“My Student Jim” – Mark Joslyn on Emotions, Polarization, and Gun Politics

In these trying times, can we at least all agree that guns are politically polarizing in the United States? Not inherently, of course, but they get drawn up into our divisive political system and culture in a profound way.

I’m pleased to share political scientist Mark R. Joslyn’s reflection on how emotions drive reasoning and division on the gun issue, for better or worse.

These reflections are part of a broader project Joslyn has been working on concerning the politics of gun ownership (see more about the author at the end). Based on this essay, I am really looking forward to getting my hands on his just released book, The Gun Gap: The Influence of Gun Ownership on Political Behavior and Attitudes. See this flyer with more information on the book and order online from Oxford University Press with promo code ASFLYQ6 to save 30%.

My Student Jim

 By Mark R. Joslyn

When introducing the basics of gun politics to my students, I typically discuss people’s beliefs that guns are a threat to public safety.  And, until passage of stricter gun regulations, many believe gun violence will only increase.

Most students nod in approval.

However, last semester, Jim, a military man, seated directly in front of me, shook his head.  He is an attentive, intelligent, and a polite student – good-natured and friendly to everyone.  Also, not a hair out of place, shirts pressed daily, and shoes shined.

Jim did not see guns as a threat to safety.  Just the opposite.  He raised his hand and drew a connection between an immediate desire for safety and guns.  “When people need help, they call 911 and a ‘gun’ shows up.”

The students balked.

Jim was not finished.  Evidently, his in-laws are strong gun control supporters and requested that in their presence Jim never carry his concealed weapon.  Jim agreed.

But, overtime, the in-laws relented and even urged Jim to carry his firearm.  On excursions around town, they told Jim to bring it along.  The in-laws said, “It made them feel safer.”

A student in the back row asked, “What changed?”  Jim answered, “My in-laws got to know me.  They now like me.”

Emotion driven reasoning

Jim’s story illustrates a psychological phenomenon called the affect heuristic, whereby people rely on their emotions to make judgements about benefits and risks.  Positive emotions elicit high benefits and low risk, while negative emotions have the opposite effect.

Jim’s in-laws considered guns dangerous, a threat to their own safety and the public.  Eventually, as they came to know and like Jim, their assessments of gun risks and benefits changed.  Having Jim carry his gun made them feel safer.

Therefore, it is not necessary to have an elaborate understanding of guns to reach a verdict on gun safety and regulation.  Feelings toward gun carriers do that for us.

My own research

In my new book, The Gun Gap, I surveyed people to find out their feelings toward gun owners.  Predictably, I discovered that gun owners and Republicans expressed the warmest emotions.  In fact, about 1 in 5 reported the warmest category on the emotions scale.  By contrast, Democrats and non-gun owners reported notably negative feelings.  Approximately 10% selected the coldest category on the scale.

These emotions matter.  They strongly correlate with people’s beliefs about whether guns threaten personal and public safety.  Among people that felt favorable toward gun owners, seeing people carry guns in public does not threaten them.  Consequently, they were supportive of relaxing gun regulations, agreeing that the concealed carry laws made everyone safer.

However, among people that viewed gun owners unfavorably, seeing guns in public threatened their well-being.  They felt unsafe.  As a result, they thought concealed carry laws endangered public safety.

In short, it’s not the gun that matters.  Rather, what matters is our emotional disposition toward gun owners, which directly impacts our beliefs about guns.


The findings shed light on public campaigns waged against gun rights advocates. To gather support for a gun control agenda, it pays to ridicule gun culture and aggressively stereotype gun owners.

Media outlets, for example, regularly lampoon gun owners as fanatics, gun nuts, violent hicks, rednecks, and racists.  Reporters frame stories in ways that depict gun-owning Americans as distinctly “other” – separating gun owners from everyone else.   Even President Obama, a politician noted for measured rhetoric, type-casted owners referring to small town folk’s bitterness that caused them to cling to guns and religion.

The tactics are unpleasant but effective.  By moving sentiment toward gun owners in an unfavorable direction, the threats that guns pose increase – support for stricter gun regulations follows.

In summary, we expect people to be alarmed if a widely despised, dangerous, and extreme group carries guns.   On the other hand, a group of dependable, intelligent and likeable gun owners – like my student Jim – do not seem to arouse regulatory impulses.

Because this is true, both sides of the gun debate will continue efforts to characterize gun owners.

About the Author

Mark R. Joslyn is Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. As he describes his work, “I study political attitudes and attitude change. How are political attitudes formed and under what conditions may we expect change? I draw from cognitive and motivational theories, recognizing the value of both to understanding the political mind. Over the past few years, I examined various determinants of causal attributions. The perceived causes of mass shootings, obesity, homosexuality, wealth and success are a few of the attributions examined. Another prominent feature of my research concerns the political attitudes and behavior of gun owners. We know very little about this group, though guns generate much attention in American Politics.” He blogs on American politics, including guns, at Consider the Politics.


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