When we think of behavioral economics, we usually tend to relate it with producer and consumer decisions and the construction of economic models to better understand decision-making. However, its applications goes way beyond that. Throughout this article, we will try to explain how behavioral science can help fight a major issue of modern society: Gun control.

According to the most recent National Firearms Survey, there are approximately 4.6 million children in the United States that live in homes with at least one loaded and unlocked firearm. Despite the strong recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics for people to store it safely away from children, studies find that one in three US homes with a child under 18 years old has a firearm, of which 43% are unlocked and loaded. Thus, it is not surprising that firearm-related injury was the leading cause of deaths among children and adolescents in 2017, with the odds of a child being killed by a firearm being 36 times higher in the US than in any other high-income country.

Firearm-related injury was the leading cause of deaths among children and adolescents in 2017

In this article, we will apply behavioral economic theory to identify some of the cognitive biases that may explain the motives that lead millions of people in the US to purchase guns and, more precisely, that lead millions of parents to store firearms within their children reach. The main advantage of analyzing this critical issue is to understand both sides of the debate as to solve some ambiguities about the best way to minimize fear while maximizing personal and public safety. Moreover, it is important to educate legislators about the behavioral economics’ principles that may impact decision-making, so that they can implement strategies to enhance safer firearm storage practices and contribute to injury prevention efforts.

So, how can we explain the overpowering need to own guns in the U.S? Would you ever own a gun? For what purpose? Most people would answer that it is simply a way to protect oneself from someone else that owns a gun. However, this will inevitably result in an economics problem called the Tragedy of the Commons. It means that the individual has an incentive to consume a resource but at the expense of everyone else. One classic example is what would happen if every shepherd allowed their sheep to graze in a common area. If everyone thought that way, then it would result in harmful over consumption, essentially being detrimental to everyone.

To have an even better picture, we can use the study tool Game Theory in order to further analyze this issue. Hypothetically, imagine you were in an ideal world where the rest of the society was gun free, and everyone would feel relatively safe. Now, imagine that your friend has the idea of owning a gun because that will make him feel even safer. His individual payoff will increase but he is not taking into consideration the effect that this will have on others, namely that he is armed, and the rest is not. Hence, he is better off than the rest, leaving others worse off in comparison. In this particular case, it is obvious that the society as a whole is better off when no one owns a gun. However, from the moment that one single individual makes the decision of buying a weapon, everyone else feels that they could now benefit from deviating from the optimal point to society (no guns), leading to a snowball effect, where at the worst-case scenario everyone owns a gun.

Now, let’s imagine that you’re an entrepreneur who despite all the business knowledge, past good grades and amazing ideas, your past 6 attempts at creating a business restaurant have flopped. However, in the seventh attempt you feel it in your heart that this will be the one despite the endless advice to not pursue and stubbornness to admit defeat. What do you know? You failed for the seventh time. So, what happened? This is one of the various scenarios in which some people exhibit the optimism bias.

The optimism bias refers to “our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing positive events and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing negative effects.” This of course can be quite dangerous depending on the circumstances. Once again, this is one of the many biases that can make us irrational and ignore important information that can either make or break our outcome.

In terms of gun usage, optimism bias can shed light on many of the decisions and thoughts that gun owners make. For example, too much optimism can lead a gun owner to think that despite the various gun related crimes and even domestic accidents, being in those said dangers will never happen to them despite worryingly increasing every day.

In general, we have the tendency to underestimate our likelyhood of experiencing negative effects

Moreover, with the increasing mass shootings and gun violence in the United States, gun owners have become more aware of possible dangers and want to be protected. This leads them to unlocking their firearm and maintaining it loaded for the sake of individual safety and their family, ignoring the threat it may impose on the household members, especially children. So, why does this happen? Behavioral economics can explain this behavior as availability heuristic bias.  This can be defined as the propensity people might have to place more significance on events that are more easily remembered than ones that become harder to imagine. No parent wants to hurt their child but rather protect them, which unfortunately leads to accidents.

Present bias can also be related to these accidents as people have the tendency to give greater importance to events that are closer to the present rather than ones in the future. Individuals might view the immediate risk of gun accidents with children as lower than potential future benefits (protecting them from intruders), and this leads to the mistaken belief about possible advantages in the future against what something may cost today.

In this article we hope to raise awareness to a major issue of modern society, and how alternative methods such as behavioral economics can help explain this many times misinterpreted phenomenon.
Having this said, we also must recognize that firearms have been and will continue to be part of our society, as they have been around for over 650 years and, as of now, there are over 875 million guns in the world.
This begs the question, if firearms are staying, what must change? The simple answer is the usage of those firearms; however, this is easier said than done and first we must understand why we don’t use guns properly.
Throughout this article we try to present the multiple behavioral biases that shed light on the many times perceived “irrational” usage of guns and with this, give the first step to change behaviors: understand what we do and why we do it.


Madalena Andrade

Daniel Calado

Afonso Serrano








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