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« Who is disgusted by kids' "toy" guns & drones, and why? | Main | Even *more* Q & A on "cultural cognition scales" -- measuring "latent dispositions" & the Dake alternative »

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. 

 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.

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Reader Comments (6)

I think that the division here is between events that might conceivably happen to people you know (and thus be a terrible accident) and events that only happen to bad people someplace else.
There are neighborhoods in which nearly everyone has a pool in the backyard. Thus drownings might be a concern, but an individual family probably feels protected by knowing that their family members understand swimming and being around the water. Similarly, there are neighborhoods with families who would consider it routine to have a gun in the house, and they probably have similar confidence regarding safe gun handling. Is the impulse to extend sympathy to the bereaved parents or to condemn their bad parenting practices? How the media reports any deaths that might occur in the two situations is likely to depend on which group seems mainstream within the local power structure.

May 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Certainly cultural availability plays a part, but I think the salience of violence -- one person hurting another -- is relevant here. The story of the 5-year-old shooting his sister was covered in some pretty conservative publications, which, I'm sure, don't cover swimming pool deaths. And where was the news crew in Bowling for Columbine (I don't know, but a gun-friendly area seems likely)? Similarly, the Boston Marathon bombing was salient for lots of non-culturally-divisive (I think?) reasons, whereas the West, TX explosion was not, even though there may be potential cultural conflict about factory conditions in there somewhere. (This, of course, does not explain the difference in salience between gang violence and school shootings.)

We must not forget about motor vehicles, killers of 600-1000 children 5 or under per year!

May 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMW

I think the swimming pool analogy is a useful tool for viewing the problem. However I think there are two key distinctions. First, swimming pools are used primarily for recreation and secondarily are dangerous and can kill. Guns, even when used defensively are intended primarily to kill or harm and secondarily for sport or recreation (with one of the "sports" applications, hunting, intersecting with killing). The second key distinction I believe is statistical, though I do not have the data. How many people, kids drown for each "dip in the pool"? How many kids are injured for each time they play with a real gun? Don't know.

Though my own perception of course could be influencing my assumptions about these distinctions.

May 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterColin Cuskley


1. The point about the distinction is interesting. I am curious to hear what others would say. Why don't you repost this comment in the thread that has developed in response to Is "disgust" conservative?, which covers similar themes but is currently much more active.

2. There are zillions of ways to try to figure out the "denominator" in "pools" vs. "guns" as a source of accidental shootings of children. They all seem to demonstrate pools are more risky --not surprisngly, since the number of deaths is orders of magnitude higher for pools. The comparison got introduced into popular discussion when Levitt & Dubner included it in Freakonomics, which uses one way of computing the differnece & determines that "playing" at the house of a friend w/ a pool is 100x more lethal for a child than playing at the house of a friend whose family owns a gun. comparing the difference in lethality. But the relative danger of pools & guns is a staple of risk perception literature that goes way back. For a nice discussion, see Kleck's, in Point Blank.

Do you think that policy advocates who choose to focus on guns rather than pools have done a relative lethality calculation of any sort? I strongly suspect most have never paused to think about which to focus on; that's the phenomenon -- selective attention & its relationship to values -- that I'm focusing on

May 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

An easy explanation is obvious to those of us in the gun culture. Simply, the push for more infringements on the second amendment has nothing to do with the safety of children, and everything to do with political power. Child safety is simply an easy emotional button to push to attempt to enact restrictions that would never pass a rational test.

I appreciate the intellectual honesty of the author. Those who are unfamiliar with the subject would not know that very few people are murdered with semi-automatic rifles that have certain cosmetic features so-called "assault rifles". The number is likely less than a hundred a year, but statistics by rifle type are not kept. In 2010, the number murdered with rifles of all descriptions was 358. "Assault Rifles" are a fraction of that total.

January 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDean Weingarten

I also would support ban on “assault rifles.”

Dan, all the data show that 3x to 4x more US children are killed in the US from First Amendment protected circumcision (about 125 per year) than killed BOTH accidentally AND intentionally with assault rifles.

First, swimming pools are used primarily for recreation and secondarily are dangerous and can kill. Guns, even when used defensively are intended primarily to kill or harm and secondarily for sport or recreation (with one of the "sports" applications, hunting, intersecting with killing). The second key distinction I believe is statistical, though I do not have the data. How many people, kids drown for each "dip in the pool"? How many kids are injured for each time they play with a real gun? Don't know.

Dean, I disagree. IN Essex country, which has a mix of both urban (Newark) and suburban (Millburn/short- hills) every single accidental child gun death in the past ten years was found to be an illegal gun. Not most, but all. In other words gang members and criminals who owned illegal guns, most often siblings and mothers boyfriends. (ie people utterly unaffected by gun registration laws, background checks, safe storage laws, etc.)

In rural areas the gun accidents tend to be hunting related. So they are recreational use

I don't get your" guns are used primarily to kill.: In fact he opposite is true, they are used primarily to prevent violence and for hunting and recreation.

Statistically the risk of drowning in pools is much higher, and higher still when you consider a miniscule proportion of US homes have pools, yet about half of US homes have guns

April 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKC

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