Polarized

How opinions unite and divide us

The Ephemeral Impact of Violent Events

Why don’t mass shootings change opinions toward guns?

With yet another shooting rampage making headlines this week, the question remains: why don’t violent events change public attitudes toward guns? Popular wisdom, of various kinds, suggests opinions should change. Research on the nature of opinions suggests otherwise. 

With so many shootings, leading to so many victims, it has led to some amazement that the United States does not have stricter gun control laws. This outrage, typically on the political left, has come in every form from terse outrage expressed on social networking sites, to long-form rants like actor Jason Alexander’s virally circulated long-tweet, and more polished editorials like Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg’s piece in his own eponymous magazine.

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The calls for greater restrictions on gun manufacture, sale, purchase, and possession have been matched by fairly concise arguments among gun rights advocates recalling the constitutional protection of the right to keep and bear arms – at least as recently outlined by recent U.S. Supreme Court cases establishing an individual right to gun ownership. (Decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago in 2008 and 2010, respectively, were the first in American history to rule on the question of an individual’s right to bear arms.)

Constitutionality aside, it would seem that mass shooting events would have some effect on public perceptions of crime, violence, guns, and the criminal sanctions associated therewith. Yet public opinion data clearly indicate that these events have no impact on public views towards guns or gun control policy. A new poll from CNN reports a lack of widespread public support for any substantial restrictions on gun purchase and ownership other than those that restrict criminals’ access to guns.

These data are in line with decades of polls that have shown a relatively slow decline in support for gun control since the early 1990s, despite little change in the number of people who own guns (about 45% in recent years) and the rise in recent years of high-profile shooting rampages like those mentioned above. Data from Gallup show a fifty-percent drop in support for “more strict” gun control policies over the last twenty years. (That said, there has been no increase in support for “less strict” policies.)

The Gallup data suggest that long-term there has been a gradual shift away from support for stricter gun controls. The isolated shootings, which have dotted the news for years and seem so salient at the moment, appear to have had negligible impacts. Political scientist Patrick Egan points (New York University) points out that these data make clear America has anything but shifted toward a “gun-crazy” culture. Indeed, violent crime (as measured by FBI uniform crime reporting statistics) is at its lowest in almost four decades.

The general downward trend in support for gun control might therefore be easily tied to a perceptible decrease in crime rates. High-profile shootings are isolated events that stick out in part because of a background of comparably little crime.

But still, why don’t isolated events of violence shake our consciousness? Why don’t they shift our understanding of the issue of gun control? It is often said that images of real people and real events matter much more for changing minds than statistics, but research on another issue (climate change) suggests that climate statistics are much more influential than images of polar bears dying for changing hearts and minds.

And further research (on immigration policy) has shown that the effect of so-called “episodic frames,” which characterize issues in terms of salient personal experiences rather than broad trends, is contingent upon emotional reactions. When events produce strong emotional reactions, they seem to impact peoples’ opinions toward relevant policies.

But this doesn’t seem to have happened for any of the recent shootings. Despite at least some emotional reactions, aggregate opinions of the electorate haven’t changed. The lack of effects may be due to outrage being felt largely by people who already support gun control.

A more useful explanation for the stickiness of public opinion toward guns comes from research on the strength of opinions. Opinions toward gun control, like a handful of other high-profiles issues – and unlike those toward obscure, unfamiliar, or unimportant topics – tend to be relatively stable over time.

Shootings, like any high-profile news event, easily increase the salience of issues. Shootings remind us of our opinions about guns and gun control. But research conducted by Stanford psychologist Jon Krosnick and colleagues (gated, ungated) has shown that increases in the accessibility or salience of our opinions has little impact on the importance of those issues in our minds.

Importance, rather than salience, leads us to fight for what we believe and to make strong arguments prevail over weak arguments in changing our minds. In order for opinions to change, events need to relate to core values. Shootings may be evocative, but media rarely frame those events in terms of fundamental values that might lead the public to favor gun control.

If events only remind us of what we already think, they simply can’t change our minds. 

Thomas J. Leeper is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and a graduate fellow of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

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