Who sees accidental shootings of children as evidence in support of gun control & why? The "cultural availability" effect
I don’t really like guns much. I also hate to get wet, so rarely go swimming.
But what I do like to do -- because it is an instance of the sort of thing I study -- is think about why accidental shootings of young children (a) get so much media coverage relative to the other things that kill children; and (b) are—or, more likely, are thought—to be potent occasions for drawing public attention to the need for greater regulation of firearms.
Consider guns vs. (what else?!) swimming pools (if the comparison is trite, don’t blame me; blame the dynamics that make people keep resisting what the comparison illustrates about culture and cognition).
- Typically there are < 1,000 (more like 600-800) accidental gun homicides in US per yr. About 30 of those are children age 5 or under.
- There are about 3,500 drowning deaths per yr in the US, about 500 of which are kids age 5 or under (300 or so in pools).
I think background checks of the sort “defeated” in US Senate (because passed by a majority that wasn’t big enough; I need a civics refresher course on how congress works...) would be a good idea. I also would support ban on “assault rifles.”
But it’s obvious, to anyone who reflects on the matter if not to those who don't, that the incidence of the accidental shootings of children adds zero weight to the arguments that can be made in support of those policies.
Also obvious that neither of these policies—or any of the other even more ambitious ones that gun control advocates would like to enact (like bans on carrying of concealed weapons)-- would reduce the deaths of young kids by nearly as much as many many many other things. I’m not thinking of banning swimming pools, actually; but how about, say, ending the “war on drugs,” which indisputably fuel deadly forms of competition to reap the super-competitive profits that a black market affords?
The pool comparison, though, does show how the “culture war” over guns creates not only a very sad deformation of political discourse but also a weird selectively attention to empirical evidence, and a susceptibility to drawing unconvincing inferences from it.
Like I said, I like to think about these things.
One way to understand cultural cognition is that it shows how cultural values interact with more general psychological dynamics that shape perceptions of risk.
One of these is the “availability effect,” which refers to the tendency of people to overestimate the incidence of risks involving highly salient or emotionally gripping events relative to less salient, less sensational ones. We might explain why people seem so much more concerned about the risk of an accidental shooting of a child than the accidental drowning of one.
But the explanation is not satisfying because it begs the question of what accounts for the selective salience of various risks—what makes some but not others gripping enough to get our attention, or to get the attention of those who make a living showing us attention-grabbing things? Cultural cognition theory says the cultural congeniality of seeing instances of harm that gratify one’s cultural predispositions.
Moreover, because predispositions are heterogeneous, we should expect the “cultural availability effect” to generate systematic differences in perceptions of risk among people with different values. In this case, it is the people whose values predispose them to feel “revulsion and disgust” (see the news story in my graphic) that have their attention drawn to accidental shootings of children and who treat them as evidence that the failure to enact background checks, assault rifle bans, etc., is increasing homicide.
On that note, a footnote from a paper that discusses this aspect of the theory of cultural cognition:
In one scene of Michael Moore’s movie Bowling for Columbine, the “documentary” team rushes to get footage from the scene of a reported accidental shooting only to discover when they arrive that television news crews are packing up their gear. “What’s going on? Did we miss it,” Moore asks, to which one of the departing TV reporters answers, “no, it was a false alarm—just a kid who drowned in a pool.” One would suspect Moore of trying to make a point—that the media’s responsiveness to the public obsession with gun accidents contributes to the public’s inattention to the greater risk for children posed by swimming pools—if the movie itself were not such an obvious example of exactly this puzzling, and self-reinforcing distortion. Apparently, it was just one of those rare moments when 1,000 monkeys mindlessly banging on typewriters (or editing film) surprise us with genuine literature.