A Call for a Cease Fire in the Gun Debate
We’ve all been flooded with information about the horrible shootings at Virginia Tech. Perhaps you’ve heard from friends or politically minded bloggers about what this means about guns and gun control. As part of a team of researchers that studies the way people process information about firearms and their regulation, I can tell you that this is a natural way to react to tragedy.
But if you look at public opinion following each major school shooting over the last twenty years, can you guess which way the shootings have driven public opinion on gun control? Neither way. That’s right, each school shooting has had exactly no effect on public opinion regarding gun control.
How can that be? Because culture is cognitively prior to risk perception. The same cultural norms that construct each individuals vision of the world around them also determine which risk — either that insufficient control of concealed weapons will make citizens vulnerable to shootings or that excessive control leaves citizens helpless to defend themselves — will loom larger in each person’s mind.
This is why the culture wars are so intractable: Americans not only prize different principles, they view the world as working in fundamentally different ways. In fact, it’s probably a good bet that using this kind of emotionally laden illustration of just how good or bad guns are at protecting or harming people is certain to not make headway in the gun debate. Because people conform their understandings of the way the world works to their deepest cultural commitments, claims that school shootings clearly supporting one side of the debate strike opponents as profoundly deceptive and disingenuous because to them the opposite inference is just as obviously supported by the same facts.
Opposing parties come away from this sort of debate not just believing that their opponents prize different values (say autonomy, martial prowess and individual self-reliance v. collective responsibility, pacifism and reliance on the state for protection, for example), but that the other side is decidedly deluded or untrustworthy when it comes to the facts. And the less trustworthy or more deluded the opponents in this debate believe each other to be, the less willing they are to make even reasonable concessions for fear that if they give an inch, they’ll be taken for a mile. As a result, those claiming that school shooting “prove” something are having the paradoxical effect of hardening their opposition and further polarizing the debate. And that’s a shame because it decreases that chance that reasonable, moderate measures will prevail.
So how should we engage the gun debate? As Dan Kahan and I have argued, by preceding empirical claims with respect. We don’t have to adopt the views or values of our opponents, but we do need an idiom for talking about guns and gun control that’s less vituperative. If we can treat each other as deserving the kind of respect that a pluralistic society requires — that’s an American value we can all agree on — then we will have already won half the battle, because reasoned compromise can follow respectful dialog.
And there’s no better time than now to do so. This should be a time for mourning, reflection, and healing. It would be a shame to waste it on recriminations that only harden the cultural war over guns.