Today’s Supreme Court decision in Brown v. EMA casts doubt on one of the shibboleths of gun prohibition.
Since the 1960s, some social scientists have been attempting to prove that guns cause violence. They do not make this claim in the straightforward sense that guns, as tools, can be used for malign purposes–for example, that a criminal with a gun might attempt a robbery which would he would consider too risky if he did not have a gun. Rather, the claim is that the presence of makes ordinary people more aggressive, anti-social and violent. Thus, as one study put it, “the trigger pulls the finger.” The hypothesis is known as “the weapons effect.”
Over the subsequent decades, researchers tried, with little success, to replicate experiments proving a weapons effect. To the limited extent that any effects could be found, they tended to be confined to subjects with no prior experience with firearms, and they never succeeded in finding any actual resulting violence. Instead, they found, at most, trivial results, such as how some subjects reacted to various words after being prompted with gun imagery.
Among modern scholars, one of the best-known advocates for the weapons effect is Dr. Craig A. Anderson, Distinguished Professor & Director, Center for the Study of Violence, at Iowa State University. See C.A. Anderson, A.J. Benjamin, & B.D. Bartholow, Does the gun pull the trigger? Automatic priming effects of weapon pictures and weapon names, 9 Psychological Science 308 (1998) (summarizing prior literature, arguing for a weapons effect, and reporting a new study involving word responses).
My Independence Institute colleagues Paul Gallant and Joanne Eisen, in an article scrutinizing the weapons effect literature, addressed the Anderson study:
Stimuli were presented to the subject on a computer screen in the form of “prime” words, and “target” words which were categorized as either “aggressive” or “non-aggressive.” Two categories of prime words were used: weapon words (shotgun, machete, fist, bullet, dagger, and grenade), and animal words (rabbit, bug, dog, bird, butterfly, and fish).
For the experimental procedure, a prime word was presented to each subject for 1.25 seconds, followed by a blank screen of 0.5 seconds duration. Then, a target word was presented. The subject’s task was to recite the target word as quickly as possible. The computer was equipped with a microphone to measure the time between the presentation of the target word and the first sound made by the subject.
In this part of the study, the researchers found that, on animal-primed trials, subjects were 0.005 seconds slower at naming aggressive target words than at naming non-aggressive words. For weapon-primed trials, however, subjects named aggressive target words 0.009 seconds faster than they named non-aggressive words. The authors claimed that these results provided “clear support for the priming interpretation of the weapons effect,” i.e. that “the mere cognitive identification of a weapon increases the accessibility of aggression-related concepts in semantic memory.”
In the second experiment. . . the prime stimuli consisted of black-and-white line drawings of weapons (guns, swords, and clubs—3 different pictures for each category, for a total of 9 weapons) and of plants (fruits, trees, and flowers, also 3 different pictures for each category). The prime stimulus was presented as in the previous experiment, and the subject was instructed to call out the category as quickly as possible. Again, a blank screen appeared for 0.5 seconds. Then the target word was presented and remained visible on the screen until the subject called it out.
The researchers found that after exposure to plant pictures subjects were 0.005 seconds faster at naming aggressive target words compared to non-aggressive words. However, after exposure to weapon pictures, subject reaction time decreased, and subjects were 0.011 seconds faster at naming aggressive target words compared to non-aggressive words. . . .
The authors concluded: “These two experiments demonstrate that simply identifying weapons increases the accessibility of aggressive thoughts . . . that thinking about weapons increases accessibility of aggressive concepts in general….Does the gun pull the trigger? Extant research suggests that it does. Our research demonstrates one way that exposure to weapons might increase aggressive behavior—by increasing the accessibility of aggressive thoughts.”
But did the authors really demonstrate what they claimed?
Insomuch as “gun” might well be associated with “shoot” or “murder,” when it comes to the non-weapon primes they selected, there is no such logical link. For example, while butterfly was used as a prime word, the words “flutter,” “fly,” and “cocoon” were nowhere to be found. If the idea was to explore whether a certain word would trigger a class of words, such as “gun” triggering the entire class of aggressive words, why did not the authors compare this effect with similar effects for animal primes? The word “rabbit” is likely to trigger “carrot,” “ears,” “chew,” and “hop,” but that was not tested. In addition, potentially threatening primes like “lion,” “shark,” or “rattlesnake” should have been used to determine whether these would have elicited the same aggressive tendencies.
Paul Gallant & Joanne D. Eisen, Trigger-Happy: Re-thinking the “Weapons Effect”, 14 Journal on Firearms & Public Policy 89 (2002).
As it turns out, very similar research by Dr. Anderson played a major role in today’s Brown v. EMA decision, and the majority sharply rejected the utility of Dr. Anderson’s experiments. According to the majority opinion:
The State’s evidence is not compelling. California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Craig Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport toshow a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children. These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them,6 [FN 6 lists 3 Circuit and 4 District Court decisions] and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning). Instead, “[n]early all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.” Video Software Dealers Assn. 556 F. 3d, at 964. They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.7
[Note 7.] One study, for example, found that children who had just finished playing violent video games were more likely to fill in the blank letter in “explo_e” with a “d” (so that it reads “explode”) than with an “r” (“explore”). App. 496, 506 (internal quotation marks omitted). The prevention of this phenomenon, which might have been anticipated with common sense, is not a compelling state interest.
. . . those effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.In his testimony in a similar lawsuit, Dr. Anderson admitted that the “effect sizes” of children’s exposure to violent video games are “about the same” as that produced by their exposure to violence on television. App. 1263. And he admits that the same effects have been found when children watch cartoons starring Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner, id., at 1304, or when they play video games like Sonic the Hedgehog that are rated “E” (appropriate for all ages), id., at 1270, or even when they “vie[w] a picture of a gun,” id., at 1315–1316.
Thus, EMA v. Brown rejects the “violent video game effect” studies for failing to demonstrate a compelling state interest. Indeed, EMA suggests that the studies do not even rise to the level of a trivial state interest. Quite significantly, for Second Amendment purposes, the very similar “weapons effect” hypothesis likewise is presented as something which is equally non-compelling, and no more than trivial.
The studies on video games have led, at worst, to some minors being unconstitutionally deprived of video games. In contrast, the “weapons effect” has become an article of faith among many anti-gun advocates, who are convinced that guns turn peaceable people into dangerous aggressors. Many anti-gun laws have been enacted in part because of this wrongful idea, and some of those laws have deprived the victims of violent crimes from having the means of effective self-defense. Indeed, continuing belief in the non-existent weapons effect is a major reason why nine states still deny law-abiding trained adults the constitutional right to carry licensed firearms for lawful protection in public places.
In examining the legislative history of anti-gun laws, courts will not have to look far to find the “weapons effect” as a crucial motive for many of the laws which aim to reduce gun ownership or accessibility by ordinary citizens (rather than merely keeping guns away from actually dangerous people). Legislative animus against the exercise of constitutional rights can be, in itself, an important reason to find a law unconstitutional. When that animus is based on the same type of social science which the Supreme Court has recently dismissed an unrelated to any serious state interest, then courts have especially good reason to recognize the unconstitutionality of the legislation.