Guns on the Brain

Adapted from the forthcoming book, The Political Brain

On April 16, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, carried two semiautomatic pistols onto campus and killed 32 people. It was the deadliest shooting in modern American history.

The following week, a nation listened in horror as witnesses recounted stories of how they had barricaded desks against their classroom doors to keep the psychotic young man from entering, only to hear him spend a round of ammo, drop the spent clip, and reload in seconds.

Democratic leaders offered the requisite condolences. But that's all they offered. They didn't mention that the Republican Congress had let the Brady Act, which banned the sale of semiautomatic weapons, sunset in 2004. They didn't mention that in the decade or so after the passage of that act, 100,000 felons lost their right to bear arms, but not a single hunter lost that right. Instead, the Democrats ran for political cover, waiting for the smoke to clear.

This wasn't the first time Democrats scattered when threatened with Republican gunshots. They were silent as the Beltway sniper terrorized our nation's capital a month before the midterm elections of 2002. And they have been silent or defensive on virtually every "wedge" issue that has divided our nation for much of the last 30 years. When the Republicans tried to play the hate card again in 2006, this time under the cover of immigration reform, Democrats scrambled to pull together a "policy" on immigration, instead of simply asking, "What's the matter, gays aren't working for you anymore?"

So how did we find ourselves where we are today, with an electorate that has finally figured out that the once larger-than-life Wizard of Terror was nothing but a projection on a screen -- and an opposition party that can't seem to find its heart, its brain, or its courage, and instead wonders what's the matter with Kansas?

And most importantly, how do we find our way back home?

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Visions of Mind

Behind every campaign lies a vision of mind -- often implicit, rarely articulated, and generally invisible to the naked eye. Traces of that vision can be seen in everything a campaign does or doesn't do.

The vision of mind that has captured the imagination of Democratic strategists for much of the last 40 years -- a dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions -- bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work. When strategists start from this vision of mind, their candidates typically lose.

Democrats typically bombard voters with laundry lists of issues, facts, figures, and policy positions, while Republicans offer emotionally compelling appeals, whether to voters' values, principles, or prejudices. As a result, we have seen only one Democrat elected and reelected to the White House since Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Clinton, who, like Roosevelt, understood how to connect with voters emotionally) and only one Republican fail to do so (George Bush Senior, who ran like a Democrat and paid for it).

Our brains are nothing but vast networks of neurons. Of particular importance for understanding politics are "networks of associations" -- bundles of thoughts, feelings, sounds, images, memories, and emotions that have become linked through experience. People can't tell you much about what's in those networks, or about what's likely to change them (which happen to be the central determinants of voting behavior). They can't tell you because they don't have conscious access to them, any more than they can tell you what's going on in their pancreas. And if you ask them, they often get it wrong.

In polls and focus groups, voters told John Kerry's consultants that they didn't like "negativity," so the consultants told Kerry to avoid it. To what extent those voters just didn't know the power of negative appeals on their own networks, or didn't want to admit it, is unclear. What is clear is that George W. Bush won the election by spending 75 percent of his budget on negativity against a candidate whose refusal to fight back projected nothing but weakness in the face of aggression -- precisely the narrative Bush was constructing about Kerry.

If you start with the assumption of a dispassionate mind -- of voters who weigh the utility of each candidate's stand on a range of issues and calculate which candidate has the greater utility -- you inevitably turn to pollsters as oracles to divine which issues are up, which are down, and which are best avoided. The vision of the dispassionate mind represents public opinion in one dimension -- a straight line, from up to down, high to low, pro-choice to anti-abortion, anti-gun to pro-gun.

But this is a one-dimensional rendering of three-dimensional data. If you start with networks, you think very differently about campaigns, from the way you interpret polling data to the way you handle the wedge issues that have run Democratic campaigns into the ground for decades. On virtually every contentious political issue -- abortion, welfare, gay marriage, tax cuts, and, yes, guns -- polls show a seemingly "mixed" pattern of results, with the electorate endorsing what seem like contradictory positions. The vast majority of Americans support gun regulations but also support the right to bear arms. So are Americans pro-gun or anti-gun?

That's the wrong question. And it inevitably leads Democratic strategists to the wrong answer: "Take the issue off the table -- it's radioactive."

This kind of one-dimensional thinking fails to appreciate that voters may be of two minds about an issue. The same issue often activates two or more networks that lead to different feelings in the same person (e.g., concern about guns in the hands of criminals, and support for the rights of law-abiding citizens to protect their families), and different groups of voters may have radically different associations to the same thing (whether to guns, gays, abortion, or immigrants). Unfortunately, these are just the kinds of issues that arouse the most passion and, hence, have the biggest impact on both voting and get-out-the-vote efforts. And they are generally the issues Democrats try to avoid.

If you cede the contentious issues, you cede passion to the other side. And given that people vote with their "guts," if you cede passion, you ultimately concede elections.

Republicans go straight for these gut issues, and they now have the confidence that they can do so even when support for their position is in the range of 30 percent, as is the case with their absolutist stance on abortion (that abortion is murder and should be illegal under all circumstances) and guns (that the right to bear arms is inviolable, no matter what the death toll). Democrats usually don't contest them, the public never hears a compelling counternarrative, and public opinion gradually shifts to the right.

If you understand how networks work, you understand that candidates should never avoid anything -- particularly when the other side is talking about it. Doing so gives the opposition exclusive rights to the networks that create and constitute public opinion.

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Hunting for Principles

If ever there was an issue on which Americans are of two minds, it is guns. Most Americans believe in the Second Amendment, but most Americans also support a host of restrictions on gun sales and ownership. In the 2004 pre-election Harris poll, slightly more than half of Americans reported favoring stricter gun laws, but far fewer -- only one in five -- wanted to relax the current laws. (When Harris framed the question more specifically in terms of handguns, the percentages became even more lopsided, closer to 3-to-1 in favor of stricter regulations.) Only a small majority, however, supports tougher gun regulations, and many of these people are clustered in large urban areas and on the coasts. This is one of those mixed pictures that lead Democratic strategists to run for the hills.

Al Gore epitomized Democrats' discomfort with guns in an exchange with Bush in their second presidential debate in 2000:

MODERATOR: So on guns, somebody wants to cast a vote based on your differences, where are the differences?

GORE: ... I am for licensing by states of new handgun purchases ... because too many criminals are getting guns. There was a recent investigation of the number in Texas who got, who were given concealed-weapons permits in spite of the fact that they had records. And the Los Angeles Times spent a lot of ink going into that. But I am not for doing anything that would affect hunters or sportsmen, rifles, shotguns, existing handguns. I do think that sensible gun-safety measures are warranted now.

Look, this is the year -- this is in the aftermath of Columbine, and Paducah, and all the places in our country where the nation has been shocked by these weapons in the hands of the wrong people. The woman who bought the guns for the two boys who did that killing at Columbine said that if she had had to give her name and fill out a form there, she would not have bought those guns.

Behind this response we can hear the whirring of the dispassionate mind -- the gratuitous reference to the Los Angeles Times, the reference to Columbine without offering an evocative image. But what is most striking about this response is the lack of any coherent principle that might explain why Gore would place restrictions on new handguns but not on old ones. (Are the existing ones too rusty to kill anybody?) Nor does he justify why he is excluding hunting rifles, although the viewer can infer (correctly) that he wants to get elected.

Bush couldn't respond to the most powerful part of Gore's response, about the woman who had handed the guns to the Columbine shooters. So after reiterating his opposition to requiring gun purchasers even to show photo identification, he switched to a "culture of life" message (aimed at activating anti-abortion networks under the cover of guns) and a "culture of love" message (suggesting that somewhere out there there's a child longing to be told he's loved -- which would presumably prevent massacres like Columbine). Bush's message was not only cognitively incoherent; it was actually lifted from a phenomenally moving eulogy Gore had delivered at Columbine.

True to the dispassionate vision of the mind, Gore failed to mention that he had been at Columbine. With all their debate preparation, his campaign strategists never realized that the vice president's best weapon on guns was that magnificent eulogy, in which he artfully invoked "that voice [that] says to our troubled souls: peace, be still. The Scripture promises that there is a peace that passes understanding."

Bush presented Gore with a golden opportunity to personalize the issue, to put the face of a child on it. With a response like the following, he would have placed in bold relief the extraordinary indifference implicit in Bush's response and the extremism of the conservative narrative Bush was embracing:

Governor, I walked with those shocked and grieving parents, teachers, and children at Columbine; I shed tears with them; and I delivered a eulogy that Sunday by their graveside. I remembered with them the heroism of their beloved coach and teacher Dave Sanders, who bravely led so many to safety but never made it out of the building himself. I remembered with them a young girl named Cassie Bernall, whose final words were "Yes, I do believe in God."

I just told you how the woman who bought the guns that took the lives of Dave Sanders and Cassie Bernall wouldn't have done it if she'd just had to fill out a form and show a photo ID. And you still can't feel for Coach Sanders' wife and children, who'll never wrap their loving arms around him again? You still can't weep for Cassie's parents? You still think it's sensible to require someone to show a photo ID to cash a check but that it's too much to ask that they show an ID to buy a handgun?

Americans do have a clear choice in this election. And it is about a culture of life. They can do something to honor the lives of those who died that day at Columbine. Or they can vote for a man who, as governor of Texas, signed a law allowing people to bring guns into church.

Although most Americans were much closer to Gore than Bush on guns in the 2000 Harris poll, they thought Bush was stronger on gun control. Although Kerry had hunted all his life, Bush was the overwhelming choice of American sportsmen, even though he'd purchased his Crawford ranch as a prop only two years before running for president -- something Democrats never thought to mention in two presidential campaigns. Nor did they mention, as James Carville and Paul Begala have pointed out, that Bush had stocked his ranch's man-made lakes with fish because the river running through it was too polluted.

These are just the kinds of facts and images that win elections. And they are just the kinds of facts and images that should win elections, because they tell where a candidate really stands, not just where he stands for photo ops.

This is precisely the kind of information that informs the emotions of the electorate.

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Gunning for Common Ground

To understand the poll numbers on guns in three dimensions, you have to consider the different associations the word "gun" evokes in urban and rural America. If you prime voters who have grown up in big cities with the word "gun," you are likely to activate a network that includes "handguns," "murder," "mugging," "robbery," "killing," "crime," "inner-city violence," "machine guns," and "criminals." If someone in New York City is packing a piece, he isn't hunting quail.

But now suppose we prime a group of voters -- let's make them men -- in rural America with precisely the same word, "gun." This time, the associations that come to mind include "hunt," "my daddy," "my son," "gun shows," "gun collection," "rifle," "shotgun," "protecting my family," "deer," "buddies," "beer," "my rights" -- and a host of memories that link past and future generations. A voter who lives in a rural area knows that if an armed intruder enters his house, it could take a long time before the county sheriff arrives. The notion of being defenseless doesn't sit well with southern and rural males, whose identity as men is strongly associated with the ability to protect their families.

There are some voters you just can't win. As my colleagues and I discovered when we scanned the brains of partisans during the last presidential election, roughly a third of Americans' minds won't bend to the left no matter what you do or say (roughly the percent who continue to support Bush). But southern and rural voters are not unambivalent in their feelings toward guns. Rural voters have no fondness for what happened at Columbine or Virginia Tech, and they have little genuine affection for handguns or automatic weapons. If the National Rifle Association scares them into supporting semiautomatics for felons and teenagers with its slippery-slope argument about "taking away your guns," the fault lies as much with the Democratic Party, which has put such a powerful safety lock on its own values that no one knows where Democrats really stand -- on this or virtually any other moral issue.

When a party finds itself courting potentially winnable voters who have seemingly incompatible associations, the first task of its strategists should be to look for two things: areas of ambivalence and ways of bridging seemingly unconnected networks to create common ground. The areas of ambivalence on guns are clear, but Democrats should be searching for the common ground that connects left to right on guns. One of the most powerful "bridging networks" revolves around law and order. A central appeal of conservative ideology is that it emphasizes the protection of law-abiding citizens. Those in the cities who want gun control for the protection of their families and those in the countryside who decry the lawlessness of the cities share the same concern: the freedom and safety of law-abiding citizens. Democrats should also connect the dots between the extremist message of the NRA and another powerful network: terrorism. You can't fight a war against terrorists if you grant them unrestricted access to automatic weapons on your own soil.

This convergence of networks suggests a simple, commonsense, principled stand on guns that Democrats could run with all over the country:

Our moral vision on guns reflects one simple principle: that gun laws should guarantee the freedom and safety of all law-abiding Americans. We stand with the majority of Americans who believe in the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns to hunt and protect their families. And we stand with that same majority of Americans who believe that felons, terrorists, and troubled teenagers don't have the right to bear arms that threaten the safety of our children. We therefore support the right to bear arms, but not to bear arms designed for no other purpose than to take another person's life.

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Shooting Blanks

At Virginia Tech, we witnessed another Terri Schiavo moment, when Democrats could have asserted a progressive moral alternative to an extremist narrative of the far right. But once again, they cowered in the corner, hoping to convince the American public that they're almost as right as the Republicans. Unfortunately, you never win elections by being almost as principled as the other side. If only one side is talking about its values, its candidate -- not the moral runner-up -- will win over voters.

With the polls strongly at their backs, Democrats had a historic opportunity to turn the Republicans' indifference to the suffering at Virginia Tech into a moral condemnation, and to put every Republican in Congress on record as caring more about the blood-soaked dollars of the NRA than about the lives of our children. Instead, they turned tail and ran, fearing they'd be branded as "anti-gun" and pushed down the slippery slope the NRA has used to pick them off at the ballot box for years: "They want to take away your gun."

But you only have to worry about getting branded and being pushed down slippery slopes if you're playing checkers while the other side is playing chess -- worrying about their next move when you should be anticipating six moves ahead. Democrats didn't do what they knew was the right thing because of their concerns about the political fortunes of red-state Democrats like Heath Shuler in North Carolina. But they wouldn't have had to worry -- and they would have picked up a lot of "security moms" and plenty of dads -- if they had simply put Shuler in front of the camera, flanked by a couple of pro-gun Democrats like Montana Senator Jon Tester, with a hunting rifle over his left shoulder and an M-16 over his right, armed with a simple message:

This [pointing to the gun on his left] is a rifle.
This [the gun on his right] is an assault weapon.
People like you and me use this one [left] to hunt.
Criminals, terrorists, and deranged teenagers use this one [right] to hunt police officers and our children.
Law-abiding citizens have the right to own one of these [left].
Nobody has the right to threaten our kids' safety with one of these [right].
Any questions?

If you can't speak the truth and win elections, you need to learn another language. The language that wins elections is the language of the heart.

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