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Why Do People Buy Guns?

Psychological principles behind gun ownership

The mass shooting that killed 49 people in an Orlando, Florida, night club this past June has once again sparked ferocious debate about gun control legislation. Without fail, the emphasis in debates on the gun issue after a horrible tragedy like Orlando seems to be on stopping an assortment of perceived dangerous people, like terrorists and people with mental illness, from getting their hands on dangerous weapons.

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The nature of this dialogue frustrates scientists who, despite bans on federal funding for gun violence research, have amassed data that permit some fairly clear conclusions about gun ownership and gun violence. One of the most striking conclusions of this research is that the person most likely to be shot by a gun at home is a member of the owner’s household, not an armed intruder.[1]

We might expect this finding to dramatically change the discourse around gun ownership from one about the right to protect oneself from intruders to one about the complex issues, such as domestic violence and suicide, that lead to the bulk of gun deaths in this country. These scientific facts, however, have not only failed to change the conversation but have also been largely unsuccessful at convincing people that on the whole gun ownership makes you less safe. In light of these failures, perhaps we should change the question from “how do we get guns away from people?” to “why do they want to own guns in the first place?” If people have been given all the information they need to make a rational decision about gun ownership, why do they persist in arguing that guns will keep them safe? Put another way, if it’s not a simple lack of information that’s causing people to make the irrational decision to purchase guns to protect themselves, then what else is going on here? What are the psychological principles that might lead people astray and threaten their safety?

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Two psychological principles seem most relevant here: human risk perception and the innate aversion to changing our minds. Risk perception is in fact a deeply psychological phenomenon that is often completely recalcitrant to statistical information. Take, for example, the now-cliché reminder that people are safer in an airplane than in a car. No matter how many times we hear this refrain, we are still convinced that flying is unsafe and that we are invincible in our cars. The perception of risk surrounding owning a gun is not so different. No matter how often we tell people how much more likely it is that their gun will be used to kill them, their spouses, or their children, they insist that those facts do not apply to them. Each gun owner feels in control of his or her gun and family: no one in my family will ever become suicidal or so enraged as to use a gun to settle a domestic dispute, he or she might think. Gun owners thus make what is an evolutionarily-determined error of overestimating small risk (having to confront an armed home intruder) and underestimating large risk (suicide and domestic violence).

In addition to our difficulty with risk perception, it is clear that we humans are terrible at changing our minds. Psychologists and neuroscientists have shown that our brains are wired to reject change. Not only does confrontation with an idea that challenges a firmly held belief provoke activity in the fear centers of our brains but agreeing with people who share our beliefs actually stimulates the reward centers. Hence, being confronted with facts about the dangers of gun ownership when we have already been convinced that owning a gun will make us safer may actually cause our fear centers to fire, producing ferocious resistance. On the contrary, satisfying our pre-conceived notion that gun ownership will make us safer is actually pleasurable. [2]

The challenge of convincing people that gun ownership is not safe is not unique in the history of public health. Decades ago, people were very unwilling (and many still are) to accept the abundance of scientific evidence that cigarette smoking is unsafe. Armed with much of the same evidence, many more people today accept the scientific consensus that cigarette smoking is a health hazard than in the 1950s when the evidence was just beginning to emerge. Even so, it is still not entirely clear what exactly is responsible for this greater acceptance of the evidence and the dramatic decrease in the number of cigarette smokers in the U.S. in the past 50 years. If we can, however, begin to understand some of the basic psychological principles that drive people to discount scientific evidence, we can craft more effective responses and apply them to a range of cases of science denial, from the anti-vaccine movement to climate change denial. But without that deep psychological understanding, without asking the “why” rather than the “how” question, we will not be able to avert potentially dangerous decisions that put all of us at risk.

[1] Parmet WE, Smith JA, Miller MJ: Wollshlaeger v. Governor of Florida—the First Amendment, physician free speech, and firearm safety. New England Journal of Medicine 2016;374:2304-2307

[2] J. G. Edelson, Y. Dudai, R. J. Dolan, & T. Sharot, “Brain sub­strates of recovery from misleading influence,” Journal of Neuroscience, 2014, 34, 7744– 7753.