Newtown might change a few minds

Whenever there are significant national events, especially traumatic ones like the horrific Newtown shootings, there is usually an accompanying media narrative to the effect that the public will respond with new insights and that policy initiatives for change will follow, responding to popular demands for reform. In this present instance, for example, there is a widespread sense that this will bring new perspectives on everything from mental health to gun control. As much as I might hope for this, I fear it is mostly wishful thinking. Just as we didn’t really change that much after 9/11, any Newtown-inspired renaissance in public opinion might disappoint.

The problem is that we as a people come to these events with too much baggage, too many pre-existing values and beliefs, and too much plain prejudice and selective perception to see the events of last week with a clear and open mind. Psychologists sometimes speak of a funnel of causality concept, wherein all the events that occurred in each of our individual lives prior to the shooting will create a turbulent rushing vortex of attitudes, mindsets and personal experiences that will interact with each other to mold and shape each of our personal responses as the swirling waters of communications pass through the small opening of the funnel that leads to our response to Newtown. Some of us have also been victims of violence before last week. Others, or their children, had troubled kindergarten years. Some are NRA card-carrying sportsmen with a closet full of guns. Still others are teachers, or pacifists, or first responders, or psychologists. Some of us are right-wing Republicans or left-coast Democrats, and we all tend to see different things in our funnels. So each of our responses will be different, and often more predictable than the dramatically unusual events would seem to portend.

I did some switching back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC, and the stark differences in coverage reinforced the notion that there might be less change in opinions than you’d expect given the uniformly abhorrent nature of the events. The most surprising deviation that I saw was a Fox News anchor’s reaction to the suggestion by a guest expert, a former policeman, that the shooting proves we need to get more guns into the schools so that innocents can fire back and protect themselves. The Fox talent booker was on message, but the host seemed genuinely shocked and suspected out loud that most in his audience would find the suggestion discomforting. But for the most part, everyone at each network was doubling down on partisan politics, gun-control views and societal problems.

That this tragedy occurred after the polarizing election of 2012 makes it especially difficult for many to think freshly about the events. Republicans are too ready to opine that gun rights cannot be abrogated and Democrats too eager to take all guns away and launch innumerable government-run intrusions into our lives. The talking-point mentality engendered by the last few years just carries over. In my own polling since the election, I have seen hyper-partisan polarization on local and school policy topics that are really wholly unrelated to Capitol Hill issues, but we have become such warring tribes that we cannot think differently about much of anything.

One interesting prejudice here that might open some minds is the shooting of kindergarteners. I do lots of polling for schools and can assure you that the American public, in general, cares far more about the welfare of kindergarteners than teens or even teachers. I know this seems callous, but it’s a reality of voter opinion. Perhaps we need to start the dialogue at that point, asking, “How do we protect the youngest in our schools?” This might create an opening for fresh perspectives from all.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.