The Gun Control Debate: a Culture-Theory Manifesto

Topics: Gun politics in the United States, Firearm, Culture Pages: 14 (4700 words) Published: May 5, 2013
Washington and Lee Law Review
Volume 60 | Issue 1 Article 2
The Gun Control Debate: A Culture-Theory
Dan M. Kahan
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Recommended Citation
Dan M. Kahan, The Gun Control Debate: A Culture-Theory Manifesto, 60 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 3 (2003), Gun Control Debate: A Culture-Theory Manifesto

DanM. Kahan*
Few issues generate more disagreement between ordinary citizens, or peril for elected officials, than gun control. But what exactly is the gun control debate about?
My objective in this essay-manifesto, might be a better description-is not to take any particular position on gun control but instead to take issue with the terms in which the gun control debate is cast. That debate, I want to suggest, has been disfigured by two distorting influences on the rhetoric of both sides. I will term one the "tyranny of econometrics" and the other "circumspection of liberalism." Counteracting these influences almost certainly will not dispel Americans' differences of opinion on guns. But it will go a long way to making our public discussion of this issue into one that honors, rather than mocks, our pretension to be a well-functioning deliberative democracy. The "tyranny of econometrics" refers to the inordinate emphasis that both sides of the gun control debate place on the tools of social science. Advocates of control use a diverse array of methods-not just econometrics, in fact, but contingent valuation studies, public health risk-factor analyses, and the like-to quantify the physical and economic harm that guns inflict on our society.1 Control opponents, however, use the same methods to show that gun control creates even more physical and economic harm by making it harder for potential victims to defend themselves from violent predation.2 * Professor of Law, Yale Law School.

1. See, e.g., PH1LIP J. COOK& JENS LUDWIG, GUNVIOLENCE: THEREALCOSTS 15(2000) (describing the "burden that gun violence imposes on our society" through "impact on public health" and "in dollar terms"); Dan Black & Daniel Nagin, Do 'Right to Carry' Laws Deter Violent Crime?, 27 J. LEGAL STUD. 209 (1998) (interpreting data collected by control opponents to reach differing result); Mark Duggan, More Guns, More Crime, 109 J. POL. ECON. 1086, 1087 (2001) (using sales date for gun magazine as proxy variable); Arthur L. Kellermann et al., Gun Ownership as a Risk Factorfor Homicide in the Home, 329 NEW ENo. J. MED. 1084, 1084-85 (1993) (using data obtained from police and medical examiner homicide records and from interviews of proxies for victims).

2. See, e.g., JOHNR. LoTT JR.,MORE GUNs, LESS CRIME: UNDERSTANDINoCRIME AND60 WASH. &LEE L. REV 3 (2003) I, at least, am not sure who has the better argument here. Indeed, I do not think that anyone can definitively say, based on the extant social science data, whether "more guns" produce "more crime" or "less crime."

But one thing I think we can say with confidence is that empirical studies of this sort-whatever conclusion they generate-cannot resolve the American gun debate. The reason econometrics cannot persuade, the reason I call reliance on such data the "tyranny of econometrics," is that this body of work ignores what that debate is really about: culture.

Indeed, according to a wealth of public opinion research, it is precisely these sorts of cultural allegiances and outlooks that determine citizens' attitudes toward gun control. Positions on gun control vary across social groups, the members of which attach competing social meanings to guns. Control opponents tend to be rural, Southern or Western,...
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