Dan Kahan Reviews The Shooting Cycle – It’s “Really Cool”

January 18th, 2014

I am flattered that Yale LawProf Dan Kahan called Shelby’s and my new article, “The Shooting Cycle,”Really cool new working paper . . . on the psychology of mass public opinion on guns.”

Dan describes our paper better than I could conceivably do:

Based on a disciplined synthesis of decades of survey data in relation to mass shooting events, plus a textured case study of popular reactions to the Newtown shooting, B&B construct an interesting & plausible model of the psychological dynamics that shape popular support for gun control.

The key pieces consist of [1] an aggregate societal demand for gun restrictions, which comprises a vectoring (essentially) of culturally grounded predispositions; [2] a collection of risk-perception heuristics that, interacting with cultural predispositions, regulate popular attention and reaction to information on gun risks and the efficacy of gun regulation; and[3] sporadic mass shooting events that, feeding on [2], ignite a conflagration of political activity that cools and abates in a recurring, predictable pattern (“the shooting cycle”), leaving no net effect on [1].

The political-economy take home is that mass opinion is that gun control supporters can’t expect to buy much with the currency of popular opinion. As a result of [2], we can expect the drama of gun control to remain stubbornly anchored to the center of the popular-political stage.  But once [1] and [3] are disentangled, B&B conclude, it becomes clear that the popular demand for gun control is relatively weakand growing progressively weaker over time, notwithstanding the predictably intense but temporary spikes generated by mass shootings.

Because of the psychology of gun risks, the prospect of scoring a decisive victory will thus continue to tantalize gun control supporters, who will respond with convulsive enthusiasm to the “opportunities” episodically furnished by mass shooting tragedies.  But according to B&B, they won’t get anywhere unless there is “a significant cultural shift” on guns–one of dimensions significant enough to alter [1].

Moreover, B&B view the prospects of that sort of development as constrained by [2] as well. Advocacy groups will predictably employ culturally partisan and divisive idioms to milk support from the members of groups that are culturally predisposed to see gun risks as high, thereby reinforcing the political motivation of opposing groups to resist gun regulation as an assault on their identities.

And Dan offers some high praise of the article, for which I am flattered.

There are lots of things to like about this paper. …

Another is the solid style of analysis.  B&B didn’t conduct an original observational study or conduct an experiment. But they did use valid empirical methods.  That is, they formulated a set of conjectures, identified sources of evidence that could be expected to support an inference as to whether the conjectures were likely true or not, and then collected the evidence and assessed it in a disciplined and transparent manner that admits of engagement by critically reasoning readers.

I am excited to continue with this important topic.