Rational Choice Theory: The Benefit of Firearms in Civilian Hands

[Ed: This paper was first published at Ammoland on June 27 by Alan J. Chwick, Joanne D. Eisen DDS, and Gary Mauser PhD, an A Team of longtime pro-gun rights experts and good writers. (Drs. Eisen and Mauser have previously contributed to DRGO, and we welcome Mr. Chwick.) It is dense with facts and solid analysis and deserves a wide readership.]

Unless you are a gun owner who is hiding his uncle’s war souvenir in the back of your closet because you are afraid to touch it and get rid of it, virtually all gun owners have something in common.

Gun owners know that their guns are a benefit in their lives. But just how much benefit is there in a machine that can be lethal? We shall show how very beneficial firearms are to average civilians who possess them, and we will also explain that even folks who do not own firearms benefit from the possession and use of gun owner defenders.

To this end, we will use rational choice theory, but first, we must deal with the substantial reputational harm to guns and gun owners from the fake “scientific” papers that surround us every day. We have spent our lives reading through this fake science and have never seen a public health antigun research paper without serious methodological errors. This may seem to be a shocking statement.

Never… is not a word usually used by people who consider themselves to be scientifically honest. Yet, after careful deliberation, we make that statement. Apparently, anti-gun folks need to fabricate lies in order to push their agenda.

Those methodological errors, piled upon Americans one after another, can negatively change society’s attitude about guns. Public health relies on fake science to discredit the culture of civilian weapons ownership by pushing a one-sided monologue about guns and gun owners; no benefits of guns are permitted to be mentioned. Even though it is good manners for authors to present all sides, we are going to mostly avoid giving additional publicity to these pseudo-scientific papers.

It’s now well past time to explore the facts and change the global dialogue away from the negatives of guns in aggressive hands and onto the positives of guns in the hands of citizen defenders.

The Rationality of Human Behavior

The rational economic way of looking at weapons possession is a good place to begin to acknowledge how beneficial firearms are to civilians. Rational Theory, or microeconomics, is usually used to explain criminal behavior and the effects of deterrence and punishment on criminal behavior.

Each of us rationally, consciously, or unconsciously calculates the advantages and disadvantages of various actions to get what we need and want. Each of our decisions affects the social fabric. Economists presume that we are mostly rational, so we expect that our actions will mostly bring positive outcomes. For example, many factors prevent most of us from acting in a violent criminal manner, even though we possess deadly weapons.

And one of those factors is that we fully understand our responsibility when we possess weapons.

Gary Becker, a leading economist from the University of Chicago, wrote Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach, which is the classic paper underlying the academic crime literature in economics. In that article, he acknowledges that rational theory does not assume ‘perfect knowledge’ by the individual or ‘lightning-fast calculation’ to make the correct decision.

In his Nobel Prize Award speech, Becker says he “does not assume that individuals are motivated solely by selfishness or gain… Behavior is driven by a much richer set of values and preferences.” That is, rational choice theory should include biological factors (e.g., our gender and physical capabilities), our norms and social obligations, our mental state, our moral and ethical considerations, and personal opportunities.

Clearly, we should include love, loyalty, and other values in the list of factors required to best understand why people do what they do. Although one may define rational behavior to be based on reason and logic, as Becker says, human beings make decisions based on their values.

Becker also applied the rational theory of behavior to non-criminal aspects of life. In his A Treatise on the Family, Becker suggests that the economic approach is applicable to marriage and even to animals. For example, one can often observe dogs assume a submissive position in order to avoid a fight with a more dominant animal or obey his owner’s command in order to get a treat. Even dogs can make rational decisions.

Children demonstrate their innate rationality by learning how to assess their surroundings and the people around them for danger and for benefit. As any parent can attest, toddlers know how to exploit the people around them. One can see cartoon-watching toddlers who exhibit an inherent understanding of the usefulness of sticks and stones as tools and weapons. That young children quickly recognize that the proper use of tools can improve their chances for success explains why tool use was so important in the survival of our species.

Becker’s extension of rational theory from criminal behavior to other aspects of human behavior shows how to apply rational theory to understanding the utility of civilian weapons possession.

Many people intuitively understand the huge benefits of gun ownership, but they have difficulty justifying it because decades of propaganda have obscured the reasons behind that logic. We believe that this success of civilian arms expected and foretold by our Founding Fathers will become clearer from an examination of Becker’s economic point of view.

The Black Market & The Balance of Power

How is it that firearms are so common and so numerous, given the costs involved in owning a firearm? Media bias against guns is pervasive. John Lott Jr. describes, “It is exceedingly rare to see an entertainment television show with a civilian successfully using a gun defensively. Something always seems to go wrong.” After breaking through the negativity of media bias, prospective gun owners need to be able to afford the cost of firearms and ammunition and then learn safe gun handling and storage before he or she commits enough time to practice. And all of this requires sufficient knowledge about local government restrictions.

Still, the benefits are worth the trouble. According to Gary Kleck, “the belief that guns provide effective self-protection for at least some people some of the time is nearly universal.” A recent Gallup Poll finds that 88% of gun owners keep their guns for protection. And a Pew Poll found that number was above 90%.

Are gun owners correct? In an equation that balances the costs and benefits of gun possession, the saving of life and limb weighs heavily on the benefit side. Fear of guns is a poor counterbalance. We understand the dangers. That’s exactly the point. That’s what explains the economic rationality of weapons possession and the existence of the black market in weapons.

If people believe that guns are effective protection, then some will consider it worth breaking the law to acquire one. The black market in firearms shows that laws designed to reduce the number of guns in society do not work as promised; how can criminals be ignored? As for disarming criminals, the late and prolific Don Kates wrote “The Hopelessness of Trying to Disarm the Kinds of People Who Murder” and stated very simply, “It is impossible (emphasis added).”

Those who strongly believe firearms are more beneficial than harmful might be more willing to break the law to acquire them, despite the legal consequences. For example, a mere 82 years after the passage of the Sullivan Law in New York State, the NYC Police Department estimated there were a shocking 2 million illegal weapons in a city of roughly 8 million people. How many of these were possessed by responsible homeowners who wanted to protect their families? Such a large number implies that violent criminals are not the only ones who possess these black-market weapons. Apparently, anyone who wanted a gun managed to get one. Bodega owners wouldn’t remain in business very long without the local street thugs knowing that owners had a gun.

Are the people correct?

People naturally understand the benefits of using weapons for the deterrent effects and to maximize their power. These benefits are so obvious that the decision to keep weapons remains easy to make, despite the constant anti-gun messaging, laws, and punishments for illegal gun possession. Yes, there are costs, but one does not make a decision based only on costs. For example, fatal accidents occur but are rare and are “largely confined to a small, unusually reckless segment of the population.

Kleck and DeLone conclude, from their analysis of National Crime Survey data during a robbery, Armed resistance is more effective than unarmed resistance, and resistance with a gun… is the most effective victim response of all (emphasis added).” Lawrence Southwick, Jr. stated, “The best choice for the victim is to use a gun…” And John Lott also agrees, “Having a gun, in fact, is by far the most effective course of action.

Indeed, it’s virtually impossible to find a restrictive gun law that works. But what would happen if we could ban guns? Seventeen years ago, using multinational data, Don Kates and Gary Mauser asked “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?

The answer, in a word, is “NO!”

Individual civilian gun owners do not need to become familiar with academic research in order to be able to know that possessing a gun makes them more powerful and that it evens the odds in their favor, even against a powerful government. Let us, for a moment, jump into that topic of government oppression and quote David Kopel, who observes in the paper Fewer Guns, More Genocide, that “Murder is most frequent when governments have arms and victims do not.” Genocides are more likely when citizens have been disarmed.

The takeaway is that the deterrent effect of gun possession works whether we discuss individual criminals or well-armed governments. David Kopel concludes, “There is a certainty that every mass-murdering tyrant fears armed victims and tries assiduously to disarm those whom he intends later to subjugate and murder.”

Criminal Deterrence And The Number Of Defensive Gun Uses (DGU)

William English of Georgetown University determined that “31.1% of gun owners, or approximately 25.3 million American adults, have used a gun in self-defense.

One cannot discuss the economic value of guns without understanding the relationship between civilian weapons and deterrence. Criminologist Franklin Zimring defined deterrence as “A function of the declaration of some harm, loss, deprivation, or pain that will follow non-compliance with commands. The central concept is that of threat.” Criminologists understand that the existence of a threat alone is often insufficient to deter criminal behavior. Criminals not only know about the threat, but they must know that the punishment is severe, definite, and will be carried out quickly.

Deterrence concerns rational criminals, and almost nothing brings a higher cost than the error of choosing an armed victim. Criminal contact with armed civilians brings a stronger cost than contact with the criminal justice system, and it tends to stop criminals from completing their intended aggression.

One cannot discuss the value of civilian firearms threat to criminals without knowing the accurate yearly number of DGUs. Every successful DGU increases the negative cost to criminals of armed victims and the positive value of civilian weapons possession to citizens.

So how many DGUs are there?

A recent report by William English of Georgetown University found 1,670,000 million DGUs per year, a figure in line with almost all previous research estimates. Further, the gun was rarely fired, and just “displaying or threatening” the gun use avoided further aggression.

English determined that “31.1% of gun owners, or approximately 25.3 million American adults, have used a gun in self-defense.” He continued, “This suggests that firearms have a powerful deterrent effect on crime.” As Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651, “That which enclineth men least to break the Lawes, is Fear.

If almost one-third of gun owners have used a gun defensively, then it’s understandable that so many gun owners know other gun owners who relate their stories of DGUs. It also explains the research of Wright and Rossi that 34% of criminals surveyed suffered just such an incident, 69% knew of acquaintances who had been “scared off, shot at, wounded, captured or killed” by an armed defender, and an armed victim was of more concern than an armed policeman. In short, “The strong majority agreed that it is wise to find out in advance if one’s potential victims are armed and to avoid them if they are.” This research from the 1980s may be dated, but given the huge increase in Americans carrying concealed handguns, the book probably underestimates the criminals’ respect for armed civilians.

This respect changes criminal actions towards their victims. John Lott Jr. captures the rationality of criminals in his well-known statement, Most gunmen are smart enough to know that they can kill more people if they attack places where victims can’t defend themselves. That’s one reason why 98% of mass shootings since 1950 have occurred in places where citizens are banned from having guns.” And David Kopel described several studies which compared residential burglaries in locations with different laws and found that countries with restrictive laws had a greater rate of burglaries at occupied homes.

The equations for successful criminal acts do not balance when would-be victims are armed. Successful DGUs are a positive for would-be victims and a negative for criminals. It would follow that higher numbers of DGUs increase the public safety, and that, therefore, the more civilians who own and carry weapons, the greater benefit to society.

Kleck and Gertz discuss the policy implications of victim resistance. Any form of gun control that disarms large numbers of prospective victims…will carry significant social costs in terms of lost opportunities for self-protection.” The findings of Kleck and Gertz bolster rational choice theory by showing that criminal deterrence, even displacement of crime, is beneficial.

So it becomes easy to understand why pro-gun-control advocates would prefer to see low DGU numbers and be willing to risk their careers with doubtful claims about their low estimates. In 1998, criminologists Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig disputed the high numbers of DGUs other researchers saw. They note that data…appear to suffer from a large positive bias and greatly overstate the prevalence of DGU…Hence these estimates contribute little to evaluating the benefits of widespread gun ownership and carrying.” And the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) they prefer to cite shows only 80,000 to 82,000 DGUs per year.

Fake science, folks! The NCVS never asks a single question about self-defense with a gun. Kleck and Gertz comment, The gross inconsistency of the NCVS-based estimates with all other known estimates…would be sufficient to persuade any serious scholar that the NCVS estimates are unreliable.” Then, in 2018, author Dave Hardy presented another scandal to the firearms community with Why Did the CDC Bury Data ON Self-Defense Gun Usage? Hardy concluded, “Some might posit that the CDC hid the data and discontinued the questions because the findings were not helpful to the gun control cause.”

Guns, Freedom, And The United Nations

The problem for gun owners is that the daily messages of antigun sentiment from the legacy media, the major institutions of our country, our government, the folks at the United Nations, and all global governments agree that civilian weapons need to be banned, or at least, put under the control of government.

Module 6, National Regulations on Firearms, a resource for teachers from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), states, “The access to firearms and ammunition by civilians, their ownership and use, is subject to government controls in all countries of the world. The main reason for this is the fact that firearms can cause injuries and death.”

Yes, firearms can cause injuries and death, but that’s just an excuse. The main reason governments desire to control them is that governments, like criminals, fear armed civilians. They prefer the equation that includes civilian disarmament. If the balance of power changes in favor of governments, it becomes easier for governments to control their citizens. In economic terms, costs, and benefits, both to civilians and to their government, would change.

As a closing note, it is important to say WE ARE WINNING. During the late 1980s and 1990s, about half of our nation switched from “may issue” laws to “shall issue” laws and, more recently, to Constitutional Carry. As of today, 25 states have Constitutional or Permitless Carry, and the remaining half appears to have been sinking deeper into the wokeness of firearm and firearm-owner hate.

What is the value of Freedom in this equation?

Freedom has a fundamental value for all people.


About The Authors

Gary Mauser is a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Check out his blog at JusticeForGunowners.ca for more information.

Alan J. Chwick has been involved with firearms much of his life and is the Retired Managing Coach of the Freeport NY Junior Marksmanship Club. He has escaped New York State to South Carolina and is an SC FFL (Everything22andMore.com). AJChwick@iNCNF.org | TWITTER: @iNCNF

Joanne D. Eisen, DDS (Ret.) practiced dentistry on Long Island, NY. She has collaborated and written on firearm politics for the past 40+ years. She, too, escaped New York State, but to Virginia. JoanneDEisen@cs.com


Robert B Young, MD

— DRGO Editor Robert B. Young, MD is a psychiatrist practicing in Pittsford, NY, an associate clinical professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

All DRGO articles by Robert B. Young, MD