Should you apply for a gun license? Most people in the rationalist community think they should not. After all, it seems that America should have more gun control. However, the correct policy for the country and the correct policy for you can be different things. I’m not going to talk about the correct policy for the country, but I am going to try to convince you that you should get licensed yourself. Not buy a gun, or carry a gun, but just get a license to increase your range of options.

Gun ownership in Massachusetts requires a license. The process for getting a license in Boston takes a full year. You call and ask to be put on a waitlist, where you stay for 10 months. Then, you fill out an application and wait another month. Then, you get fingerprinted, the FBI does a background check, and you wait another month. Then, finally, you get a call saying that your license will be mailed, in another month. All these months add up to a serious lag between deciding you want a license and getting one.

The full cost of a license is $110, and licenses are valid for 6 years, so having the right to buy a gun costs around $20 a year (plus a one-time investment of around 2 hours of work to make your application, get fingerprinted, etc).

In a given year, how likely are you to want to be able to buy a gun? If you currently don’t want to own a gun, it’s reasonable to believe that you would continue not wanting to own a gun unless something changed. What things could change to make you want a gun? Maybe you get worried about people storming the Capital and trying to overturn an election, or other political unrest happens. Maybe the people who say they want a second Civil War accomplish some of their goals. Other than fear of political extremists, imagine a drop in American agricultural productivity, or a very severe drought, or anything else that could lead to civil unrest.

If you do end up wanting a gun, how much would you be willing to pay for it in that moment? That’s a hard question to answer, because it depends wildly on how much money you have available and why you want the gun. Someone with a million dollars in the bank would pay a lot of that money to get a gun if crime rates spiked massively, while someone who is near-broke would not pay much money for a license if they want to get a gun to shoot as a hobby. But maybe there is a 1% chance per year of you being willing to pay $2000 for a license. And having a license mitigates some of the long-tail of personal risk.

This is obviously not a conclusive argument that proves everyone in Massachusetts should get a license, but hopefully you consider it a slightly better idea than you did before.


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A modest suggestion: first, learn how to shoot.  Something simple, like a .22 target pistol.  Find someone who knows what they're doing and ask them to teach you.  Learn how to load it, how to stand, how to hold it, how to aim, how to pull the trigger.  Feel the recoil.  Practice at a target range.  None of this is particularly complicated, but "gun" will no longer be an abstraction, it will be something tied to body memory.

Now, think about whether you want to own a gun.

Gun ownership requires a license.

In some (many?) states owning a gun does not require a license, but carrying a loaded gun on your person does.

Great point - edited to update with this. In Massachusetts, you need a license to own a gun or ammo, and that is the same license as a concealed carry license. I definitely over-generalized above. Thanks for pointing that out!

Appreciate the attempt to be a little contrarian, but this is pretty weak.  It doesn't give any examples of WHY you'd want a gun, and has no cost-benefit about the increased risks of owning/carrying a gun.

Further, it's incredibly specific to one part of the US.  It's much easier to get a gun in some areas, much harder in others.  For many purposes, you may prefer not to have a license anyway - the risk of being caught with an unlicensed gun is perhaps unimportant compared to whatever reasons demand that you have a gun available.

I edited my post to make it Massachusetts specific - good point on gun accessibility variability. I didn't get into the reasons for owning a gun, because that is something I am personally less sure about and also varies widely from person to person. The main point is meant to be that a license is a cheap way to buy optionality, and I think that holds, although I may try to find some more general examples of times when you might want a gun.

I think if there's so much unrest that you'd need a gun, you'd be better off investigating how to safely move yourself and your assets abroad. 

Maybe one strategy is much more effective than another? I wouldn't assume that it's worthwhile just because it exists. 

I didn't say anything about actually owning a gun in this post, only purchasing the right to buy a gun later! I think actually owning a gun has more potential downsides then having the right to own a gun.

Sure, but the argument follows to actually procuring guns.  There are bans and limits being enacted over time, and almost all of them have exceptions for items purchased before the ban.

A lot of them have exceptions for items produced before the ban, like the Massachusetts "Assault Weapons Ban" that allows only AR-15 lowers produced before the ban to be used without reduced ergonomics. Also, having a license gives you the option to buy a gun before such a ban goes into effect, if they ban items that you think you would want later! If you see a ban happening, and have to wait a year for your license, you do not have an option to get whatever is being banned before the ban goes through.

Also, procuring guns has lots of downsides - storage cost, danger, theft target, etc. Reducing the time from wanting gun -> getting gun (legally) from over a year to a day gets you most of the way to the goal (which is having the option of buying a gun) without any of the downside (except the $110). So it may be a better deal.

Optionality, to echo Nassim Taleb?

Yeah, exactly! This whole post is meant to suggest the idea of a gun license as a cheap way of being a specific kind of optionality.

Considering how frequent mental issues are around here, this post seems to buy entirely the wrong kinds of optionality.

EDIT: oh look what's on the main page a day later

Strongly agree. I think it was Rob Wiblin (or maybe Katja Grace) who wrote a post once about how they'd investigated the statistically-most-probable ways they could die in the next decade. And the answer (given various demographic facts) turned out to be suicide. Instead of dismissing this, they took seriously the fact that some people who haven't previously considered suicide later do so (but in a bad moment, such that following through would definitively be a mistake). So they took steps to decrease their suicide risk, the way one might take steps to decrease any health risk.

This post recommends the opposite of that.

Increased suicide risk is almost certainly the main impact of following through with this policy. And even if that isn't true for everyone, it is for enough people...