Personal, Psychology

Thoughts on Gun Violence From a Psychologist’s Perspective

I hadn’t intended to comment publicly on political topics here, especially this one; it’s complex and nuanced, and it doesn’t lend itself well to constructive exploration and discussion in online media. My focus is on a theory that helps us understand the increase in gun violence over the past couple of decades.

Actually, I’m going to cheat a little and embed a video I recorded on the subject. It’s a pretty personal take, so it isn’t exhaustively researched, scripted, and presented. I just wanted to share some observations and recollections, to call attention to how Dr. Albert Bandura’s social learning theory—later revised and renamed social cognitive theory—explains how the United States has come to be the home of mass shootings of innocent people.

Social cognitive theory is an individualistic approach to describing human functioning across a variety of social contexts, from as basic as a couple or family setting to cultural and nationalistic settings. According to social learning theory, we learn by observing others around us: we see what they do and often, the consequences of that behavior. Both can affect our future behavior in a similar situation.

From that, it’s possible to trace and predict shifts in cultural norms and attitudes over time… particularly these days, when social media is easily, inexpensively available. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to notice that changes in media content and American entertainment over the past 20–30 years have shifted attitudes toward gun ownership. I focus on some pivotal changes in the video above.

I didn’t clearly state a crucial point in the video: because firearms have benefited from increased legal protections and normalization in a segment of American culture, an implicit message is that Americans’ lives are less valuable. Some survivors of the Parkland school shooting made that idea explicit, and even that hasn’t substantially changed the US government’s legislative approach to addressing gun violence. Many state governments have paradoxically continued to loosen restrictions on firearm ownership and/or carry since the federal ban on assault-style weapons was allowed to expire.

Federal legislation can reverse this deadly trend; we’ve seen that happen before. That cannot work, however, without shifting the mainstream culture away from glorifying firearms and the destruction they cause and toward a culture that values tolerance of individual differences and accepts the responsibilities that cannot be separated from individual rights.

I can’t say at present which of these is the more challenging task.

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