It’s understandable why people are celebrating the fact that Amy Schumer has, alongside her cousin, New York senator Chuck Schumer, signed onto an effort to enact expanded gun-control laws. Amy Schumer, after all, is a star reaching the peak of her fame, and many progressives have been frustrated at the complete lack of progress on this issue, with many states loosening gun-control laws in the wake of mass shootings rather than tightening them. It seems like a clear victory to have a pop-culture star on the side of vocal gun-control efforts. But there’s also a very real chance it could cause a backlash that hurts gun-control efforts.
People who study political psychology and persuasion believe that there are important differences between issues that have become politicized, and therefore tied to individuals’ deeply-held values and identity, like global warming, and those which have not, like vaccination. As I wrote back in February in the context of the vaccination fight, “Reams of social-science research have shown that when people feel their identity is under attack, their hearts harden, in a sense — they cling tighter to their group’s beliefs.” When people not only hold an opinion, but believe that it’s the sort of opinion people like them are supposed to hold, the persuasion process gets a lot trickier and more fraught.
Gun control is extremely politicized — in some polls asking whether gun laws should be made stricter, there’s a 40-point gap between Democrats and Republicans. It’s also become a potent stand-in for all sorts of other political and cultural agreements. Many people, in other words, don’t look at this as a simple policy question, weighing the evidence on a case-by-case basis depending on the proposal being discussed. Rather, they see opposition to (or advocacy for) gun control as an important marker of cultural and political identity.
That’s where the question of Amy Schumer’s effectiveness comes in. Since she’s easily identified as a “Hollywood liberal” — a hated category among many conservatives — it’s not a stretch to think that the sort of people who will need to be convinced in order for stronger gun control to take hold will, if anything, further dig into their anti-gun-control positions when presented with a messenger like Schumer. (That’s not a knock on her personally, of course; she’s taking time out of her schedule to advocate on an important issue.) It should surprise no one how this is being framed in some media outlets; “Progressive Politicians and Hollywood Unite to Spread Anti-Gun Propaganda,” screechedThe Blaze, for example.
“If the goal is persuasion, I’d definitely worry about the possibility of backlash,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth who specializes in persuasion research, in an email. “This study, for instance, found that ‘when people who dislike Jennifer Aniston are exposed to information about her support for Democrats, they report liking the Democratic Party less’ (though the importance of celebrity endorsements is often exaggerated).”
But the first half of his statement is important — if the goal is persuasion. “It’s also possible that the goal is to mobilize the kind of people who like Amy and Chuck Schumer,” he said. In that case, an effort like this could be useful. The problem, though, is that the roadblock to more comprehensive gun control doesn’t seem to be a lack of interest among advocates — there are some pretty big organizations and constituencies that have been calling for better gun control forever. The obstacle has always been the powerful National Rifle Association and anti-gun-control members of Congress — folks who probably won’t be taking cues from Amy Schumer anytime soon.