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How to Persuade Conservatives to Tighten Gun Laws

November 09, 2017

By M. Amedeo Tumolillo and Alana Conner, Ph.D.

On Nov. 5, Devin Kelley shot and killed 26 people in a Texas church. Less than a week earlier, a man killed three people in a Colorado Walmart. And a month before that, another gunman murdered 59 people in Las Vegas.
 
People can — and do — argue endlessly over what causes someone to pick up a firearm and start killing. Sidestepping this question of motivation, research from criminologist Adam Lankford shows that the more guns a country has, the more mass shootings it will suffer. Likewise, a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine finds that greater gun access is associated with more suicides and homicides. 
 
Why, then, does the United States continually fail to pass laws that would do more to limit the availability of weapons?
 
Perhaps we're talking about the problem wrong. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggests we frame gun violence as a public health issue. Yet that approach would likely turn off conservatives, who already tend to dislike government involvement in people's welfare. Also, research shows that the abstract, large-scale statistics that form the backbone of many public health appeals — including Kristof's — often fail to motivate people to change.
 
So what would persuade, say, a die-hard Second Amendment activist to support stricter gun laws? Researchers at Stanford SPARQ: Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions have some ideas: 
 
Leverage the values of the person you're trying to convince.
 
Craft your gun control arguments in terms of your audience's morals, suggests Stanford SPARQ faculty affiliate Robb Willer. This technique, called moral reframing, runs counter to most people's inclination to state their positions according to their own values.
 
"There are not a lot of approaches to political persuasion that show consistent effects, and moral reframing is one that can work," Willer said in an interview with SPARQ. To sway conservatives, for instance, "you could make an argument that gun laws that encourage responsible gun ownership are consistent with family values, patriotism, and American tradition."
 
Other ideas that resonate with conservatives include group loyalty, respect for authority, order, and purity, notes Willer.
 
Applying Willer’s research, a message to your Second Amendment activist friend might read: "Patriotic Americans need tougher gun laws to protect their country."
 
Note that, when it comes to guns, the times are changing.
 
Saying that your crew is doing things differently now can cause people to adopt a new behavior, find SPARQ graduate affiliate Gregg Sparkman and SPARQ faculty affiliate Greg Walton. Their research examines the unwritten rules governing people's behavior (that is, social norms) as those rules are changing, a concept known as dynamic social norms. Sparkman and Walton found that messages about people increasingly conserving water and limiting their intake of meat led others to use less water in a laundromat and eat less meat at a cafe.
 
Using guns is a different behavior than washing clothes or snacking on a hamburger. Yet "just learning that other people are changing can instigate all these psychological processes that motivate further change," Sparkman told Stanford News.  
 
Sparkman also noted in an interview with SPARQ that the believability of the change you're highlighting is important. Find stories and data to support your claim. For instance, an email to your pro-gun friend that applied both dynamic norms and moral reframing could look something like this: "To protect American traditions, conservatives are increasingly supporting laws that limit access to assault weapons."
 
Speak to the self of your conservative friend.
 
As SPARQ directors Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner explain in their book, Clash! How To Thrive in a Multicultural World, religious liberals (who tend to support tighter gun control laws) and religious conservatives (who tend to disapprove of gun control laws) think of themselves differently. 
 
Conservatives see themselves as interdependent — they emphasize their similarities to others and home in on their role in a network of relationships. They are rooted in tradition, history, and place. Liberals more often perceive themselves as independent — they focus on their individuality, uniqueness, and freedom from tradition, history, and place.
 
You're speaking the wrong language if you're encouraging your anti-regulation friend to break free from her group’s way of thinking, or lecturing her about an individual’s right to safety. Instead, talk about her interdependent concerns: What are the biggest threats to her neighborhood, regardless of what the 5 o’clock news says? What policies will most protect her family? 
 
Researchers have not yet tested whether these techniques would change opinions about gun control laws. Yet given the toll that firearms continue to take, and America's seeming inability to change, these ideas are worth trying.
 

What do you think about trying to change conservatives' minds using these steps? Email us your ideas at stanford_sparq@stanford.edu.

M. Amedeo Tumolillo is SPARQ's media director, and Alana Conner is the center's executive director.


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