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Objective

We employ theories of causal reasoning to understand attributions about the 2007 Virginia Tech and 2011 Tucson shootings. We argue that attributions stem from two motives: (1) a partisan motivation to perceive events consistent with party attachments, and (2) a drive to minimize the cognitive burdens associated with extensive reasoning processes. The latter motive is expected to produce a fundamental attribution bias: the least educated respondents attribute blame for the shootings to the individual assailant while the most educated attribute blame to environmental conditions.

Methods

We test hypotheses using 2007 and 2011 national surveys reported just after the shootings.

Results

Our findings suggest a major partisan divide on the causes of tragedy; Democrats believed social and political forces were responsible whereas Republicans blamed individual gunmen. Considerable differences between the least and most educated respondents were also discovered. Greater educational attainment was associated with environmental attributions. Finally, the analyses revealed that education had virtually no influence on Republican attributions, but enhanced Democrats’ penchant to blame the tragedy on environmental factors.

Conclusion

Our study highlights the utility of using motivational theories of causal attributions to understanding and modeling the cognitive processes involved in perceived causes about gun-related tragedies.