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What motivates individuals to support or oppose the legal regulation of guns? What sorts of evidence or arguments are likely to promote a resolution of the gun control debate? Using the survey methods associated with the cultural theory of risk, we demonstrate that individuals’ positions on gun control derive from their cultural world views: individuals of an egalitarian or solidaristic orientation tend to support gun control, those of a hierarchical or individualist orientation to oppose it. Indeed, cultural orientations so defined are stronger predictors of individuals’ positions than is any other fact about them, including whether they are male or female, white or black, Southerners or Easterners, urbanites or country dwellers, conservatives or liberals. The role of culture in determining attitudes towards guns suggests that econometric analyses of the effect of gun control on violent crime are unlikely to have much impact. As they do when they are evaluating empirical evidence of environmental and other types of risks, individuals can be expected to credit or dismiss empirical evidence on “gun control risks” depending on whether it coheres or conflicts with their cultural values. Rather than focus on quantifying the impact of gun control laws on crime, then, academics and others who want to contribute to resolving the gun debate should dedicate themselves to constructing a new expressive idiom that will allow citizens to debate the cultural issues that divide them in an open and constructive way.
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