Modern government is not only a lawmaker. Indeed, the most effective executive powers may not derive from statutes at all. The government that President Obama oversees is also a gigantic, well-funded procurement agent. And it can—and should—use that power to change American gun policies. Specifically, the government buys lots of guns, for sheriffs, patrol officers, and detectives; for FBI agents, DEA agents, IRS agents, Postal Inspectors, immigration agents, and park rangers; and for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and spies. The government buys guns by the crate.
What is striking is that the government buys guns from manufacturers who also sell them to criminals—either knowingly or by willfully overlooking the behavior of the retail outlets that the gun companies use as their distribution system. Those of us who were in law enforcement in New York City in the late '80s and early '90s remember how drug dealers pioneered the use of 9-mm guns. We heard over and over from our friends in the police department that they were outgunned, that their service revolvers were no match for semi-automatics in a shootout. So what did the police do? The New York City Police Department finally bought 9-mms, too. It was a classic arms race, with the gun manufacturers in the economically enviable position of selling bigger and better guns to both sides.
This prompts a simple question: Why do we buy guns from companies that permit their products to be sold to bad guys?
In this era of government ownership of financial institutions, we are getting more used to the notion that government as an economic actor can exercise its power in differing ways. After all, firms that received TARP money are subject to a bevy of pay restrictions—wisely constructed or not—and were forced to cancel showy parties and retreats.
If we can use a capital infusion to a bank as an opportunity to control executive compensation and to limit use of private planes, why can't the government use its weight as the largest purchaser of guns from major manufacturers to reward companies that work to keep their products out of criminals' hands? Put another way, if it is too difficult to outlaw bad conduct through statutes, why not pay for good conduct? Why not require vendors to change their behavior if they want our tax dollars?