by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s reading is sadly topical: a Harvard Business School article examining whether mass shooting incidents impact U.S. gun regulations, and if so, what kind of response they generate. Tragic mass shootings like the recent one in Uvalde, Texas, have become far too common, as have the predictable responses: media hype for a few days (until the next distraction comes), “thoughts and prayers” from politicians conservatives, progressive politicians’ calls for action against gun violence and nationwide protests. But does anything substantial actually happen as a result of these tragedies?
Since nearly all gun regulations are passed at the state level, the researchers focused on responses from state legislatures. But many state legislatures (including Washington’s) don’t meet year-round and follow biennial cycles, so there can be a long delay between a mass shooting event and a piece of legislation in response, which makes it difficult to connect the dots. Also, some mass shootings make national headlines, so an incident in one state can have an impact in other states. Nonetheless, the paper tries to wade through that noise and make sense of the underlying data.
The researchers listed mass shootings from 1989 to 2014, where a “mass shooting” is defined as an incident in which four or more people, other than the perpetrator(s), are unlawfully killed with a firearm during an attack. one continuous incident. that is not related to gangs, drugs or other criminal activities. They also tracked down every gun-related bill introduced in state legislatures between 1990 and 2014 — 20,409 of them — as well as 3,199 gun-related laws eventually passed during the same period. .
They found that mass shootings lead to a 15% increase in the number of gun-related bills introduced in the next legislative session in that state, and that the effect is greater for mass shootings with a greater number of victims. Surprisingly, the increase was also more pronounced in Republican-controlled state legislatures. However, these Republican-controlled agencies have tended to introduce legislation easing gun restrictions, rather than tightening them.
When looking at the laws that were eventually signed into law, Republicans were once again more prolific than Democrats. The researchers found that Republican-controlled legislatures more than doubled the number of laws passed to ease gun regulations, while in Democratic-controlled legislatures there was no significant difference in the number of firearms-related bills enacted. In fact, the mass shootings had no effect on the number of new laws that tighten gun restrictions.
Researchers speculate why this might be so; after some discussion, they conclude that gun rights advocates are better organized than gun control advocates and are more likely to take a specific action, such as writing letters to elected officials or donating money to a gun rights organization, like the NRA – which then turns around and uses the funds to influence the political process.
The article also includes a discussion of the impact of media coverage of the mass shootings, and researchers have struggled to draw any firm conclusions – largely because this is just one more case where it is almost impossible to distinguish between correlation and causation. Larger mass shootings generate more media coverage, and subsequently more gun-related bills are introduced. But was the impact on gun policy due to the shootings themselves or media coverage? If the media had not covered the incidents, would elected officials still respond?
Yet it is clear that mass shootings have an outsized impact on gun politics. There are 30,000 gun-related deaths each year in the United States, of which 56% are suicides (another tragedy that deserves much more attention), 40% are homicides and 0.13% are related to mass shootings. But as the researchers point out in their final paragraph:
Overall, our results show that even random and infrequent events that represent a relatively small share of total societal harms (as measured by deaths in the present study) could nevertheless be crucial levers for examination and policy change. This does not mean that politicians and policy makers are overreacting; it may be that on issues where there is usually a political stalemate, salient events create opportunities for change that have been sought from the start. Whether these changes reflect appropriate responses to the problem remains an open question.
The impact of mass shootings on gun politics
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Overview, a website providing independent information and analysis about the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears occasionally on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.
📸 Image courtesy of Jeffrey J Snyder/Shutterstock.com.
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