How Cultural Cognition Can Inform the Gun Conversation

By Keith Kloor
Dec 17, 2012 10:34 PMNov 20, 2019 1:54 AM


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Like the debate on climate change and other societally important issues caught in the maw of our culture wars, the discourse on guns and violence has had a depressing, unchanging quality. Here's President Obama two years ago:

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations –- to try and pose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system. And much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

That is what he said after the shooting in Tucson that took six lives and seriously wounded U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Last night, at the Newtown memorial service, Mr. Obama gave a moving speech, in which he noted:

Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting.

He also said this:

Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children -- all of them -- safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

The question is, what will have to change? After all, as The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach observes about the Newtown massacre:

This is a gun issue and a mental health issue and a culture-of-violence issue all rolled into one.

Achenbach goes on to say that, "No one thinks there’s a magic wand to stop the carnage." He also wonders, like a lot of us are now wondering:

Support for tighter gun control has waned the last two decades, but I have to think this tragedy will make a lot of people look hard at ways to reduce the lethality of mass shootings, if possible.

The latest national conversation now taking place will presumably (hopefully) coalesce around some roadmap to action. For guidance on intractable public policy issues, I've often found myself turning to Yale University's Dan Kahan and his theory of cultural cognition. Sure enough, Dan has weighed in with some essential thoughts on the cultural aspect of the gun issue. On Saturday at his blog, he argued that data on gun violence was not very helpful in this conversation and also "beside the point." Rather, he said that we, as a society, had to address the psychological underpinnings and cultural values embedded in our various stances on the gun issue. For example, Kahan writes:

What does it say about what people value when they want to own a cache of military-style armaments such as a "Glock," a "SIG Sauer handgun," and a "Bushmaster .223-Caliber Assault rifle"?

These were the weapons the Connecticut shooter took from his mother (who was an avid gun enthusiast). Personally, I can't understand such a hobby, but I'm willing to acknowledge that the collection of high powered weaponry has become a popular hobby for a lot of people in the United States. Should this relatively new expression of the gun hobby now be taken away, stigmatized, or at least restricted in some fashion to reduce the likelihood of future mass shootings? That seems to be one of the debates we may now have in earnest. In a follow up post today, Dan cautions those who are arguing from a position of factual certainty:

Recognize when the data are inconclusive, or else no one will be able to recognize what counts as sound evidence. If you are contributing to this devaluation of the currency of reason, just stop. In particular, stop insisting that everyone who disagrees with you on facts is either an "idiot" or a "liar."

That's tough to do in our polarized world today, but it seems like a good piece of advice to take to heart if the objective is to have a national conversation that (finally) leads somewhere constructive. UPDATE: On a much related note, this new post by David Ropeik is an essential read. Here's the opener:

In the passionate response to the horror of murdered children, much has been written and said about guns, and the need for gun control. Much of it misses the mark, focusing on the danger of guns as weapons, but not their meaning as symbols. Until we examine what guns represent, and why so many people want them, the debate over gun control will rage on with little progress, flaring after yet another terrible gun crime but then subsiding without changing public opinion much, leaving us no closer to the safer world we all desire.

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