Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Campus Shootings and Corner Solutions

Here is a piece on the growing movement for allowing guns on campus.

On campus shooters, along with other extreme decision makers in society, are often referred to as corner solutions. The idea comes from a typical utility curve/budget constraint maximization procedure. Here's the general case for the uninitiated:

The straight line is the budget constraint, the curve is the individual's utility function, and they are tangent to each other at the point of utility maximization, which also happens to be the price ratio between the two goods. Small changes in prices-- changes to the slope of the straight line budget constraint-- lead to shifts in the utility curve. Basically, small changes in prices lead to small changes in behavior.

But consider that the utility curve is drawn such that it hits at one of the axes-- at the corner of the budget constraint. At this point, the curve need not be tangent to the budget constraint. This situation is known as a corner solution since...well, you're in the corner. More importantly, due to the lack of tangency, small changes in prices need not lead to small changes in behavior.

This makes all the difference. If terrorists and on-campus shooters are corner solutions, then making marginal changes to increase the cost of their activities isn't going to change their behavior. Only large-scale shocks to the system will generate a change in behavior. Marginal changes, such as longer searches at airports, won't do anything.

Which brings us to allowing guns on campus. If school shooters are resigned to dying in the process-- and, sadly, I think this is largely the case-- then I'm not sure this will be the cure-all that some of the supporters think it may be. It would likely lessen the impact of each shooting, and this shouldn't be undervalued. I suppose a shootout between an aggressor and an armed student could result in the case of fellow classmates taking more stray bullets than if only one person had a gun, but I find this awfully unlikely. I don't see the number of incidents going down. Of course, this can't be directly tested; no one knows what would have happened if the law had/hadn't changed, though if there is enough variance between states in on campus gun laws then this may lead to a testable scenario (though the time frame would have to be pretty long-- these shootings, thankfully, do not happen with great frequency).

I'm certainly in favor of allowing guns on campus; liberty is good, and limiting the scope of those attacks is good as well. But I don't think it's going to make them once-every-twenty-years occurrences.


Justin M Ross said...

"Marginal changes, such as longer searches at airports, won't do anything."

That is in the level of consumption of terrorism. But for a chosen level of terrorism, it seems that the longer searchers would have a price substitution effect for other potential targets like subways or stadiums.

I may be mistaken, the intuition of corner solutions are hard on me. Though most people operate with their logic quite seemlessly.

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