A mass shooting takes place, followed by emotional vigils, intensive news
media coverage and sorrowful statements by politicians. But what does it actually mean for laws and policies around guns?
Lots of gun laws are proposed in the aftermath of an attack, new research shows. But in terms of what actually is enacted, the results aren’t what you might expect.
Gun advocates and many conservative politicians have argued that more widespread availability of firearms is a key to stopping mass shootings.
In states where a mass shooting happened, 15 percent more gun-related bills were introduced in state legislatures, three Harvard Business School professors found in a working paper published last month. But in states with legislatures that were led by Democrats or divided between the parties, a mass shooting wasn’t followed by any statistically significant increase in gun laws enacted.
It was different in states with Republican-controlled legislatures. After a mass shooting, the number of laws passed to loosen gun restrictions rose by 75 percent. In other words, in places where mass shootings lead to any legislative changes at all, it tends to be in the direction of guns becoming more easily available, like lowering the minimum age to buy a handgun to 18 from 21 or eliminating a waiting period for a gun purchase.
The scholars, Michael Luca, Deepak Malhotra and Christopher Poliquin, had examined the aftermath of 167 mass shootings with 1,428 victims (including deaths and injuries) in the United States from 1989 to 2014. They analyzed that data alongside 20,409 gun policy proposals introduced to state legislatures and 3,199 laws that were passed.
There’s no doubt that there is a surge of attention around gun policy when a major shooting takes place. Polling data from the Pew Research Center shows sharp, but temporary, swings in public opinion on gun control after particularly high-profile, emotionally resonant attacks like the ones at Columbine High School in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Pew’s research shows that the proportion of self-identified Republicans favoring more gun control has fallen from a recent high of 55 percent in March 2000 to 26 percent in July 2015.
The Harvard researchers found that mass shootings had a vastly higher impact on state-level lawmaking than other gun deaths; a death from a mass shooting generated 66 times as much gun-related legislation as a more routine gun death, like in a robbery or domestic dispute.
Luca argued that high-profile shootings create a “policy window” in which an issue comes to the forefront for media and politicians alike, even if “mass shooting” doesn’t automatically translate into “more restrictive gun laws.” Poliquin notes a couple of recent high-profile counterexamples: Virginia tightened gun laws after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, and Connecticut did the same after Sandy Hook, but says they are too rare to amount to a statistically significant evidence of a bigger pattern.
The researchers’ methodology included shootings in which four or more people other than the perpetrator die in a case neither related to gangs nor other criminal activity, nor to a purely domestic matter. It is possible that most shocking attacks that cause the most deaths and receive the most news media coverage, like the recent one in Orlando, Fla., create different political dynamics from the smaller attacks that form the bulk of the researchers’ sample. But those are rare enough that they don’t lend themselves to statistical analysis.
It’s easy to see why laws in Republican-controlled statehouses enacted in the aftermath of a mass shooting tended to loosen gun restrictions. Gun advocates and many conservative politicians have argued that more widespread availability of firearms is a key to stopping mass shootings. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, embraced just that message in the aftermath of the Orlando attack.
Among Democrats, support for gun control has been relatively stable, in the 65 percent to 75 percent range, over that period.
Pew’s research shows that the proportion of self-identified Republicans favoring more gun control has fallen from a recent high of 55 percent in March 2000 to 26 percent in July 2015. Among Democrats, support for gun control has been relatively stable, in the 65 percent to 75 percent range, over that period.
The results that the Harvard researchers found could be less predictive this time. It is too early to say whether the Sunday shooting at an Orlando nightclub that left 49 dead will result in legislation, either in Florida or nationally. Republicans control Florida’s legislature. But the sheer number of deaths, the shooter’s terrorist motivations and the fact that the attack was on a gay club could make its effects different.
Timing is another factor.
The Harvard researchers found that mass shootings had a vastly higher impact on state-level lawmaking than other gun deaths.
“Many legislatures are not even in session when shootings happen,” Poliquin said. “Florida is currently out of session and won’t reconvene until March 2017 unless there is a special session. Will the people who are angry about easy access to guns still be angry next March?”
And given that both houses of Florida’s legislature have Republican majorities, any changes could well cut toward greater access to firearms, if the lessons from this research do turn out to apply.