Availability Bias and the “Right to Safety”

Robert Farago at The Truth About Guns had a post the other day titled “Note to Gun Control Advocates: Safety is Not a Right” In it, he responds to a northjersey.com editorial which preaches that:

Holding up the shield of the Second Amendment does not cut it. Yes, Americans have the right to keep and bear arms. And children have the right to attend school without worrying they’ll get killed. Pedestrians have the right to walk down a street without fearing for their lives. Moviegoers have the right to sit with strangers for two hours without thinking they’ll be mowed down.

Robert responds to this post and makes an impassioned argument that “safety” isn’t a right, and that it isn’t a right the government could guarantee even if it was. (I think he’s correct in both of these assertions, by the way).

He writes:

In fact, gun control advocates’ attempts to make safety a “right” reduces public safety rather than increases it. You only have to look at every country that’s instituted gun control—especially as a preamble to mass murder—to see the truth of that statement.

Bottom line: gun control advocates can argue for the need to “balance” the right to keep and bear arms against an individual’s desire not to get shot. But unless gun control folks amend the U.S. Constitution they’re claiming ground which does not belong to them. And never will.

Although I think Robert’s analysis is correct, I think this argument is likely to be dismissed by the anti-gun folks as legalistic hair-splitting. More to the point, though, I think Robert’s focus in his response mentions, but fails to delve into, a far more rational reason why the anti-gun argument to which he was responding is wrong. The basic problem is that the anti-gun crowd is falling victim to a common cognitive bias and not realizing it. As a direct result of thousands of years of evolution, their minds are leading them astray.

Think about it this way. In 2010, there were nearly 33,000 automobile-related fatalities in the United States. (That number, by the way, was the lowest it’s been in 62 years). In the same year, about 4,000 people died in accidental drownings. In 2009, about 32,000 people died from accidental poisoning in the United States. In 2009, nearly 11,000 people died of DUI-related accidents. You don’t have to trust my numbers – I’ve linked to all the primary sources. In 2010, the CDC estimated that there were a hair less than 12,000 gun-related homicides in the United States. For the sake of argument, I’ll assume this number is valid, though I’ve heard that as many as 70% of these were criminals killing other criminals. But whatever.

So the first problem is that the number of people killed in traffic fatalities was almost 300% of the number killed by firearms. Almost three times as many people died of accidental poisoning as from guns. And almost a third as many people died in accidental drowning as were murdered with guns. So why don’t we hear people calling for bans on cars, poisonous chemicals, swimming pools and lakes? We don’t even hear calls for mandatory breathalyzer interlocks on car ignitions, even though as many people die from DUI-related injuries each year as from firearms homicide. Nobody calls Detroit the “wild west” (or, perhaps, the “wild midwest”) because that’s where cars come from. And yet, a sizable segment of the population believes guns should be banned.

The reason for this can be traced to something that cognitive scientists call “availability bias“. Essentially, availability bias means that our minds tend to over-estimate the probability of events which are rare, and to under-estimate the probability of events which are commonplace. People see cars, household chemicals, and swimming pools every day. Even in the less gun-friendly parts of the country, they’re commonplace, and so our minds downplay the risks of them. People who don’t see guns every day, though, tend to over-estimate the relative danger they pose — especially when the media amplifies the effect by hyping gun-related crimes.

If you think about it, the way availability bias works makes sense. Suppose we truly and objectively recognized the dangers of cars, household chemicals, pools, fatty foods, and the thousand real dangers we face every day. What would happen? We’d go around in a perpetual state of Condition Black hyper-alert overload. Eventually, we’d become numb to the state of alert and a real threat would catch us when we were too overloaded to pay attention. (This is actually, now that I think about it, why the “sheep” are sheep.)

Heightened alertness requires recognizing the things that are out of the ordinary: The lion in the bushes outside of camp, the predator lurking in the parking lot, or the big pit into which we might trip and fall if we aren’t careful. So evolution has optimized our minds – which are already highly optimized toward pattern recognition – to tune out the routine, ordinary, everyday stuff and to notice the unexpected, the unusual, the departures from our routine.

When it comes to guns, then, those of us who don’t shoot, who don’t know shooters, and who don’t see guns as a normal, every day thing, are reacting in exactly the way evolution has programmed them to. The trouble is that guns have a net positive benefit to society, and if the anti-gun crowd succeeds in banning or restricting their ownership and use, they’ll discover those benefits — but only because they’ll notice the increased danger THEY face once the guns are gone.

The answer to this problem is simple in theory, though difficult in practice: Anti-gun folks should be exposed to guns and shooters as much as possible. We should make friends with them, talk to them, take them shooting. Persuasion isn’t likely to work, because our cognitive biases are, at heart, emotional responses that defy logic. They live somewhere deep and primal in our brains. So, instead of (or in addition to) trying to convince them we’re right, we should just let them see us, their friends and family and neighbors who happen to shoot, as normal and commonplace. We should stop glorifying gun violence in the media and we should, instead, glorify all the law-abiding citizens whose firearms make their communities safer. Then, in time, guns will become “normal” in people’s minds, and the availability bias will stop focusing attention on them.

Unfortunately, the truth is, I think, that the anti-gunners are not simply making irrational choices or holding irrational attitudes. Their experiences have shaped their definition of what is “normal” and what is unusual, and their evolutionary programming is then leading them astray. Rather than fighting this reality, accepting and working with it is the best shot to changing minds, hearts, and policies.


  1. I think you’re right. Time after time I’ve stories of folk who were “converted” after a positive experience with firearms. A little range time rolling tin cans with a .22 can do wonders.

  2. This is an excellent reason to support open carry. Exposure to guns with a lack of any “bad things” happening is a good thing.

    • I agree, Russ, though I’m not sure I’d open carry routinely because I’m not sure I want potential bad guys to know I’m armed. But normalizing guns is clearly a Good Thing, as some recent experiences I’ve heard about from Arizona demonstrate.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • I carry openly, and have for about 7 years now. The mind set is very different in other places, of course, and it would not be wise everywhere, but I think that it really is important if it is at all possible if for no other reason that exposing others to what SHOULD be “normal.”

        I WANT the “bad guys” to know I’m armed and ready to defend myself. Criminals want weak, helpless victims. They don’t want to get hurt, and will seldom take serious risks if they have the choice. If my gun is concealed, they may not have the information they need to make a wise choice… and I might be forced to shoot when I probably would not have had to otherwise.

        I have personally avoided an attack at least twice when I turned and the potential aggressor saw my openly carried firearm. This is not a trivial consideration, by any means.

        What little documentation is available indicates strongly that ordinary people, often with little or no training, can and do prevail against criminals simply because they have a gun… or even take the gun away from the criminals!!

        Some other food for thought, however.

        The basic right to life and therefor self defense predates the constitution by as long as human beings have existed. The “second amendment” was an attempt to codify that, but it really has nothing to do with it.

      • I agree with you about the right to self-defense, and your argument in favor of open carry makes sense. On the other side of the coin, I know some people who feel that open carry is equivalent to wearing a “shoot me first” sign. Here in CA, open carry isn’t an option, so it’s a bit of an academic issue for me, but in places where it’s legal I guess everyone needs to make their own choice on where the balance of risks settles out.Thanks for your comment and your perspective!

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