict consequences for individuals who behave recklessly while exercising their second amendment rights will help greatly in preventing the sort of tragedy that happened on February 26 2012 in Sanford, Florida from happening elsewhere.