Experts: Values can trump data in gun debate

If the latest exchange of talking points about guns seems familiar, you’re in good company. People immersed in the gun debate, from both sides of the issue, have seen this before. Guns, they say, define a huge cultural divide. Data lobbed from either group tend to drop into an ideological chasm without visible effect.

Andrew McClurg teaches law at the University of Memphis Law School. He says abuse of the data abounds and the average person often tunes this stuff out.

"People justifiably don’t trust the reliability of the statistical claims on either side," McClurg said.

McClurg co-edited a book on gun laws, Gun Control and Gun Rights, with two gun rights advocates, David Kopel and Brannon Denning. Denning teaches law at Cumberland Law School. When supporters of gun control bring up the death toll from firearms, he said gun rights supporters connect many of those deaths to crime.

"They're not going to shed many tears for shootouts where gang members end up killing one another," Denning said.

As for the thousands of suicides, Denning said those are viewed as a matter of individual choice.

"I think numbers matter very little, on either side of the debate," Denning said. "The more egalitarian or communitarian one's orientation, the more likely one is to support additional restrictions on guns. Contrariwise, the more hierarchical or individualistic one is, the more skeptical of additional regulation one will tend to be."

David Frank, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Oregon, said numbers only persuade when they connect with a bigger set of values.

"The NRA and gun rights advocates have rooted gun ownership in the Bible, Constitution, and the flag," Frank said. "Those who seek more significant gun regulation may not persuade those who have fixed ideological and fixed quasi-mythic commitments to guns. But there are those in the middle of the spectrum who are open to statistical arguments yoked to American values and carefully crafted policies that would reduce gun violence."

Frank said he sees Obama  pushing the discussion more in the direction of how well society takes care of its own. And to some degree, Denning also sees that shift.

"I suppose the rhetoric from the pro-regulation side has changed somewhat from ‘gun control’ to ‘gun safety,’ " he said.

McClurg said as much as anything, debating this issue over the web and on news shows works against change. In the more personal setting of his classroom, he has seen minds begin to shift.

"I would estimate that at least 80 percent of the students who have enrolled in my gun policy seminar over the years are strong gun-rights supporters," McClurg said. "They don’t switch their views wholesale, of course, but they come to recognize the undeniable truth that there is such a thing as ‘reasonable regulations’ that hold the potential to reduce gun violence without infringing the rights of law-abiding citizens to own guns."

Read a summary of our recent fact-checks on guns.