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Past cultural choices mean gun control likely won’t come soon

The Orlando nightclub massacre is enormously tragic, as other mass shootings have been. As after such incidents, some opine that “now we really are going to have gun control.”

Don’t count on it. Douglass North, the 1993 Nobel laureate, and two relics in my attic explain why not.

North’s insights explain why it is so difficult to change economic institutions and culture. The basic economic concept is “path dependence.” While one option may not necessarily be superior to another before a choice is made, after the fact, that choice influences future ones. Indeed, once committed to a given technological or institutional path, change may become nearly impossible.

One example is the “standard” railway gauge of 56.5 inches. There is no reason why that rail spacing is inherently superior. But when 18th century British coal mine owners ordered cars to roll on metal rails, the builders constructed them with customary wagon-wheel spacing. Once initial systems were built to this dimension, there were great advantages to having new cars and tracks match those already in use.

Yes, thousands of miles of railroads were built to other gauges. But moving freight and passengers past a “break of gauge” point was always time-consuming and expensive. Conversions to standard gauge took place in nearly all areas where integrated systems were needed.

Health insurance in the U.S. is another example. There is no inherent reason why health insurance needs to be tied to employment. Its provision by employers began as a way to evade World War II pay freezes. Now this remains the firmly established system.

Likewise, there is no particular reason for the U.S. to have as many firearms as we do. Yes, in rural areas, most households historically had a shotgun and a .22 rifle. But shotguns similarly were quite common in areas of Europe where hunting was a part of rural culture. Ditto for Australia and New Zealand. Yet somehow we have ended up with 250 million to 300 million firearms in our country, many more per capita than any other major nation.

That, in a phrase from diplomacy, is a “fact on the ground” that constrains future policy choices, independent of the Second Amendment or the NRA. One can ban the sale of new weapons that have certain characteristics, such as large-capacity changeable magazines, bayonet lugs and collapsible stocks. One can ban the sale of weapons to known felons or those on a no-fly list. But because the number of such weapons already held by the general public is so large, merely ending additions to this mega-pool has little effect on availability to anyone wanting to buy.

That brings us to some of my relics. In 1969 I purchased a 68-year-old Browning caliber .32 semiautomatic pistol. It was already obsolete. But it remains as deadly today as in 1901. In skilled hands it could be the tool in a mass shooting. So could tens of millions of the other decades-old guns already owned by the public.

Then there is my second relic, an M1 carbine, one of 6.2 million made for the U.S. government in World War II. Not as powerful as the better-known M1 Garand rifle, it is nevertheless deadly. In 1965, my mother acted as a straw buyer, sending my $20 to the U.S. Army’s “Director of Civilian Marksmanship.” It is semi-automatic, can be fitted with a bayonet or grenade launcher and has 15- and 30-round detachable magazines. For decades, one could cheaply buy minor parts with which, if one had a drill press, it (illegally) could be converted to fully automatic fire. It would be as effective in carrying out an Orlando-scale shooting as any of the new assault-rifle wannabes that are snapped up by the public at $1,800 a pop.

That the U.S. government for decades saw little danger in selling millions of semi-automatic rifles, carbines and pistols to the public illustrates U.S. culture at the time. Guns were not a menace, except in big cities. Shooting was an accepted hobby. Marksmanship was nearly as important a defense consideration here as in Switzerland. The NRA was a musty organization run by tweedy doctors and lawyers that grumbled about a few restrictions like New York’s Sullivan Law, but otherwise generally stayed out of politics.

This brings us back to North. He took an idea first applied to technology and used it to analyze the evolution of culture and institutions and their roles in economic history. What were the choices made that led to the economic dynamism of late medieval northern Italy or Flanders as opposed to the stagnation of Spain after 1600?

How did an easy familiarity with guns in U.S. culture become an obsession, often partly delusional, for a large group of citizens? How did the NRA become a feared lobbying institution? When did a broad legal and political consensus on the meaning and wording of a constitutional amendment turn into visceral contention?

Path dependence does not imply “historical determinism” or inevitability. Societies can take different forks in the road at key times. But the particular forks taken in the past restrict the number of available options in the future. Once you have some 300 million guns floating around and gun restrictions have become the touchstone of demagoguery and political paranoia, one cannot easily adopt the gun laws of Sweden, Belgium or even Australia.

Nor does path dependence mean that change is impossible. Cultures and institutions do evolve. Societies do fix problems and become more just and more efficient. But in matters where path dependence is strong, history shows that doing so is a long and often tortured process.

St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at