Advocates of gun control sometimes focus on restricting access to specific types of guns, such as assault weapons. How would gun ownership change in response to such regulations? To find out, Chicago Booth’s Bradley Shapiro and his coauthors took a market-research approach to assessing the likely outcomes of various gun-control policies. They find that, though it may be a huge political challenge, restricting access to handguns would have a greater impact on gun ownership than limiting assault weapons.
Narrator: Tragic mass shootings call into question the very idea of allowing the purchase of firearms. Yet, when surveyed in 2021, nearly a third of US households reported having a gun in the home, a Second Amendment right. Policy makers tread a fine line between respecting individual gun-ownership rights and taking seriously statistics like 45,000 firearms-related fatalities each year. Whatever the intended goals policy makers may have on gun control, would a ban on certain guns like assault weapons really lead to the intended result? Chicago Booth’s Bradley Shapiro and his coauthors wanted to answer that very question.
Bradley Shapiro: So we were ultimately interested in this question because we were frustrated by the policy discussions surrounding gun control. In particular, we saw people advocating for or against various gun regulations. Nobody really had done a serious attempt to make a real prediction of how different regulations would lead to different outcomes. And so when we think about what gun restrictions are doing, they’re effectively changing things about the market. And that’s something that we’re really well-equipped as marketers to understand. When we make changes to the market, how are people gonna to change what they buy? And so that’s sort of where we started in this project. We first went about thinking about this data in a traditional way that marketers would think about collecting data, which is: let’s look for a source of prices and quantities for various guns, and use that to estimate consumer preferences. For a typical marketing product, a place we might look for that kind of data is, like, AC Nielsen’s scanner data or household panel. Turns out there’s no such data like this for guns, largely because of federal regulation that prevents federal funds from being used to collect data that might lead to gun control.
Narrator: To estimate consumer preferences for guns, the researchers relied on a marketing technique for projecting sales of new product launches called “stated-choice-based conjoint analysis,” which works similarly to a high-end survey. They presented a series of hypothetical choices between firearms to participants interested in buying a gun in the next year. For each hypothetical choice, the researchers experimentally manipulated the choice sets of firearms the respondents had to choose from, as well as prices, in order to infer how the participants make trade-offs between certain product attributes, as prices and availability change.
Bradley Shapiro: So of these 22,000 people that we reached out to and had them fill in the survey, about 4,000–5,000 of them were potentially interested in buying a gun in the next year. And so those are the people to whom we asked these questions about which guns they wanted to buy. And how that would change if we changed things around. So with that, we end up with a data set that has prices and quantities and product attributes of all these different types of guns. And we could see how people would substitute as we changed prices.
Narrator: The researchers found that the gun market is very price insensitive, and that forcing higher prices with taxes on guns would barely reduce gun sales. People who want to buy assault weapons or semiautomatic rifles would continue doing so until prices reached prohibitive levels. At that point, they wouldn’t stop buying guns altogether. They would just switch to buying handguns. The data also revealed that people who would prefer to buy handguns tend to strongly prefer them. And it’s hard to get them to switch to buying other types of firearms, such as assault rifles.
Bradley Shapiro: So the second counterfactual we looked at is restrictions on handguns. And we’ll think about a very extreme one: a full ban on handguns. And what we see under a full ban of handguns is a whole lot of people switched to buying no gun at all. The reason for that is twofold. One is that the people who are buying handguns tend to be people who value guns the least. They have the most price sensitivity. So if you take handguns out of the market, the only thing that’s left for them are more expensive guns, and they’re already more price sensitive. So they don’t wanna buy those. The second reason why people who buy handguns don’t switch when you take away their handguns is most people who buy handguns only even consider handguns. So think about the kind of person who wants a gun to carry around in a concealed weapon kind of way. You can’t really keep a shotgun or an assault weapon in your purse. You can keep a handgun in your purse. And so take away a handgun, and the best alternative might be a non-firearm.
Narrator: In 2020, 54 percent of gun deaths were suicides, overwhelmingly involving handguns. They were also involved in 91 percent of murders and manslaughters, according to Pew Research. Moreover, 80 percent of mass shootings involved at least one handgun, and 60 percent involved only handguns, according to the advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Despite the damning statistics, a handgun ban would be politically unlikely, due to the fact that such a larger number of people own them and are more likely to want to purchase handguns over other firearms.
Bradley Shapiro: And so one of the, I think, interesting outcomes of this exercise is it helps to illustrate why gun policy is so difficult. In particular, we find that the most likely policies that are being advocated by politicians induce these huge losses in consumer surplus, which really just help us understand why it’s been so hard to to pass gun policy in the first place. But policy makers have a harder job than us in the sense that they need to set what the social objective is. We’re academics. That’s not our comparative advantage. We’re not here to say what society’s values should be. But we do think that given a set of values, we should actually use our scientific tools to try to predict whether a policy is going to meet those values.
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