Amanda Ripley

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Guns and the Brain

27th Jun 2008 posted in General

I’ve been thinking about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn DC’s ban on guns. As someone who lives in DC and has in the past covered random, drive-by shootings and seen boys bleeding on the street become a routine part of the landscape, I am having a hard time understanding how more guns will make things better.

Before this decision, it was still easy to get a gun in DC, partly because it was easy to get one in neighboring states. DC is tiny, keep in mind. It’s an intersection, not a state. Now it will be even easier to get a gun. And who are the people most likely to be killed by a gun? Young people, without a doubt. What kind of a civilization knowingly encourages the murder of its youngest members?

I am starting to think that guns are like lightning in America. They fall into blind spots in our brains, for a lot of reasons, and we fear them less than we should.

In The Unthinkable, I tried to write an equation for dread—the factor that most influences our perception of risk. Our brain tends to weight certain factors in the dread equation more heavily than it should. So we fear airplane crashes more than heart attacks, for example, because airplanes seem more out of our control (a sense of control is a major suppressor of dread).

Guns seem more in our control—like driving. Even though cars and guns kill a total of 70,000 people per year in this country, we have a vague sense that they are under our control, and safer than they are. In America, this problem is compounded by emotion. People see guns as a God-given right, so restrictions on guns (unlike restrictions on, say, tobacco, another deadly product) feel more unfair. And unfairness is another factor in the dread equation.

I bet that if we assigned values to the dread equation, we would see that many Americans dread gun control more than guns.

That said, it’s worth noting that most Americans support gun control. But the debate is shaped—and the dread is alternately amped and suppressed—by the gun lobby. Why is the gun lobby so much more powerful than the popular consensus? Well, they have far more money than the gun-control lobby. And why is that? I am not sure. I’d suspect it has something to do with dread, once again. Where there is dread, there will be money. (See: terrorism.)