How can one evaluate the extent to which it is possible to overturn widely held views? One thing is clear: you can improve your chances with a good understanding of the dynamics of public debate in a society, and with research that is able to pinpoint the nerve centres of the topic. The debate over the sale of firearms in Brazil Ė the subject of a referendum in 2005 and which has re-emerged as an important issue this year Ė is a good example of how this can be done.
In the second half of 2005, Brazil was preparing for an important decision. Sparked by discussions on the subject of urban violence, an ubiquitous topic in Brazilian society, it was decided that a referendum would be conducted to determine whether the sale of firearms should or should not be banned in the country.
Research conducted by Ipsos in August 2005 revealed that 69% of the population was against the carrying and sale of firearms (other polls at the time showed similar results). Yet just two months later, in October 2005, the majority (63%) voted in favour of the right to carry and sell firearms in the country.
How was such a strong trend overturned in such a short time span?
We believe that the explanation has its roots in three aspects:
- Relevance to the public.
- Understanding of the social dynamics (there is a distance separating opinion and the decision-making process).
- The strength of arguments related to the issue under discussion.
A turnaround in attitudes
Q. There have been discussions about a new public referendum where Brazilians will decide whether they want to prohibit or not the possession and sales of firearms. If this vote were cast today, would you vote for or against the prohibition of firearms possession and sales?
Q. Should the sales of firearms and ammunition be prohibited in Brazil?
The first important question is to determine the extent of the relevance to the public of a given topic. Several studies have shown the logic behind the insertion into or exclusion from public debate of certain issues and how this tends to serve various interests. From the media, which may benefit from the presence of a certain issue, to other actors who can reap advantages from populist causes even without there being a realistic chance of them being adopted, to the objective relevance to the public - the extent to which its implementation may interfere with their daily lives.
Another aspect is the lack of familiarity and understanding on the part of the public and certain elements regarding specific social dynamics, such as the effect of infrequently occurring but highly dramatic events that impact public opinion forcefully. The issue of violent crime, for example, fits this context. While it may not be that common, the brutality and the dramatic nature of such occurrences increases the feeling of insecurity and risk on the part of the public and feeds the need for preventive measures.
Finally, we have the strength or weakness of certain arguments. Here the combination of form and content is fundamental. How are we to understand the motivation behind certain opinions and the possibility that they will be decisive in the formulation of decisions? Does it have a moral basis? Does it involve values or is it tailored to fit circumstances? Does it take diverse elements into account or is it derived from a partial vision where the inclusion of a new argument can be transformative? These questions raise major challenges for the public opinion researcher, given that the form, acceptance and relevance of an argument to the public can signify the success or failure of a certain strategy.
This was the case regarding the discussion about regulating the sale of firearms in 2005, an issue that has resurfaced following dramatic new instances of urban violence in a Rio de Janeiro school that have led to a proposal for a fresh plebiscite on the question of a ban on the sale of firearms. Using this important public issue (violence), the various elements concerned (media, police, NGOs) have taken advantage of this moment of visibility to advance their own agendas. An evaluation of what occurred in 2005 will help us to understand the resurgence of this issue in 2011.
In favour of a firearms ban
When the debates about the public referendum on the sale of firearms began, supporters of the ban were enthusiastic about initial surveys which showed strong backing for their position. Although aware that this measure on its own may not be decisive in bringing about a radical change in combating violence, the discussion and approval of this ban could keep the public debate on how best to reduce violence broader than an exclusive focus on increased policing and the repression of crime.
At first it appeared to be a relatively easy cause. The ban did not seem to go against the general interests of groups or the population as a whole. To many, it seemed a cause easy to adopt, appealing to the eyes of segments like the church and not at all likely to expose sympathisers to any risk.
In general, changes of deep, underlying attitudes concerned with controversial issues are hard to bring about. Attitudinal theories usually demonstrate that such changes tend to occur only from one generation to another, or in light of dramatic facts such as the events of September 11 in the United States, capable, in a short period of time, of bringing about drastic changes, which was not the case in Brazil at the time.
But what was at first a very promising scenario did not unfold as expected.
Against the ban
The group that argued against the ban probably viewed this scenario in a very similar manner and realized that their chances of victory did not lie in a frontal assault on those arguments.
One way out of the impasse would be the adoption of a new argument, a new angle that would reopen the discussion and direct it towards another facet of the issue, outflanking the opposition.
An analysis of the principal concerns of the public would have revealed that the issue of combating violence and banning the sale of weapons would be virtually impossible to defeat, given that violent crime and drug trafficking were high on the publicís list of the most important problems facing the country:
|Violent crime / violence in general||29%|
|Corruption and misappropriation||26%|
|Poor quality of public health services||22%|
However, the reading of two other data could suggest other possibilities. During the same period public polls revealed the perception that the country was on the wrong track (66%) rather than the right track (30%). And the main news items recalled by the public were the votebuying scandal in Congress (46%) and the corruption of public officials (17%).
At a time of many advances and changes in Brazilian life (particularly on the economy), discussions about the role of the State in the new Brazilian context, defining the type of society desired and whether the regulation of public life should or should not occur would tend to gain more space.
In the perception of the people, we were not on the right track and corruption was the topic that dominated the media. The freedom to decide and to minimise the regulatory role of the State surfaced as a new aspect, as a new argument that could defeat the easy contentions favouring regulation.
Why allow the State to decide what you could or could not buy? Was there a proven benefit to be gained from this concession? Could this become a precedent for other limitations on the citizenís right to choose, to consume, of his own free will?
This was the route discovered for the counter arguments. Not only did this approach question the specific merit of the proposed measure and its doubtful effectiveness, but it raised the discussion to a wider and, in some ways, higher level: the liberty of people to take their own decisions.
This reasoning changed the direction of the debate. It elevated the discussion to a plane that encouraged a more profound debate not only of the effectiveness of the proposal to ban the sale of firearms, but also of the way in which themes of major importance should be decided. Various media vehicles took a strong stance against the proposal and the focus shifted from the pertinence of whether the public should or should not be allowed to decide about the sale of firearms.
The outcome was the historic turnaround from the initial surveys showing 69% in favor of the ban to 63% who eventually voted against the ban. It should be pointed out that part of this turnaround was due to the fact that the movement favoring a ban on the sale of firearms failed to react to this change of strategy. It remained focused on its initial position and failed to perceive the shift in public opinion towards the new arguments favoring the individualís freedom to decide.
A new discussion
Once again, the issue of banning the sale of firearms has entered the public debate following a proposal by the Brazilian Senate to conduct another referendum in September 2011, motivated by the shocking occurrence in a Rio de Janeiro school, where an ex-student gunned down twelve children and injured another twelve. In a new survey on the issue in April 2011, we found that 83% of the public now favour a ban on the sale of firearms. This opinion is generalised across all geographical regions, incomes and socio-economic classes.
The proposal tabled by the Senate remains to be voted on, but it will certainly be difficult to predict the outcome of the new referendum due to the number of possible variables that would have to be considered. What this case demonstrates is the need to construct an analytical frame that will allow a more profound evaluation of a debate of this nature. In particular, we have learnt that we need to consider:
Relevance: themes that deal with issues at the top of the public agenda will always resonate, even if they do not cover objective solutions. The level at which the public will begin to accept regulation is an indicator of this generic relevance.
Set of arguments: mapping of the set of arguments under consideration and identification of which can be considered positive or negative drivers. In this case, defenders of the unregulated sale of firearms read the scenario well in two ways: they perceived that the cause itself did not have strong arguments in its favour, and they inserted arguments that could be recognised by public opinion as related and germane to the issue (defense of liberties).
Winning over advocates for the cause: by including newer and more ample arguments in favour of the unregulated sale of firearms, they expanded the possibility of conversions. This amplitude in the debate brought to surface issues such as consumer freedom, which overshadowed the real issue at stake - the unregulated sale of firearms. This goes to show that an accurate understanding of a scenario as well as the ability to pinpoint potential allies for new themes, can determine the difference between victory and defeat of an issue in the public debate.