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Weekend up(back) date: What is the American gun debate about?

From Kahan, D.M. & Braman, D. More Statistics, Less Persuasion: A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions. U. Pa. L. Rev. 151, 1291-1327 (2003) pp. 1291-92:

Few issues divide the American polity as dramatically as gun control. Framed by assassinations, mass shootings, and violent crime, the gun debate feeds on our deepest national anxieties. Pitting women against men, blacks against whites, suburban against rural, Northeast against South and West, Protestants against Catholics and Jews, the gun question reinforces the most volatile sources of factionalization in our political life. Pro and anticontrol forces spend millions of dollars to influence the votes of legislators and the outcomes of popular elec tions. Yet we are no closer to achieving consensus on the major issues today than we were ten, thirty, or even eighty years ago.

Admirably, economists and other empirical social scientists have dedicated themselves to freeing us from this state of perpetual contes tation. Shorn of its emotional trappings, the gun debate, they reason, comes down to a straightforward question of fact: do more guns make society less safe or more? Control supporters take the position that the ready availability of guns diminishes public safety by facilitating violent crimes and accidental shootings; opponents take the position that such availability enhances public safety by enabling potential crime vic tims to ward off violent predation. Both sides believe that “only em pirical research can hope to resolve which of the[se] . . . possible ef fects . . . dominate[s].”   Accordingly, social scientists have attacked the gun issue with a variety of empirical methods—from multivariate regression models  to contingent valuation studies  to public-health risk-factor analyses.

Evaluated in its own idiom, however, this prodigious investment of intellectual capital has yielded only meager practical dividends. As high-quality studies of the consequences of gun control accumulate in number, gun control politics rage on with unabated intensity. Indeed, in the 2000 election, their respective support for and opposition to gun control may well have cost Democrats the White House and Republicans control of the U.S. Senate.

Perhaps empirical social science has failed to quiet public dis agreement over gun control because empirical social scientists have not yet reached their own consensus on what the consequences of gun control really are. If so, then the right course for academics who want to make a positive contribution to resolving the gun control debate would be to stay the course—to continue devoting their energy, time, and creativity to the project of quantifying the impact of various gun control measures.

But another possibility is that by focusing on consequences narrowly conceived, empirical social scientists just aren’t addressing what members of the public really care about. Guns, historians and soci ologists tell us, are not just “weapons, [or] pieces of sporting equipment”; they are also symbols “positively or negatively associated with Daniel Boone, the Civil War, the elemental lifestyles [of] the frontier, war in general, crime, masculinity in the abstract, adventure, civic re sponsibility or irresponsibility, [and] slavery or freedom.”  It stands to reason, then, that how an individual feels about gun control will de pend a lot on the social meanings that she thinks guns and gun con trol express, and not just on the consequences she believes they im pose.  As one southern Democratic senator recently put it, the gun debate is “about values”—“about who you are and who you aren’t.”  Or in the even more pithy formulation of another group of politically minded commentators, “It’s the Culture, Stupid!”

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Reader Comments (8)

I thought the interesting thing, although not something that would surprise anyone here, about these articles was that *both* sides are not appealing to cultural identities or symbols, but are using a range of relatively sophisticated (for the non-technical public debate) statistics-aware arguments, which they happen to interpret differently. It's not a case of knowledge-versus-ignorance, or science-versus-dogmatic-faith. Both sides claim to be data-driven and expert-supported in their beliefs. And from the perspective of someone who hasn't spent years researching the statistics and technicalities, it's impossible to sort out from reading articles like these who's right.

So what other rational criteria can you fall back on, as a layman not steeped in the technical debate, when both sides seem at first glance to be equally statistically and scientifically competent? You know it's politically divided, and that all the people who are "right" about other policy issues take one position on this, and all the people who get it "wrong" on a range of other policy issues also take the other position on this. In judging the 'credibility of experts' in an 'Argument from Authority' sense, does someone's past record for inaccuracy on other topics you know about bear on their credibility on a different issue where you don't know? Obviously, it's a formal fallacy, but is it nevertheless a useful heuristic?

October 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


Do you think the Dickey Amendment is having a cooling effect on gun control research?

October 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Link for Joshua:

October 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

@Jonathan-- I think the amendment is likely reducing the amount of valid research that is being done. That doesn't cool the debate--it likely inflames it,. since people on the "left" assume that the studies that are being left unfunded would have supported their position

October 8, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan - the research you speak of is useless, consisting as it does of showing that you are more likely to die of a gunshot if you keep guns. It is trivial to show that you are also more likely to die of drowning if you have a swimming pool, and more likely to die in a car accident if you drive in cars.

The reason for banning the FDA from further "research" on such non-drug-related subjects is simply that they are beyond that agency's remit. The FDA's budget at the next funding cycle was reduced by Congress by the exact amount (somewhat over a million) it wasted on the gun study. That was sufficient to drive the point home, so the Amendment was overkill.

But specifically on guns, consider that half of all households in the US admit to pollsters they have at least one gun. Since many of us live in states where gun ownership is made inordinately difficult by assorted laws, the true percentage of gun-owning households is likely to be much higher. Criminals possessing guns are not going to declare them anyway, regardless of state of residence. In brief, we have about one gun per capita, 20 million more guns are sold annually, and since these are durable goods - the average age of guns seized by Chicago police is 11 years - the total seems destined to keep rising. Introductions of additional federal restrictions are dead in the water, therefore, for reasons explained in the Swedish Academy's latest award for economic sciences:

Difference between "willingness to pay (WTP) and the willingness to accept (WTA).... But Thaler (1980) found an explanation in prospect theory. He noted that if giving up an object is perceived as a loss, then loss-averse individuals will behave as if the objects they own are more highly valued than objects they do not own......."

We own a whole lot of guns already. Additional restrictions are perceived as indistinguishable from outright confiscation. Which is why they will not happen. I'm not sure why you can't see this.

October 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

@Ecoute-- I pretty much agree

October 11, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Best analysis of mass shootings periodically published by The Onion

October 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage


@Ecoute-- I pretty much agree
October 11, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


I waited a couple of days before writing anything about this in case it might be amended, qualified, or withdrawn.

Dan - as I detect a lack of enthusiasm, not to mention outright gloom, in your agreement, I have an idea: you cannot see how people can genuinely love guns because you have never been around people who do love them, and know how to use them. I am happy to invite you to the MIT shooting range, across the street from the main entrance on Mass Ave, any time that suits you. I am often in Boston on business and presumably you do occasionally visit. I have lifetime access, being a Tech graduate, and will make sure to have an instructor available to get you started. I keep several guns, but no .22s, easiest for target practice, so better we use the range's pistols.
You will leave with an entirely new attitude towards gun laws - I'm convinced of that. Your call :)

October 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEcoute Sauvage

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