Guns and the Paradox of Rationality
May 27, 2022
As authorities begin to unpack the recent events in Uvalde, where an 18-year old high school dropout massacred 19 students and 2 teachers at an elementary school on Tuesday, one of the big questions to emerge is why didn’t the police subdue the shooter more quickly? Conflicting reports about whether the shooter was confronted by police before he entered the school have led to outrage and many parents were seen fighting with police to do more to save their children.
As reported by the NY Times, Victor Luna, 40, who has a 9-year-old son at the school, feels police officers should have been willing to sacrifice their own lives to save children. “That’s what they signed up for,” he said.
But, isn’t that a lot to ask of small town police whose previous experience with dead bodies was limited to a traffic accident? It’s one thing to watch a movie hero charge into a barrage of bullets to save his buddy. But when those brass ballasts are aimed at your own head in the heat of a deadly massacre, it’s a different story.
This dilemma also illustrates the concept known as the paradox of rationality.
In game theory, the paradox of rationality is observed when players who make so-called “rational” choices receive worse outcomes. By rational, we can construe it to mean when the players act in their own interest, rather than in the interest of others.
Reports have emerged which paint a picture of police officers unwilling to confront the gunman because they “could have been shot.” These officers were acting in their own interest. Who among us would want to die for an uncertain outcome?
On the other hand, parents were ready to charge ahead to save their own children. They were acting in their self-interest, motivated by the love for their family. Who could blame them?
Had the parents risked their lives to charge into the building, they may have been killed. Had the police risked their lives to take down the shooter earlier, more lives may have been saved. Parents acting rational would have produced a worse outcome. Police acting irrational would have produced a better outcome. This is the paradox.
The paradox of rationality also applies to gun ownership. When individuals act in their own self-interest, they believe they need to own a gun in order to feel safe. But, as more individuals arm themselves, society becomes increasingly unsafe. Making a rational choice leads to a worse outcome.
As we look to the future, Americans need to make some hard choices about our love affair with guns. Instead of acting in our own self-interest, we need to act in the interest of society. We need to look for the best possible outcome and plot a sane path to getting there.