Moral Hazard in Hunting: Economists Find Increased Freedom in Deer Hunting Leads to an Increase in Accidental Shootings

February 16 , 2006 — There can be a moral hazard in hunting.

University of Virginia economist John Pepper has examined the interaction of hunting regulations and hunter safety as a case study of the economic concept of “moral hazard” — whether reducing the risks in one area can increase the risks in another area. He and two colleagues at Michigan State University have found that changes in hunting regulations can have unanticipated and unintended effects on hunter safety.

“Laws designed to control the deer population seem to have had an unintended effect on accidental shootings,” Pepper said.

The three economists — Pepper, an associate professor of economics at U.Va., Michael Conlin and Stacy Dickert-Conlin, both associate professors of economics at Michigan State University — studied the relationship between deer hunting regulations and hunter safety in Pennsylvania from 1990 to 2002. Their research, described in an article, “The Deer Hunter: Moral Hazard of Gaming Regulations,” is being submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal of economics.

According to the International Hunter Education Association, there were more than 20 million hunters in the United States — big game hunters of deer, antelope and elk, and bird hunters of geese, duck and quail — in 2002 (the most recent year for which figures are available). That year saw a total of 850 hunting accidents, of which 761 were non-fatal, 89 were fatal, 514 involved two parties and 333 were self-inflicted, according to the IHEA. The association found that hunting accidents have declined nationwide by more than 30 percent over the previous 10 years.

As for deer hunting, federal statistics [U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Census Bureau] show that 10 million people hunt deer in the United States every year, and spend $10 billion in the process.

Not only is deer hunting big business, it is also a way of controlling the impact of deer on the environment. Hunting regulations are needed both to moderate the relationship between the deer and the environment and to promote hunter safety. But Pepper’s research shows that government regulations designed to manage the size of deer herds may have an unintended impact on hunter safety.

“We found a moral hazard in the balance,” Pepper said. “While relaxing regulations reduced the probability of violating game laws, they increased the probability of hunters mistaking another person for game.”

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed the nation’s first game law in 1721 to protect whitetail deer. Since then, every state has promulgated a multitude of hunting regulations for deer and other game. The regulations set restrictions on the gender and size of deer that can be taken, the length of the season, the types of weapons that can be used and the number of animals that can legally be bagged. Regulations vary by county, by day and by age of hunter.

The researchers gathered statistics for 61 of 67 Pennsylvania counties for the 13-year period, from 1990-2002 (the other six “special regulation” counties in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas did not fit into the analysis as they have different regulations and provide different information). In 2004, Pennsylvania had more than 900,000 deer hunters — about 9 percent of the state’s population of about 12.4 million — the largest population of deer hunters of any state, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The state had an average deer herd size of nearly 14,000 animals per county and an average daily number of hunters per county of 8,136 during the deer hunting season. During the study period, the average daily number of deer harvested in a Pennsylvania county was 189.4 bucks and 256.7 does.

The paper focused on accidental shootings due to mistaken identity during the primary deer-hunting season — the three weeks beginning with the Monday after Thanksgiving, when deer could be hunted with rifles. These “accidents related to moral hazard” include cases when the “victim was shot as game,” and the “victim was in line of fire.” Other accidents — those “unrelated to moral hazard” — including those resulting from unintentional discharges of a weapon or when a “hunter slipped or fell,” are used to assess the robustness of the findings.

While the Pennsylvania Game Commission changed the regulations several times over the course of the study period, the authors focus on two types of regulations. The first restricts the gender of deer that could be shot at a particular time:

  • From 1990-98 – Only bucks could be hunted for 12 days, then only does for three days.
  • From 1998-2000 – Most hunters, those 16-65 years old, could hunt only bucks for 12 days, then only does for three days but younger and older hunters could take both bucks and does during part of the buck season.
  • In 2000 – All hunters could take both bucks and does on the last day of buck season, but for the next two days, does only.
  • After 2000 – All hunters could take both bucks and does during the 12-day hunting season.

The second regulation restricts the size and age of buck that could be taken, requiring hunters to let the smaller, younger bucks go free and hunt only the larger, older animals:

  • Before 2002 – At least one of the buck’s antlers had to have at least 2 points.
  • In 2002 and after – Ten counties required the buck to have at least four points on at least one antler; the other 51 counties required at least three points on at least one antler.

“By allowing hunters to harvest both bucks and does at the same time, the law provides insurance against harvesting the wrong type of deer,” Pepper said. “This lowers the marginal cost of taking a shot at a potential deer and therefore increases the probability of accidentally shooting a person.

“But the laws passed in 2002, which restricted buck harvests to those with a minimum of three or four points on one antler, increased the marginal cost of taking a shot at a potential deer,” he said. “In counties with the higher, four-point restriction, the probability of an accident related to mistaking another hunter as game decreases dramatically and at statistically significant levels.”

In particular, the authors find that allowing hunters to harvest both bucks and does throughout the 1990s would have increased the expected number of related accidents from 100 to 258 and thereby increased the expected number of hunting deaths by approximately 22.” At the same time, the 2002 laws to restrict buck hunting led to a reduction in accidental shootings.


Accidents related to moral hazard
(mistaken identity)

“victim shot as game”
“victim was in line of fire”
“a ricochet”
“a stray bullet”

Accidents unrelated to moral hazard
(careless handling of the rifle)

“sports arm in dangerous position”
“unintentional discharge”
“hunter slipped or fell”
“sports arm defective”
“used sports arm as club”

SOURCE: Pennsylvania Game Commission, Hunter-Trapper Education Division

For more information, call John Pepper at (434) 924-3402, or contact him by e-mail at For a PDF file of the article, call Charlotte Crystal at (434) 924-6858, or contact her by e-mail at