Public Carry and Collective Action

  • Date:
  • November 11, 2019

As Michael S. Green wrote just after Heller was decided, a principal purpose of gun regulation, especially with respect to public carry, is to head off prisoner’s dilemmas.   Prisoner’s dilemmas are familiar problems in the literature on collective action, and typically take the following form:  Each individual acting in his or her own best interest makes everyone is worse off.

Take prohibitions on public carry during a state of emergency, like after a hurricane, earthquake, or other catastrophe.   Until it was partially struck down on Second Amendment grounds in 2012, North Carolina had such a provision.   In the face of such a crisis, every individual likely would want to carry his own firearm to the one gas station still operating, or to the one drinking water distribution center.  For each individual that decision would undoubtedly make perfect sense.   But collectively, it may make everyone worse off.  It would make the orderly distribution of gasoline or water difficult or impossible.   It may lead to sub-optimal distributions – everyone needs the water-tanker driver to get the last of the gasoline, but only the guy with the gun gets it.  It could lead to violence.   Relief work may slow or cease until security can be restored.  When I reasonably pursue my self-interest, and everyone does the same, I may ultimately be worse off.

Regulating public carry to solve collective action problems is not new.  The Statute of Northampton strictly regulated carrying of weapons as far back as the fourteenth century.  Joseph Keble, in his 1689 treatise An Assistance to Justices of the Peace, tied this ancient prohibition to resolving a collective action problem.   The reason why it is terrifying to carry weapons in places they are not expected, and the reason why the Statute of Northampton forbids a man from carrying them, is because “it will strike a fear upon others that be not armed as he is.”   In other words, according to Keble, the law is designed to prevent a prisoner’s dilemma: the instinct for each individual to go get his own weapon, when he sees someone else with a weapon, in circumstances that makes everyone worse off.

Of course, one may dispute the premise – and argue that more guns in more places actually improves everyone’s wellbeing.  But that’s a hotly contested empirical proposition, and, moreover, may be true in some places, at some times, but not in others.  In any event, what’s apparent is that public carry regulation is, and has been for some time, a way of mediating the conflict between what’s best for me, and what’s best for us.