Guns & Groups: Technology to the Rescue?

Why the gun problem is so hard to solve

Posted Jan 27, 2013

By Chester Spell & Katerina Bezrukova

Like most people, we were horrified with the school shooting at Newton, Connecticut. While the media attention has perhaps cooled in the last few days, it seems gun control will be a front burner political and social issue for some time (as this is written, thousands are marching in Washington in support of gun control measures). Can what we know about groups help us to understand the variety of reactions to guns and gun regulations, and can knowledge of groups be used in any way to guide gun policy in the U.S.?

To get a handle on this, we can think about groups not just as some collection of people you know, but of larger sets of people, bound together by culture, norms, or just demographics. For example, one of us grew up in the family where guns were unspoken because their grandparents generation all ended up with injuries from the WWII. Such ‘mega groups’ of people that have a number of things in common, can tell us a lot about how different thoughts and opinions on gun control, and the sometimes vehement resistance to gun laws, arise. Two incidents we observed since the shootings illustrate these ideas.

The first was at a holiday party, where we were talking about the mass shootings (what a topic for the holidays, I know!) with a gun owner. This person has a PhD, lives in an urban area, and in many other ways is quite ‘liberal” so just doesn’t fit the stereotype of a gun toting, NRA supporter. Yet, this person owned an assault rifle. A similarly educated person, likewise is very comfortable with guns, and while not in the NRA, grew up owning and using guns growing up in the South. So, absolute bans on weapons, that seem the only reasonable thing for some people, just don’t make sense to these individuals.

There are two points to this story. One is that it is overly simplistic to assume there are only two groups - ‘pro’ gun control and ‘anti’ gun control, like the ‘red state / blue state’ differences. Such two category groupings are useful because they are cognitively simple, but don’t reflect reality. The other point is that individual options on gun ownership, like a lot of things, are shaped by culture (especially culture in early life) events and experiences that others may not have lived. For instance, one of the individuals above, while a gun owner, supports strong gun control measures - one reason being he was accidently shot as a child when he played in a home with loaded guns. These things have a way of shaping ‘sticky opinions’ - and we know from tons of research and cases that culture and beliefs arising from life experiences are generally hard to move - at least quickly. No wonder the issue of guns is so hard to ‘fix’ even though people on both sides seem to feel otherwise.

So what’s the answer? Even with dramatic and heart-breaking events like Newton, and sadly, others, we know that it won’t be easy. The typical solutions, like limits on rounds of ammunition, ramping up mental health databases, and others all seem to have merit (depending on who you are). Another idea comes out of the second incident. During a trip to a hardware store, a few days after the shooting, overheard were employees remarking about how many gun safes were being sold in the past few days. In addition to the spike in gun sales, then, people are thinking safety, which suggests another angle. Why not, use technology (like locks on cabinets that only a user than unlock- with fingerprint or retinal recognition technology?). It seems that such a technology could be developed by someone creative enough that would prevent access to guns by inherently dangerous people. What about cool startups in Silicon Valley? Can they crack this? Maybe gun safes should be required with a gun purchase. In any case, there’s no one answer to the issue of guns that will be politically and socially acceptable to all. Groups research, at the very least, tells us that. We are so damn different, why not to have a gadget to put a dent into an epidemic of gun violence?