When NRA Ideology Fails

February 12, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last month, a freshman at the University of Idaho committed suicide in his dorm room. He shot himself with his Smith and Wesson .357.  In his obituary, his parents wrote, “Let us drag the evil hiding in the darkness of the most dangerous places on earth: Gun free zones.” 

At first this reaction seems hard to understand.  True, the university is a gun-free zone, but it’s hard to see how allowing guns on campus could have prevented his death.* More logical is the idea that if the campus had been truly gun-free, if he had not had a gun in his room, he might still be alive. So the suicide should make his parents soften their pro-gun absolutism rather stiffen it.  The suicide is evidence that the danger lies not in gun-free zones but in guns themselves, . 

My guess is that the parents’ reaction can be understood as cognitive dissonance, much like the reaction of the believers in When Prophecy Fails.  When the flying saucer failed to appear, when, instead of being whisked away to the planet Clarion, they were still in a living room in Illinois, they did not give up their belief.  Instead, they went public and tried, as they never had before, to bring others into their group. (An earlier post on post-election dissonance is here.)

When a piece of evidence, even a huge piece, is dissonant with beliefs, people rarely change their beliefs.  Instead, they find a way to explain away the evidence.

In the debates over crime, conservatives liked to say that a conservative is a liberal who’s just been mugged.  Cute, but there was no evidence to support it.  There was no correlation between victimization and ideologies about crime.  (I don’t remember any research on the obverse proposition: a liberal is a conservative who’s just been arrested.)  It’s not just a matter of “if the facts don’t fit the theory, too bad for the facts.”  A single fact need not invalidate a theory or ideology. 

But if that fact is truly weighty, it does threaten the ideology.  To defend against that threat, the believer goes out proselytizing.  If he can persuade other people, then the belief must be true after all.  And even if other people are  not persuaded, the effort of repeating and elaborating a position solidifies the belief in his own mind.

(HT: Dave Purcell, who tweeted this story.)
* The student, Jason Monson, had kept a Desert Eagle handgun under his pillow, against university regulations. His roommate reported the gun, the police came and took it.  On Saturday, he went to the police station to retrieve the gun – it violated no state law, only the university regulations – but was told that because of the long weekend, he couldn’t get it back till Tuesday.  Instead, he got the .357 he kept in his pick-up, returned to the dorm, and shot himself. 

We don’t have a clue as to what precipitated the suicide. The NBC news story (here) has no hint of an explanation.  Monson left notes to his family, but the parents haven’t spoken with the media.  Still, it seems unlikely that his suicide was a reaction to having his gun temporarily confiscated. 


Bob S. said...

It is a crime to commit suicide.
The 'gun free zone' didn't stop that crime nor did it stop anyone from bringing a firearm on campus if they wished.

By highlighting that fact with his suicide, he highlighted the complete and utter failure that 'gun free zones' truly are.

Many people are willing to become martyrs for a cause they believe in; does that mean that it should make others question their cause?

Simply Aaron said...

I would think that if that kid had wanted to be a martyr, he would have left just a little more to remember himself by. Maybe not, but outside of his parents odd comment I see no evidence to think so.

Why is it so hard to admit that the high rate of gun related suicides in America is an unfortunate side effect of our easy access to guns? This simple matter of fact just seems to support the original post.

Bob S. said...


Japan has a higher suicide rate than America -- what is that an unfortunate side effect of?

Simply Aaron said...

Culture... Same thing goes for Korea which has an even higher rate. The only difference in this situation is that in those countries, simply stating facts regarding the 1# suicide method doesn't seem to draw fire, so to speak. Refusal to admit there is a problem with the specific brand of gun culture that actively attacks programs that try to mitigate suicide risks is sad to me. Same thing goes for people who fight seatbelt or helmet laws. They are encouraging people to participate in unnecessarily risky behavior. You are more likely to be killed by your own gun than to save a life with it, why do we need that risk in our schools?

Bob S. said...


So their suicide rates is due to culture but ours is due to the presence of firearms?

Do I understand you right?

When we talk about a 'gun culture' here in America; why is that separate from the culture at large? We don't talk about a "hanging culture" in Japan or Korea.

The reason suicide methods in those countries 'don't draw fire' is because they recognize attacking the means is ridiculous. You talk about a 'specific brand of gun culture' but help me identify that brand of 'gun culture'.

Is it the hunters, the defensive pistol shooters, the weekend recreational shooters, the cops/military?

19,000 suicides per year out of 44,000,000 gun owners or more. Yeah, there really seems to be a predominate 'culture' there, eh.

You are more likely to be killed by your own gun than to save a life with it, why do we need that risk in our schools?

What a bunch of horse hooey. I'm betting you are referring to the much and often defunct Kellermann study. The one where he deliberately excluded non-fatal firearm outcomes? The one that originally started out at 43X more likely than was revised down to 2.3X

With factors such as drug use or family violence coming in at twice the levels of firearm ownership.

The risk is already there. This suicide is an example of how the laws do not stop it. What we do is increase the risk to people; increased risk of rape, robbery, assault -- because we've created zones where the criminals know the people coming to/from or on are disarmed by law.

Makes no sense to me.

Jay Livingston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Livingston said...

The comparison of the US with Japan and S. Korea is confounded by the culture variable. Comparisons within the US eliminate or greatly reduce that factor. This page summarizes the findings of several research studies and meta-analyses. For example,

"we analyzed the relationship between firearm availability and suicide across 50 states over a ten year period (1988-1997). After controlling for poverty and urbanization, for every age group, across the United States, people in states with many guns have elevated rates of suicide, particularly firearm suicide."

PCM said...

I'm sick of debating whether or not guns increase the chance of getting shot. Of course they do.

Common sense and good research confirm this.

But I'm still trying to get around the NRA logic that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with gun. Was Chris Kyle not armed?

Bob S. said...

Christopher Dorner was also armed and they sent good guys to stop him.

Having a firearm on you isn't going to stop every crime no more than banning every firearm will.

You say "of course they do" but you don't offer the research to prove it.

Common sense often tells us things that aren't true.

Consider that there are approximately 45 million households with firearms in them. IF firearms increase the chance of being shot why aren't we seeing millions of people being shot ?

More firearms are being purchased, more firearms are being carried -- yet injuries, deaths and crimes are going down. How do you explain those facts?

And more importantly, how do you want to get around the fact the Constitution protects the Right to Keep and Bear Arms?

Jay Livingston said...

1. Research: The research I linked to shows that those 45 million households with guns will have a higher suicide rate than households without guns, especially for males. And it’s not because gun owners are more suicidal. They’re not.

Other research also shows that those gun households also have a higher rate of homicide. The Kellerman study that you cited showed that the risk was 2.7 times greater.

2. “IF firearms increase the chance of being shot why aren't we seeing millions of people being shot ?”

Both suicide and homicide rates are very low, numbering in thousands not millions. But increasing the risk by a factor of 2 or 3 is still troubling. By analogy, imagine an environmental factor – some chemical dumped into the water – that triples your risk of a cancer that kills 20-30,000 people a year. Would you say, “If this chemical increases the chance of cancer why aren't we seeing millions of people getting that cancer?”

3. The number of guns has increased. Rates of gun ownership have decreased. The logical explanation is that the gun lovers are adding more guns to their collections, not that more households are acquiring their first gun.

3. Constitution. None of the general statements in the Bill of Rights is absolute. Libel laws limit free speech; despite Amendment IV, police may make searches without warrants under many conditions, and so on. The current conservative Supreme Court has ruled that some extremely broad gun bans violated the Second Amendment. But even this Court hasn’t come close to the absolutist position.