FACULTY BLOG: Americans Are Suffering More Angst About Gun Policy

In this moment, Americans seem to have guns on their minds.

A recent national poll conducted by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute—coincidentally only days after the shooting in Parkland, FL—found that public focus on both gun violence and gun controls increased. Following a line of questioning across several measurement points, the poll reveals a shift in perceived importance from less than 2 percent citing gun violence issues of high importance in American society in September 2017 to almost 10 percent in February. Concern over gun controls jumped from less than 1 percent in September to 8.3 percent a few weeks ago.

Enormous tragedy, constant media coverage, and social media streams of family and friends have likely been impossible to miss.

How long will this increased focus continue? One way of understanding how things stay in our focus has to do with the way we create and store memories. In general, the brain stores related information across a vast interconnected framework. To store new information, we make predictions of relationships based on things we already know—creating a new pattern out of old ideas. When a memory or set of ideas is “called up for use,” that specific pattern of activity plays across the framework. The pattern becomes stronger and gains more connections as it is called up over and over; a strong memory pattern or set of ideas becomes one we easily and consistently access as if it were “always on my mind.”

This seems paradoxical because we have also seen that something after each incidence, the pattern in the mind begin to weaken. The brain gets busy directing its energy and resources to processing the other trials and tribulations in life.

So, is it that we tend to forget and move on from these tragedies? Not really, because each new tragedy since Columbine seems to be leading to a greater and greater emotional response. From the perspective of brain functioning, this suggests each tragedy is translated into a new node in the web of thought. Those nodes remain, and their persistence means when the next episode emerges, its influence spreads in our minds across a wider and more connected network. The pattern re-energizes and grows new connections, and so over the longer term, the pattern actually strengthens despite previous, intermittent times of quiet.

I think this means that at some point the pattern will be too strong and connected to ignore.

– Christopher Wolfe, PhD, psychology, and assistant professor

A Political Scientist Responds: Change Would Be Different

I think the repetition argument is interesting for overcoming the fact that the salience of gun- control issues fades as we move farther away from the event. My counter would be that those voters who don’t want stricter gun-control measures just hold their beliefs much more intensely. They care about these issues a lot more, even if they might be in the minority. They are willing to vote single-issue while those who want stricter laws have a lot of other issues they care about.

If people on the gun-control side of the question continue to carry their passion about this question through the national mid-term elections, it will be the first time it’s happened. I’m not sure we’re at that critical mass yet, but the latest actions by Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature to limit approve a three-day waiting period before the purchase of all guns, to raise the age at which a gun purchase is allowed to 21—and those are just the highlights—are interesting.

– Frank Orlando, polling institute director

Legal Perspective: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Second Amendment

Short preface: The court case that is relevant to Second Amendment rights is called McDonald v. Chicago; it came to the high court in 2009 and the 5-4 decision came down in 2010. The court’s majority opinion states that self-defense is an acknowledged right in many societies from ancient times to the current world and is central to the Second Amendment; the decision goes on to say that the right to self-defense extends to a right to have a handgun in the home for defense of self, family, and property.

“Gun control as of today will have to come in the form of who and how a person may purchase a gun. The McDonald case clearly reinforces and continues to establish the right to own a gun. Who can sell and or gift a gun is an area that the states can attempt to use in an effort to enforce gun control.”

– Joseph Cillo, JD, criminal justice faculty