Public Health And Public Opinion Don’t Seem To Mesh When It Comes To Guns.

The Injury Control Research Center has been engaged in fruitful and necessary gun research from a public health perspective since it was founded by David Hemenway whose book, Private Guns, Public Health, is a fundamental contribution to the field.  Since May, 2014 the Center has been engaged in an interesting survey effort to measure attitudes of gun researchers towards different aspects of the gun debate.  Each month they send a questionnaire to slightly less than 300 researchers who have published at least one a relevant, peer-reviewed article since 2011.  The questionnaires cover virtually every major argument about guns, from background checks to concealed carry to safe storage and beyond.

     David Hemenway

David Hemenway

The results to date were just summarized in a Mother Jones article which compared the responses of the survey respondents to the arguments against gun control that are made by the NRA.  Not surprisingly, the difference between the public health consensus and the NRA positions on the same gun issues are, to put it mildly, about as wide as what God did to the two sides of the Red Sea.  Here are some salient examples of those differences:

  • The NRA says a gun with a home is safer than a home without a gun, two-thirds of the public health researchers disagreed.
  • The NRA says that guns are used much more frequently in self-defense than in crime, three-quarters of the researchers said it was the other way around.
  • The spread of concealed-carry laws, according to the NRA, has reduced crime, six out of ten researchers disagreed.

What the Mother Jones article did not point out, however, is that the Harvard survey also asked respondents to evaluate the quality of the research, from ‘very weak’ to ‘very strong’  on which their responses were based.  On only one question were the researchers overwhelmingly satisfied with the quality of the research that formed their response, namely, whether a gun in the home made it a safer place.  Only 25% of the respondents felt the research on this issue was medium or weak, whereas more than half believed the research to be ‘strong’ or ‘very strong.’  In other words, of the nine survey questions that have been answered to date, this question not only showed a strong response indicating that a gun did not make a home safer, but it also showed the highest rate of validation in terms of the quality of the relevant research.

How is it that of all the major issues on guns that David Hemenway and his Harvard colleagues surveyed, this issue – the risk versus benefit of owning a gun – not only shows the widest disparity between public health researchers and the NRA, but an equally-wide disparity between public health researchers and the public at large?  I am referring to the recent Gallup poll where  63% said ‘yes’ when asked, ‘Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be or a more dangerous place to be?’ This is the fourth time the poll has been taken since 2000, and it was the first time that the affirmative response reached above 60%, never mind ever previously climbing above 50%.

Public concern about global warming was basically non-existent in the U.S. until the 1980s, and as late as 2006 a slight majority of Americans still didn’t think it was a major issue.  But the tide seems to have turned in the last few years, and now only petroleum-funded public figures like Jim Imhofe dare to suggest that global warming isn’t a fact of life.  We can also dismiss the mutterings of the GOP’s most recently-announced Presidential candidate because he mutters about everything.

What can’t be dismissed is the fact that research on the risks versus benefits of gun ownership have failed to persuade a majority of Americans that they would be safer without their guns.  And nothing persuades me that the public perception will change just because the public health community conducts more research. There’s a disconnect here that has yet to be explained.


5 thoughts on “Public Health And Public Opinion Don’t Seem To Mesh When It Comes To Guns.

  1. This may be a reason people think guns make them safer: “‘The Law of Psychological Self Exception’. The short version of that law states; Bad things happen to other people, not to me.”. Unfortunately the law came from a salesman and not an academic. see Perhaps someone knowledgeable about cognitive dissonance (Leon Festinger) or whatever the current theory is could contribute here.

    Now in this case the guy was selling ‘security’ and he had to get people to buy things to make themselves feel safer by buying things they did not want to think about. My bet is there is a connection to people thinking they will not have something bad happen with their gun bought for feeling secure since they do no want to think of themselves as irresponsible.

    • Read “The Science of Fear” by Daniel Gardner, where he draws on work on cognitive bias by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman to talk about people’s unreasoning fear of gun violence. (Or read about it here:

      Perhaps it is not that people “do no want to think of themselves as irresponsible.” Perhaps it is the reality that the overwhelming, vast majority of gun owners are not irresponsible. For the overwhelming, vast majority of gun owners, nothing bad will happen to them or others because of their guns.

      If someone else drinks and drives and kills someone, should that make me think of myself as an irresponsible car owner? Does that make ME an irresponsible car owner?

      • I am thinking of people who hide guns where they think their kids won’t find them and then perhaps the kids do. My guess is the people think they are being cautious or safe and nothing will go wrong so they are being responsible. Or perhaps the weapons are stolen. (thanks for the title of the book)

      • “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude. Conversely, highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.” from Wikipedia at:

        This quote has been in the back of my mind lately and I should have mentioned it before. I am not sure the vast majority of gun owners know that the majority of ‘gun owners’ are responsible assuming that is true. That is not the idea I get from the ‘media’. I said in a previous post ‘gun owner’ is too broad of a category. Every person who legally owns a gun is a gun owner. How many have ever taken a class or read books or magazines or other means to get knowledgeable other than the questionable training people get on TV ?

  2. Every person who owns a gun is a gun owner, which means there are tens of millions of people who own guns. And tens of millions more who live in homes where guns are present. And yet there are only thousands of accidental shootings in any given year. So, I submit that the vast majority of gun owners are responsible. I’m sure that MTTG would say it is just a matter of time before something irresponsible happens, because, after all (to quote MTTG): IF YOU OWN OR CARRY A GUN SOONER OR LATER SOMEONE WILL GET SHOT.

    Which is not to say there are NO irresponsible gun owners. We hear stories of grandparents who leave their guns out and their grandkids find them. Or criminals who stash their guns under a pillow or mattress. Or people who get drunk and have negligent discharges and shoot themselves or others.

    But this is a small minority of people. And as much as I am pro-gun training, I have not seen empirical evidence that say people who have gun training are safer than those who have not. If it is exists, I would like to see it because it would confirm my deeply held but unsubstantiated belief in training.

    As to the broader disconnect between the alleged scientific research and people’s perceptions, it appears my original comment is still in moderation, so I will repeat it here:

    I submit to you that the disconnect has been explained, but you do not want to hear the explanation. The explanation is this: the vast majority of those who own guns will never be shot by a gun that is kept in their own home. And the vast majority of those who don’t own guns but know others who do, will never know someone who is shot by a gun kept in those people’s home.

    So why would you expect people to perceive guns in homes as risky? Their phenomenological experience tells them otherwise.

    What about those poor public health researchers who are trying to convince everyone to the contrary? The other day you wrote an unbelievable sentence: “On the one hand, public health researchers and gun-control advocates believe that the risks of gun ownership outweigh the gains; i.e., if you own or carry a gun sooner or later someone will get shot and the victim won’t be that bad guy trying to break down your back door.”

    It’s unbelievable and yet I think it accurately represents what public health scholars actually believe. IF YOU OWN OR CARRY A GUN SOONER OR LATER SOMEONE WILL GET SHOT.

    Since you are a long time gun owners and some time gun carrier, it must be the case that someone is going to get shot by one of your guns — if it hasn’t already happened, I guess it is going to happen some time soon since you’ve owned guns for so long?

    Or maybe, just maybe, the vast majority of people who own and carry guns, and those who know people who own and carry guns, know that sooner or later someone will NOT get shot?

    And maybe most of the American public does not accept public health researchers’ conflation of criminal violence with guns and suicide with guns?

    Again, you may not want to hear explanations for the disconnect, but they exist.

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