Gun Rights as a Minimaxing Policy Preference

While support for gun control typically increases after mass shootings, after time, as CNN noted recently, that increase reverts back to the general trend. And while support for gun control has increased around 10 percent over the last couple of years, according to Gallup polls, popular support for “more strict” gun control laws still remains almost 20 percent lower than in 1991. When pitched as a broad choice between “protecting the right of Americans to own guns” versus “limiting gun ownership,” a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll still has Americans giving the nod to gun rights over gun control, 47 percent to 42 percent.

What accounts for the general stability of American support for gun rights over time? Why the seeming stability despite an increase in the incidence of mass shootings?

American support for guns and gun rights is a long-term affair. James Madison observed in The Federalist 46 in 1788 that Americans had “the advantage” of being more heavily armed than “the people of almost every other nation.” While scholars discuss the impact of changes in marginal probabilities of protecting oneself, or being victimized, by gun violence, I suspect that expected utility approaches to understanding support for gun rights predict greater variation in support for gun rights than we observe. The puzzle is why so much stability in support for gun rights, despite an increase in dramatic mass shootings.

It could be that gun-rights-supporting Americans still largely perceive mass shootings as low-probability events. Given the tendency of people to overestimate risk of death from dramatic causes (like airplane crashes), in which case we would expect people to fear mass shootings more than is statistically warranted, my own suspicion is that when it comes to gun rights, many Americans are “minimaxers” rather than expected utility maximizers.

While “minimaxing” might sound like something associated with Dr. Evil’s sidekick, “Mini-Me,” it predates the Austin Powers films, and refers to behavior aimed to minimize one’s maximum loss. Minimaxing behavior unlinks behavioral change from changes in the probabilities and magnitude of less-than-maximum losses. The behavior of minimaxers won’t change because they play to avoid the worst loss rather than intermediate losses.

Two aspects of gun ownership seem to reflect minimaxing behavior. The first is minimizing the threat of being victimized criminally in one’s own home. In the Gallup poll linked above, as of October 2014, over 60 percent of Americans affirmed that “having a gun in the house” makes the house a safer place. This number is particularly striking given, in the same poll, only 42 percent of Americans surveyed reported they actually have a gun in the home. Even if the perceived risk of gun violence outside the home increases, American gun-rights minimaxers would not alter their support for gun rights, at least until the point at which the risk of armed home invasion passes the perceived capability of deterring or deflecting that threat by having guns in the home.

There is, however, a second “maximum loss” that gun-rights advocates seek to avoid, at least in my interaction with them, although it rarely gets surveyed in polls. The second outcome to which, in my experience at least, many American gun owners seek to minimax is the same scenario Madison discusses in Federalist 46. To wit, to be able to respond to the possibility of tyranny in the United States.

If I am correct in that supposition, this is where I think the “minimaxing” model can provide some real explanation.

To be sure, there are a small, but passionate, number of gun owners on the fringes who believe that tyranny in America is imminent or even already here. But I’m not talking about that group. Instead, I am talking about a broad swath of gun owners who would admit that the probability of any real tyranny arising in the United States in the near- to medium-term is remote. A possibility being remote, however, even extremely remote, is not the same as something being impossible.

Minimaxing gun-rights supporters support gun rights to minimize the occurrence of the maximum threat. It is entirely rational for individuals with minimaxing policy preferences over guns to accept even high levels of criminal gun violence in the country in order to keep sufficient numbers of guns in private hands to minimize the possibility of realizing their worst outcome for the U.S., tyranny. Concurrently, we would see individuals with these preferences continue to accept increasing levels of gun violence with comparatively little reduction in their commitment to gun rights.

It may seem that no amount of gun violence could change the minds of minimaxing gun-rights advocates. But that’s not correct. These individuals would change their minds if they were persuaded to believe that gun violence threated to induce a level of social chaos effectively equivalent to or greater that tyranny. In that case, minimaxing behavior would recommend gun control rather than gun rights. To be sure, a level of gun violence that high would suggest the effective breakdown of civil society, in which case it would be doubtful the government would have the power to disarm the population even if it had the will to do so. Nonetheless, in a contest of possible worst outcomes, there is an avenue for engaging the case for gun rights among minimaxing advocates.

More than anything, however, it’s important for gun-control advocates to understand that minimaxing behavior is a well-accepted mode of rational behavior. It’s just a form of behavior that responds to changes in the extremes rather than to changes at the margins. If correct, understanding gun rights as a form of minimaxing behavior explains why even dramatic increases in gun violence, and even mass shootings, don’t, and won’t, make similarly dramatic changes in the support of many Americans for gun rights. As bad as gun violence is, gun-rights minimaxers continue to hold their view because, in that view, an armed population deters an even worse contingency.