When bias beats logic: why the US can't have a reasoned gun debate

Lois Beckett in New York
When the question of gun control comes up, a writer says, ‘some kind of animal brain kicks in’. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the week since the mass shooting in Las Vegas left nearly 60 people dead and hundreds injured, Americans have spoken out in outrage and grief, demanding action. They have asked, again: why can’t the US pass any gun control laws?

At the same time, just as they did after Sandy Hook and San Bernardino and Orlando, these passionate advocates have endorsed some gun control laws with very little evidence behind them, even some policies that experts have labeled “fundamentally not rational” or a “hysterical” violation of civil rights. The great bipartisan gun control victory of this year may be new restrictions on “bump stocks”, a “range toy” used to make a semi-automatic rifle fire more like a fully automatic rifle, which arguably should never have been legal in the first place. That won’t do much to reduce America’s more than 36,000 annual gun suicides, homicides, fatal accidents, and police killings.

Why does the US feel so paralysed every time it is confronted by a new attack?

Jon Stokes, a writer and software developer, said he is frustrated after each mass shooting by “the sentiment among very smart people, who are used to detail and nuance and doing a lot of research, that this is cut and dried, this is black and white”.

Stokes has lived on both sides of America’s gun culture war, growing up in rural Louisiana, where he got his first gun at age nine, and later studying at Harvard and the University of Chicago, where he adopted some of a big-city resident’s skepticism about guns. He’s written articles about the gun geek culture behind the popularity of the AR-15, why he owns a military-style rifle, and why gun owners are so skeptical of tech-enhanced “smart guns”.

He watches otherwise thoughtful friends suddenly embrace one gun control policy or another, as if it were a magic bullet.

“Some kind of animal brain kicks in, and they’re like, ‘No, this is morally simple.’”

Even to suggest that the debate is more complicated – that learning something about guns, by taking a course on how to safely carry a concealed weapon, or learning how to fire a gun, might shift their perspective on whichever solution they have just heard about on TV – “just upsets them, and they basically say you’re trying to obscure the issue”.

“I don’t want to see that kid dead any more than you do,” Stokes said. “If there was a magic fix, I promise you I would support it.”

In early 2013, a few months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, a Yale psychologist created an experiment to test how political bias affects our reasoning skills. Dan Kahan was attempting to understand why public debates over social problems remain deadlocked, even when good scientific evidence is available. He decided to test a question about gun control.

Kahan gave study participants – all American adults – a basic mathematics test, then asked them to solve a short but tricky problem about whether a medicinal skin cream was effective or ineffective. The problem was just hard enough that most people jumped to the wrong answer. People with stronger math skills, unsurprisingly, were more likely to get the answer right.

Then Kahan ran the same test again. This time, instead of evaluating skin cream trials, participants were asked to evaluate whether a law banning citizens from carrying concealed firearms in public made crime go up or down. The result: when liberals and conservatives were confronted with a set of results that contradicted their political assumptions, the smartest people were barely more likely to arrive at the correct answer than the people with no math skills at all. Political bias had erased the advantages of stronger reasoning skills.

The reason that measurable facts were sidelined in political debates was not that people have poor reasoning skills, Kahan concluded. Presented with a conflict between holding to their beliefs or finding the correct answer to a problem, people simply went with their tribe.

It wasa reasonable strategy on the individual level – and a “disastrous” one for tackling social change, he concluded.

When it comes to guns, Americans want it both ways. A recent Pew study found that just over half of Americans want stronger gun laws. Even stronger majorities of Americans also believe that most people should be allowed to legally own most kinds of guns – and allowed to carry them in most places.

There is room for thoughtful gun control within these constraints. But the extreme polarization of America’s gun debate – the assumption, as the late-night television host Stephen Colbert argued when talking about the Las Vegas shooting, that “the bar is so low right now that Congress can be heroes by doing literally anything” – obscures how symbolic and marginal some of the most nationally prominent gun control measures are. Like closing the “terror gap”, so that people on terror watchlists are not allowed to buy guns, or rolling back an Obama order on guns and mental illness that had been opposed by disability rights groups and civi liberties campaigners.

After the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, Australia imposed a mandatory buyback and melted down more than 600,000 semi-automatic rifles and other long guns, about a third of the country’s gun stock. They have not had a high-casualty mass shooting since.

American politicians and pundits are always asking: “Australia tackled their mass shooting problem. Why can’t we?” But no one actually proposes an equivalent “Big Melt” in the United States, which would require a mandatory buyback of 90m American rifles, at a cost that might be in the billions of dollars.

Instead, an American assault weapons ban, which lasted from 1994 to 2004, allowed everyone to keep the military-style guns they already had, and defined “assault weapons” in such a technical way that gun companies were able to make cosmetic tweaks to certain models and produce virtually identical, but now legal, guns. A former Obama White House official told the Guardian candidly that the assault weapon ban “does nothing” and though Obama had nominally endorsed it in 2013, “we would have pushed a lot harder if we had believed in it”.

Part of the weakness of major gun control proposals is the result of “the NRA’s catch-22”, said Adam Winkler, a gun politics expert at the University of California Los Angeles law school. “The NRA waters down the gun laws and makes them ineffective and then says, ‘Look, the gun laws are ineffective, we told you that gun laws never work.’”

But the biggest distortion in the gun control debate is the dramatic empathy gap between different kinds of victims. It’s striking how puritanical the American imagination is, how narrow its range of sympathy. Mass shootings, in which the perpetrator kills complete strangers at random in a public place, prompt an outpouring of grief for the innocent lives lost. These shootings are undoubtedly horrifying, but they account for a tiny percentage of America’s overall gun deaths each year.

The roughly 60 gun suicides each day, the 19 black men and boys lost each day to homicide, do not inspire the same reaction, even though they represent the majority of gun violence victims. Yet there are meaningful measures which could save lives here – targeted inventions by frontline workers in neighborhoods where the gun homicide rate is 400 times higher than other developed countries, awareness campaigns to help gun owners in rural states learn about how to identify suicide risk and intervene with friends in trouble.

When it comes to suicide, “there is so much shame about that conversation … and where there is shame there is also denial,” said Mike McBride, a pastor who leads Live Free, a national campaign for gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform. When young men of color are killed, “you have disdain and aggression,” fueled by the type of white supremacist argument which equates blackness with criminality.

First-hand experience can be profoundly transformative – the guitarist Caleb Keeter, who was caught up in the Las Vegas shooting, said afterwards: “I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the event of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We need gun control. RIGHT. NOW.”

But as Nicole Hockley, the mother of Dylan, one of the children killed at Sandy Hook, put it, many Americans seem exhausted and alienated by the gun debate itself, that “cyclical conversation” that moves from assault weapons to arming more Americans to mental illness to policy proposals that may or may not relate at all to what actually occurred.

It’s time to open up the conversation, she argues – to focus on different ways to save lives, rather than the same old gun law stalemate.

Otherwise, she wrote: “By the end of next week this story will be almost gone as if it never happened, even while those most impacted are still reeling from shock and grief.”

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