Guns, Public Opinion, and Trayvon Martin

April 23, 2012, 10:15 PM GMT+0

Tragedies inevitably raise political questions. Politics, despite its tawdry reputation, is essentially a competition over matters of fundamental importance. So, when the story of the killing of Trayvon Martin made national news it is not surprising that political posturing soon followed.

Ultimately, because politics are involved, any resolution to public-policy questions, such as the usefulness of "stand your ground" laws, will include an examination of public opinion about the matter. Public opinion can be very informative: although we can't know the exact circumstances around the particular shooting of Trayvon Martin, and should let the criminal justice system sort it out, we can recognize the case as a pattern of behavior that is reflected in public opinion data.

In a YouGov survey I asked a representative sample of American adults about guns, danger in the world, and what to do if there is a suspicious person in your neighborhood. The takeaway: attitudes come together in a manner that, given access to weapons, is rather concerning.

Among white Americans there is a group of people that 1) own guns, 2) think the world is a very dangerous place, and, despite everything in the news recently, 3) believe that if you see a suspicious person in your neighborhood the best action is to practice vigilante justice.

I asked three questions: 1) do you own a gun?; 2) what should you do if you see a suspicious person in your neighborhood?; and 3) do you agree with the statement "there are many dangerous people in our society that will attack someone out of pure meanness, for no reason at all”? (the last question is common in psychological surveys).

As you might guess, answers to these three questions are highly related in the survey responses: a person that is likely to own a gun is also likely to believe the world is full of dangerous people and, moreover, a person that owns a gun and believes the world is full of dangerous people is also likely think the best course of action when seeing a suspicious person is to either "confront the person" or "follow the person for more information", rather than call the police. (These numbers are strong -- a person that owns a handgun is 10 percentage points more likely to want to confront a suspicious person than a person that does not own a handgun, even statistically controlling for other factors like education and partisanship).

The point is not so much whether these people are right or wrong -- because whether the world is full of dangerous people is a complex question that I can't answer here -- but rather the point is that attitudes come together in certain constellations that can give rise to certain behaviors: if a person believes the world is dangerous then they are more likely to buy a gun; if they have a gun, then they might feel more emboldened to follow suspicious persons. The question that is raised then is what can we do about public policy given these attitudes? For example, do we really want widespread access to guns if the people that are likely to buy them also believe in confronting suspicious persons?

And, of course, there is also a political element to this because people in my survey that own guns, want to confront criminals, and believe the world is dangerous are also more likely to be political conservatives. This is one of the many reasons that there is unlikely to be much change in gun policy: when beliefs about the world and partisanship align behind something, then that something becomes very hard to regulate.

I should state that I have no way of knowing, of course, why gun ownership and belief in a dangerous world are related. It could be that, like I stated above, a person believes the world is dangerous, so they buy a gun. But it could also be that they buy a gun and want to justify it, so they construct a belief that the world is dangerous (psychologists might call this dissonance reduction). Or it might be a confounding factor, like they have been victims of crime, so they bought a gun and, somewhat reasonably, believe the world is dangerous. But there is also the possibility that these attitudes and behaviors are linked by an underlying psychological disposition, which is also related to political conservatism. Political psychologists have referred to this as a "motivated cognition". In this case, the belief that the world is dangerous motivates a person to believe in the conservative principles of social order, which, much like a gun, bring safety in a dangerous world.

One last point: given what is in the news, it is remarkable how many people said that they would follow or confront a suspicious person in their neighborhood. Almost 12% of respondents gave such a response. Moreover, the proportion of people that would not choose to call the police, but rather be their own investigator, is likely to go up when the Trayvon Martin incident fades from the spotlight. I say this because there are likely some people that at another time would have said they would follow or confront a suspicious person, but chose a different response in the wake of the attention around the shooting. My evidence for this assertion is that I also asked people if they had heard anything in the news about Trayvon Martin: among those that said they had not heard anything or misidentified what they had heard (for example that "he was traded to the Forty-Niners"), the percentage of people wanting to confront or follow a suspicious person was higher than among those that were aware of the news around Trayvon Martin.