On Education, Persuasion, and the Limits of Empirical Evidence in Shaping Beliefs about Guns

As I noted in looking back on my Sociology of Guns seminar, I aspired to promote reasoned discussion about the positive and negative role of guns in society based on the best available information.

I wanted students to think like social scientists about guns, but I also wanted them to better understand their personal beliefs, including scrutinizing their own relationships to guns so as to make informed choices about their own participation with and the place of guns in the communities in which they live or will live.


I recently posted several essays in which students at the end of the seminar reflected on their personal views of the role that guns should play in society in light of the work they had done during the semester. As you can see if you read the seven reflections I posted, a very consistent theme emerges:

  • Seventh reflection: “In terms of hunting and target shooting, I suppose my opinion has not changed too much. . . . In terms of protection, I do still believe handguns are valuable self-defense tools.”
  • Sixth reflection: “I came into this semester very strongly anti-gun. . . . The material I have studied in this class has made me more passionate in my convictions.”
  • Fifth reflection: “Ultimately, I stand by the conclusion I drew in my first paper: In the most ideal world, we would have no need for guns. And I still don’t think we need them to the extent we have access to them.”
  • Fourth reflection: “A full semester’s worth of learning and I still draw the same conclusion as my opening.”
  • Third reflection: “Even though I came across such interesting perspectives on what role guns should play in American society, I still firmly believe that the fundamental right to keep in bear arms should not be infringed upon in a significant way by the United States government.”
  • Second reflection: “my opinions about guns have not changed that much since my first paper, despite my continued effort to keep an open mind.”
  • First reflection: “my personal views haven’t shifted measurably.”

I don’t conclude from this that students did not “learn” anything in the class (see below). But it does suggest something very important about the heated debate over guns: It is not going to be resolved by empirical data about guns, self-defense, crime, violence, suicide, accidents, or anything else. I’ve made this point previously, but teaching this class really reinforced it.

I still believe, with Philip Cook and Kristin Goss, that we should approach the issue of guns in society through “reasoned discussion based on the best available information” (p. 220). But I don’t think that even the best empirical evidence will persuade most people to change their fundamental beliefs about guns.

disagreement yes and no

In fact, the students’ reflections (highlighted above) were very much in line with what would be predicted by the authors of the last article we read in the class: “More Statistics, Less Persuasion: A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions” (University of Pennsylvania Law Review 151:4 [April 2003], pp. 1291-1327).

In this article and elsewhere, Dan Kahan and Donald Braman argue that individuals’ views of guns (and so of gun policies) are profoundly shaped by fundamental cultural worldviews. These worldviews are not strongly influenced by empirical evidence; to the contrary, individuals interpret empirical evidence based on whether it agrees or disagrees with their pre-existing cultural worldviews.

Rather than just giving up hope for any progress on the issue, however, Kahan and Braman use their theory of cultural cognition to suggest that debates over guns should not set aside people’s fundamental cultural values and exclusively focus on “the evidence.” Rather, in a culturally diverse society with a pluralistic political system, value differences need to be brought to the fore. It is important to recognize at the start that people on different sides of the gun debates do not simply view evidence about the consequences of guns in society differently, but hold competing visions of what a good life and good society are in the first place. As Kahan and Braman write:

In order to civilize the gun debate, then, moderate citizens-the ones who are repulsed by cultural imperialism of all varieties-must come out from behind the cover of consequentialism and talk through their competing visions of the good life without embarrassment. They must, in the spirit of genuine democratic deliberation, appeal to one another for understanding and seek policies that accommodate their respective worldviews. (pp. 1321-22)

To be sure, in our acrimonious political culture – especially as concerns guns – we do not have good models for how to do this. Kahan and Braman conclude their essay recognizing this.

Because of our impoverished ability to engage in civilized debate, my students were skeptical of Kahan and Braman’s value-based deliberative solution. They see over and over how people on both sides of the gun debates view their opponents not only as different but as wrong, not only as wrong but as corrupt, not only as corrupt but as evil.

Photo by Brooke Lavalley, Columbus Dispatch
Photo by Brooke Lavalley, Columbus Dispatch

But I pointed out to the students that over the course of the semester they were modeling the kind of respectful discussion and disagreement that Kahan and Braman suggest could lead to the development of ways of talking through our differences toward democratically agreed upon policies that “reduce the problems of misuse while preserving the benefit of normal prudent use” of firearms (Cook and Goss, p. 220).

Even though the Sociology of Guns seminar did not change anyone’s fundamental views about guns, the process of reading about, reflecting on, and discussing the issues did affect the students in some significant ways.

This is again evident in the students’ final reflection papers:

  • Seventh reflection: “The main discovery I have made when it comes to guns is that you cannot paint America with a single legal brush stroke. Each respective area needs to have their own laws that would coordinate with the issues they need to address.”
  • Sixth reflection: “I never understood the appeal of target shooting or hunting because I did not grow up in a household that regularly participated in these sports, and I was dubious of the need of a gun for self-defense because I have never lived with such a deeply-seated fear of violence. In studying these areas of gun culture, I was reminded that these communities are not as unreasonable and backwards as liberal media likes to make them out to be. … it was important for me to recognize that there is more to gun culture than recklessness and violence.”
  • Fifth reflection: “I have come to recognize that we don’t live in an ideal, and in fact are quite far from it, and that there are people for whom the only protection they may know is that which they can conceal away in the form of a firearm. I think I have come to truly embrace a middle ground approach that is less politically dogmatic, and I know for sure that I have a far more vested interest in the continued conversation of addressing the role that guns should and do play in our society.”
  • Fourth reflection: “For the purpose of my future and the future of other generations, we need to know how to discuss guns and legislate guns in a manner that serves to protect and maintain respect for all individuals.”
  • Third reflection: “The significant ideological diversity of those in this seminar made it possible to hear a variety of viewpoints on guns, some of which I had never heard before, in an open, respectful setting. For that I am especially grateful because opportunities to debate contentious issues in such a way do not occur very often in today’s partisan political environment.”
  • Second reflection: “Keeping an open mind about potential changes in gun control is something that I need to do. If there is a way that some gun control legislation can ensure a safer environment for everyone and still maintain our Constitutional rights than I would not be in opposition to such legislation.”
  • First reflection: “This increase in understanding the intricacies surrounding the issue of guns in society has actually altered my behavior with regard to how I discuss the issue as well as how I conduct myself where the use of guns is involved.”

In the end, I am proud of my students and of the education that took place in this seminar. I’m looking forward to teaching it again this fall.


  1. David: I have had a long, continuing discussion with Dan Kahan over this issue, largely due to the predisposition of Americans to ‘trust’ empirical data, even if they don’t use it to shape their personal beliefs. In fact, most states require that any piece of legislation be reviewed at a committee level prior to a vote so that empirical data connected to the issue can be inserted in the record, ditto federal legislation. So we have a long tradition of public ‘respect’ for empirical data but somehow the data then is ignored when the debate begins. Oh well.

    I still owe you a column on this remarkable teaching effort but I’m cogitating a bit more before writing. Stay tuned. You did a wonderful job.


  2. I’m struck by the contempt a lot (most?) of your students show for the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The desire to rule other folks lives by decree, with the apparent assumption that that is the way the world should work; with themselves as rulers and other people as the ruled, is pretty depressing. I realize that this was a Gun Class, not a Religion Class, or a Speech Class, or a No Search Without Warrant Class but one has to wonder if their authoritarian impulses are universal or specific to firearms.

    Liked by 1 person

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