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How Gun Violence Can Decrease Support For Gun Control

2012 July 22
by Eric Horowitz

Every time there’s highly publicized gun violence advocates of stricter gun control renew their calls for tougher laws. It’s a perfectly rational response. With the horrors of mass murder fresh in people’s minds it seems like a good time to convince people to change their views. Unfortunately, human decision making is not that clear cut, and there are certain psychological factors that can make the days following publicized gun violence the worst time to attempt to change somebody’s mind about gun laws.

Imagine you’re persuadable on gun-control issues, but despite all the gun violence that’s taken place in America, you’ve remained pro-gun. Because you don’t change your political views for no reason, if you change your position on gun control in response to a mass murder it’s essentially an admission that on some level, lax gun control laws may have helped make the tragedy possible. As somebody who could have supported tougher laws but chose to hold the opposite position, that means admitting some nano-smidgen of responsibility for what happened.

A large body of psychology research has shown that people are driven to think in ways that maintain their moral standing and self-worth, and therefore people will do whatever it takes to avoid feeling any inkling of responsibility for a mass-murder. The need to protect self-worth thus makes it difficult for people who are against stricter gun control to change their position in the aftermath of a tragedy. In fact, the more “rational” response may be to reaffirm your opposition to gun control in order to protect yourself from the idea that lax gun laws were the reason for the killings.

None of this is to say that certain people aren’t more likely to change their position is the aftermath of violence. But the way people respond to persuasion attempts is not so clear cut, and the desire to think of ourselves in a positive light means that some people will be more likely to change their views when gun violence has been out of the national conversation. Sometimes it’s easier to be persuaded you were wrong when the dire consequences of having held the “wrong” position are not so excruciatingly obvious.
Sherman, D.K., & Cohen, G.L. (2006). The Psychology of Self-Defense: Self-Affirmation Theory Advances in Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38004-5

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