Every mass shooting, like the recent ones in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino, provokes the same debate about gun control. Would more of it impinge on constitutional freedoms? Would it stop terrorists and criminals?

Some people try to put these questions aside and think about gun control in purely economic terms. Would the dollar benefits outweigh the dollar costs?

Unfortunately, this is a tough question, for at least two reasons. First, much of the cost of gun violence reflects the value of the lives that it takes away, and it’s almost impossible to put a price on a human life. Usually, economists measure an item’s value by how much people will pay for it — if a refrigerator costs $1,000, then that is the value of a refrigerator.

The problem with using this method for human life is that nobody pays for their life to be spared from certain death. Instead, people pay to reduce the probability of death. The amount they’re willing to pay almost certainly varies with the probability itself. The amount I would pay to avoid a 100 percent chance of death is a lot more than 100 times the amount I would pay to avoid a 1 percent chance of death.

Second, it’s difficult to predict the effects of gun control policies. Violence can increase and decrease for many reasons, so when evaluating the impact of gun control it’s important to have a good idea of the “counterfactual” — econ jargon for “what would have happened if the policy hadn’t been implemented.”

For example, many people tout Australia’s 1996 National Firearms Agreement as a successful example of gun control. It included a huge gun buyback program and resulted in the destruction of 600,000 guns and tightened restrictions on gun ownership. Gun violence decreased dramatically in Australia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, leading many to conclude that the policy was a smashing success. But gun violence also decreased enormously in the United States around the same time, despite soaring gun ownership, so it’s possible that Australia just had good luck. Although many researchers have analyzed the data, there is no clear answer on whether the NFA had any real effect.

So not only do we not know how to put a price on the risk of death, we also don’t know how much gun control could even do to improve the situation. Still, a number of people have tackled the cost question. The most detailed analysis I’ve seen is the collaboration between the magazine Mother Jones and the economist Ted Miller.

The Mother Jones analysis puts the total cost of U.S. gun violence at about $229 billion per year, or about 1.4 percent of gross domestic product. Although gun suicides now outnumber gun homicides, the overwhelming majority of the direct costs of gun violence come from homicides and assaults. This is because most of the cost of homicide and assault is the cost of imprisoning the perpetrators. It’s not clear how much gun control would reduce those costs because many of those perpetrators might go to prison for other crimes, even if they didn’t have as many guns with which to commit them.

But the Mother Jones analysis tells us that the direct costs are in turn swamped by indirect costs. Mostly this means A) death, and B) loss of quality of life for victims of gun violence.

The way the analysis calculates these indirect costs is problematic. Mother Jones values each human life at $6.2 million dollars, based on the results of lawsuits. But as I mentioned before, what people really value is a reduction in the probability of death. Since gun violence is rare even in the U.S., successful gun control policies would not change most people’s statistical risk of death by very much. That means that the “cost of death” calculated by Mother Jones — and by many similar studies — might be an overstatement.

Mother Jones calculates quality of life by looking at court awards in wrongful injury cases. But these awards are made very high to create a deterrent effect, since most such cases are not successfully prosecuted. In other words, this cost is also probably an overestimate. The study is on firmer footing when it comes to lost wages and productivity from injuries, which amount to tens of billions of dollars annually.

These caveats don’t mean that Mother Jones’s analysis is mistaken, only that the economics profession has few reliable tools for putting a dollar figure on these costs. In fact, Mother Jones leaves out what is probably an important cost of guns — wasted resources.

When gun violence is high, people try to protect themselves by getting guns of their own. This boosts the size of the firearms industry and provides jobs to people who work in gun factories, but those are resources that would be put to better use if people felt safer. If gun violence could be reduced by government policy, it would free up capital and labor to build more things that people actually enjoy for their own sake.

In truth, economics probably has little to contribute to the gun-control debate. Maybe this is one of those cases where popular sentiment and moral principles should take precedence over the calculation of economists.

Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer for a number of finance and business publications.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.