OSD 153: The haram-to-halal theory of gun ownership
A better predictive model for attitudes towards gun ownership.
There’s a toy model of people’s approach to gun stuff that goes something like this:
Someone starts out not knowing much about this stuff, so they come to it without pre-formed opinions.
They gather info about the apparent costs and benefits of various attitudes.
They form an opinion and proceed accordingly.
This has a couple things going for it. It makes some intuitive sense, and it has some explanatory power for statistics that show support for gun control temporarily spikes for a few weeks after high-profile shootings.
Beyond that, though, it starts fraying. This model doesn’t predict the phenomenon that often the people with the strongest opinions lack very basic knowledge. It doesn’t predict opposition to silencers, an all-upside-zero-downside gun accessory. And it also defies common sense about how people form opinions.
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt proposes something he calls moral foundations theory as an explanation for what drives people’s cultural and political attitudes. He posits six foundations:
1) Care/Harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/Cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Loyalty/Betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4) Authority/Subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Sanctity/Degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
6) Liberty/Oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.
The framework says that people’s opinions will be determined by how heavily they do or don’t weigh each of those six foundations.
This is surprisingly hard to apply to gun questions. If someone’s big on gun rights, it’s a safe bet that they value the Liberty/Oppression foundation, but that’s about all you can say with confidence. They might value Loyalty/Betrayal (because perhaps they feel a strong sense of community), and as to Authority/Subversion maybe they’re suspicious of authority. But it’s fuzzy.
And for gun control folks, it only gets fuzzier. Care/Harm pretty clearly applies — harmful uses of guns get a lot more attention than the constructive uses, so someone heavy on Care/Harm would be skeptical of gun ownership.
We’d suggest a non-obvious one: Sanctity/Degradation. That speaks to the idea that there’s something inherently malevolent or unclean about the very presence of a gun. We wrote about that in an essay called “Guns are specifically designed to kill: the logic error behind the whole gun debate”, while discussing David Yamane’s quote that “guns are normal and normal people use guns”:
“Guns are normal and normal people use guns.” Those of us who are those people know that. But for millions of others, the very idea is almost not even parseable as English. A gun appears — in a movie, on the news, etc. — and then someone gets shot. That’s just what happens. It’s not just that people have no experience with “someone took out a gun, we all shot it and had a great time, and then we took the kids to soccer practice”. It’s that they don’t even know that’s a thing.
In storytelling, for example, Chekhov’s gun is a punchy metaphor because it’s about guns. “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” That makes sense to us; guns are expected to shoot someone. I mean, I wouldn’t buy a ticket for John Wick 4: Everybody Has a Fun Day at the Range and Nothing Bad Happens.
But in real life, it turns out that “nothing bad happens” is the overwhelming norm. So begging the question boils down to not seeing the denominator — zooming in on harmful gun uses, and not considering (or perhaps even being aware of) healthy gun uses. That’s what “guns are specifically designed to kill” means. If that’s true, then guns are empirically probably the most defective product you can buy.
There’s a recent example of this guns-as-unclean view. After four police officers were shot in New York City last week, one of them fatally, the mayor said this:
He’s also reinstating a plainclothes police unit to “get guns off the street” — the same type of jump out boys who came to notoriety for the stop-and-frisk program and for killing Amadou Diallo in 1999.
The idea that guns need to be “off the street” is a statement about totems, not outcomes. Their presence, the idea goes, desecrates the environment. One could say “Ah but they’re just talking about guns being used by murderers”, but that’s hard to square with a statement like this from the majority leader of the New York City Council:
He summed up the viewpoint well. “The presence of illegal or legal guns is an existential threat to the safety of others.” In a worldview where you’re weighing pros and cons, you’d … well, weigh pros and cons. But from this Sanctity/Degradation frame, the very presence of a gun is a profanation of the city. There’s nothing to weigh, because it’s not about who has the gun or why. The gun itself is haram.
That might sound a bit bleak, but you can actually put it to good use. If someone believes guns are unclean, you know not to waste your time with statistics or philosophical appeals. Before they’ll be ready to listen, they need to not feel like guns will dirty them. So work on that first.
(P.S. If you’d like to read more on this, we’ve got an essay on it called “Guns are a virus. But not in the way people think.” It includes some fun animations modeling spread of this “virus” through a population.)
This week’s links
Good news for the continuing normalization of suppressors.
Ninth Circuit rules that the COVID-era closure of gun stores and ranges in Los Angeles and Ventura counties violated the Second Amendment
The link above is @2Aupdates’ highlights from Judge VanDyke’s opinion.
Lots of details in here about how the hostages took smart, well-planned steps to help themselves survive. As noted by @marklivesthings, A pound of individual training + mindset + action is worth a ton of external resources.
Of the 7.5m Americans who bought firearms for the first time between January 2019 and April 2021—as gun-buying surged nationwide—half were female, a fifth black and a fifth Hispanic, according to a recent study by Matthew Miller of Northeastern University and his co-authors. The share of black adults who joined the gun-owning ranks, 5.3%, was more than twice that of white adults.
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