OK, so I saw this article about the unheard gun owner majority who actually favor more restrictions on gun ownership, which led me to the effort to help American culture Evolve beyond the polarized debate on gun safety.
That’s right, I said “gun safety,” not “gun control.”
I like Evolve’s strategy of using a sense of humor in an effort to defuse the highly charged conflictual atmosphere around gun safety. A sense of humor can help move some of the emotional debris off the path toward cultural change–at least I hope it can. That’s why I often try to use it in the debate on the usefulness (or rather the lack thereof) of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program.
Well, most of the time I use a sense of humor. When I don’t, I’m aware that losing my patience usually just triggers the impulse to push back by the boards, especially the ABMS. The same phenomenon probably occurs in the gun safety debate.
I’ve also been thinking about the public health approach to gun safety, which my colleague Dr. George Dawson proposes. I think it might help us get out of the rut of the mental illness vs gun safety rhetoric when it comes to mass shootings. I agree with this broad-based idea which includes George’s suggestion that the media could do a better job about reporting on these events by adopting a strategy that takes the contagion phenomenon into account, the same strategy which has been applied to guidelines about suicide reporting. So far, what’s being done by reporters is probably not helpful, according to one study .
As a species, humans are pretty good at arguing about the best approaches to fixing a problem. We could probably even come up with a rancorous debate about which product is better at ensuring our poop doesn’t stink.
Entrenched attitudes on polarizing issues like gun safety are not helping. Maybe approaches using humor might help, like that of Evolve. Could we evolve toward a teachable moment? Like any teacher, I’m always hoping for the teachable moment, which can sometimes appear from unexpected sources.
- McGinty, E. E., et al. (2013). “Effects of news media messages about mass shootings on attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness and public support for gun control policies.” Am J Psychiatry 170(5): 494-501.
OBJECTIVE: In recent years, mass shootings by persons with serious mental illness have received extensive news media coverage. The authors test the effects of news stories about mass shootings on public attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness and support for gun control policies. They also examine whether news coverage of proposals to prevent persons with serious mental illness from having guns exacerbates the public’s negative attitudes toward this group. METHOD: The authors conducted a survey-embedded randomized experiment using a national sample (N=1,797) from an online panel. Respondents were randomly assigned to groups instructed to read one of three news stories or to a no-exposure control group. The news stories described, respectively, a mass shooting by a person with serious mental illness, the same mass shooting and a proposal for gun restrictions for persons with serious mental illness, and the same mass shooting and a proposal to ban large-capacity magazines. Outcome measures included attitudes toward working with or living near a person with serious mental illness, perceived dangerousness of persons with serious mental illness, and support for gun restrictions for persons with serious mental illness and for a ban on large-capacity magazines. RESULTS: Compared with the control group, the story about a mass shooting heightened respondents’ negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness and raised support for gun restrictions for this group and for a ban on large-capacity magazines. Including information about the gun restriction policy in a story about a mass shooting did not heighten negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness or raise support for the restrictions. CONCLUSIONS: The aftermath of mass shootings is often viewed as a window of opportunity to garner support for gun control policies, but it also exacerbates negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness.