Superstition helps explain how people think about gun laws

THE Onion put it best: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” An accurate summary of gun-control opponents’ response to America’s periodic gun massacres, the headline was also familiar. The satirical website has run it, with few alterations to an accompanying spoof article, five times: after six people were murdered in California in 2014; after nine were murdered in South Carolina, nine in Oregon and 14 in California in 2015; and after the killing of 58 and maiming of 489 people by a lone gunman in Las Vegas on October 1st.

Satire thrives where the usual checks on human folly fail. In this case it points to the fact that America, despite having a gun-murder rate 25 times higher than that of other developed countries, has no serious debate on how to reduce the killing, because Republican lawmakers refuse to countenance the only thing that easily would. By making it even a bit harder for killers to get guns—as action taken in Australia, Britain and Canada shows—America would have fewer gun deaths. Yet only a quarter of Republican voters accept that demonstrable truth. Most say America would have less crime if only more Americans were armed.

The usual explanation for this delusion is brilliantly effective lobbying by gun clubs. Since the 1970s the National Rifle Association, supported by gun makers, has recast what was once a public- safety issue into an argument about liberty: if you believe gun ownership is a thin red line against government tyranny, as the NRA claims, it scarcely matters whether it also leads to more killing. At the same time, the lobbyists have bullied Republican lawmakers so thoroughly that none dares speak against them. Asked for his position on gun control this week, Paul Ryan said he’d rather talk about cutting taxes. The Onion could not improve on that.

Yet though Republican voters have moved markedly against gun control over the course of the NRA’s lobbying, it alone cannot explain that shift. Many Republican voters are more selective in their support for guns than the ideologues; they tend to be momentarily keener on gun controls after a massacre, for example. It also seems notable that the same people who believe guns make America safer are also likely to hold a number of other irrational views. Around half of Republicans do not believe in evolution or anthropogenic climate change. They have also just elected as president a man who has suggested vaccines cause autism. Donald Trump’s insurgency in itself suggests that any explanation of Republican attitudes rooted in conservative ideology should be treated with caution.

A forthcoming book by the political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, “Enchanted America”, offers an alternative explanation. It argues that people who believe guns make America safer, among other fallacies, display a strain of superstition that has always existed in American politics, on the right and the left, but which in recent decades has concentrated on the right, and now threatens to subsume it. Its proponents, who the authors call “intuitionists”, understand the world on the basis of feelings and gut instinct, not doctrine or empirical facts, even when confronted with them. “Much of what looks like an ideological gap in this country”, the authors write, “is due more to the power of these innate intuitions than abstract principles or values.”

Understand that, they argue, and it becomes easier to comprehend that the judgments such voters reach in times of economic and cultural change, like the present, will be governed by fear. This is both an instinctive response to uncertainty and a self-validating one, as Mr Oliver illustrates by quoting his five-year-old son: “If there’s no monster in the closet, then why am I scared?” The refusal of millions of people to accept some limits on gun ownership, even though this would make their families safer, reflects the same white-knuckled logic.

How has such a rich, well-governed place come to this? Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay, “The Paranoid Style in America Politics”, offers another clue. Written in 1964, it locates the anger and paranoia that had characterised the Goldwater insurgency—in effect, an extreme case of intuitionism—in a long history of populist resentment and apocalyptic rhetoric. For Hofstadter, the paranoid style was a persistent but marginal “psychic phenomenon”, with a potential to take off in certain circumstances. The most propitious, he mused, would be “a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable”. It is possible to read America’s subsequent political history, dominated by the civil-rights struggle, the culture wars and the intractable partisanship they spawned, as proof of that conjecture.

Freefalling

There has since been plenty of irrational behaviour on the left, too, including hostility to genetically modified food and the current tendency of left-wing bloggers to see a Russian under every rock. Yet the fact that the losers in America’s cultural struggles—including fundamentalist Christians, rural whites and other traditional folk—were on the right has made it the domain of unreason. The election of Mr Trump sealed that. As an irreligious sometime pro-choice proponent of gun control, he was an implausible Republican champion. Still, his supporters backed him because, in their guts, where intuitive choices are made, they felt he was on their side, so none of that mattered.

On guns and much else, this suggests, Republican leaders have been directing the views of their supporters much less than they thought. They, and their NRA auxiliaries, could not have turned Republican voters on to gun ownership so dramatically had the issue not spoken to their pre-existing fears and fantasies. And much good has such pandering done the leaders. It has given them Mr Trump for a boss and a civil war, between populists and true conservatives, upon which their party could founder. It has also left them, in the wake of America’s worst civilian massacre in a century, with nothing to say.