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Surprising Science

The Gun Control Battle Isn’t About Guns As Weapons. It’s About Guns as Symbols.

While guns don’t kill people, they certainly do make killing easier.

In the passionate response to the horror of murdered innocents, 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.

While guns don’t kill people, they certainly do make killing easier. A meta-analysis of research on guns and homicides by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that more guns = more murders. But guns do something else too, something emotional, something tied deeply to one of our most basic instincts, the instinct to survive. For millions of people, guns help them feel safe. They provide a sense of control and an ability to protect oneself from what feels like a threatening world. And guns provide this vital reassuring feeling of control in more ways than you might think.

Most obviously, they help people feel physically safe. Whether guns prevent more crime or cause more remains an open question according to a National Academy of Sciences review of the research. But owning a gun certainly gives you the feeling that you are doing something — taking control — to protect yourself, and any risk is less frightening if you think you have some control over it.

More importantly, and more relevant to the argument over gun control, fighting for the right to own a gunis a way of asserting control against a society that many feel is encroaching on their values and freedoms. Millions of people with such feelings want guns less to protect themselves against physical danger and more to protect themselves from the threat of a society they feel is taking away their ability to control their own lives. That deeper loss of control fuels the disproportionately intense passion of gun rights advocates and explains what The New Yorker calls the ”conspicuous asymmetry of fervor” that energizes 4 million members of the National Rifle Association to effectively determine gun control policy for a country of 310 million.

People with these concerns have been identified by research into the Theory of Cultural Cognition as Individualists, people who prefer a society that grants the individual more freedom and independence and leaves them more personally in control of their individual choices and values. Contrast that with the sort of society preferred by Communitarians, who feel most comfortable, and safest, in a “We’re all in it together” world of shared control and communal power, a society that sacrifices some individual freedoms in the name of the greater common good. These deeply conflicting worldviews drive the central conflict in the fight over gun control, to which President Barack Obama referred in his remarks in Newtown, Connecticut, following the Sandy Hook shootings, when he asked, “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” About this core question, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy asked, “Where do we draw the line?”

This is about far more than guns. Since the progressive era of the ’60s and ’70s, Individualists have been reacting with growing passion against what they feel is a “socialist” Communitarian assault on individual liberties. Former NRA President Charlton Heston’s “cold dead hands” speech makes inescapably clear that for millions of people, the gun control debate is not about the gun as weapon, but the gun as symbol. (The italics below are mine.)

 “When freedom shivers in the cold shadow of true peril, it’s always the patriots who first hear the call,” Heston said. “When loss of liberty is looming, as it is now, the siren sounds first in the hearts of freedom’s vanguard.” He paused, and accepts a revolutionary war musket, then continued. “As we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away,” he said, holding the musket up as if he was Moses holding up the staff of God to part the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, and in his best Moses voice, intoned passionately, “from my cold dead hands.”

On the other hand, you can hear the Communitarian voice in those who favor gun control, who describe gun violence as “a public health crisis” (Nick Kristof), or say that “we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” as President Obama said in his moving response to the shootings in Newtown.

The views of Heston and Kristoff give voice to what Cultural Cognition research about gun control has found: (More Statistics, Less Persuasion; A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions). The fight about guns will not be won or lost on the battleground of facts and figures. Gun rights are just another symbolic weapon in the deep and passionate conflict now tearing America apart, a fight over different views about the sort of society we want to live in. And that connects back to the importance of a sense of control to how safe or threatened we feel because, whether we are more Individualist or Communitarian, if our group and our philosophy are in control, our values and views have more power to shape how society operates.

That means the passions over gun control are driven by one of the most powerful imperatives of all, the drive to survive, which is why the feelings of gun rights advocates are so fierce, and compromise hard to achieve. To move toward progress, rather than talking about how many guns we have compared with other countries (WAY more), we first have to recognize that the feelings about gun control, particularly among Individualists, come from these deeper instincts, honest instincts over which we actually have little conscious control. Even more, rather than stubbornly trying to impose our view of what is moral and “right” on others, we first have to respect the deep instinct we all share, to control and shape how our society operates, and acknowledge the integrity and sincerity of the values and views people on all sides hold, even if we disagree with those values and views.

Without those admittedly difficult first steps, we won’t be able to find solutions to the gun-risk issue, and we will be no closer to the common ground we all shared — Individualists and Communitarians, gun rights advocates and gun control advocates, when we heard about the slaughter of children and our hearts broke — and universally we cried out for some way to reduce the chance of this ever happening again.


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