by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s read is sadly topical: a Harvard Business School paper looking at whether mass-shooting incidents have any impact on gun regulations in the United States, 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 along), conservative politicians’ “thoughts and prayers,” progressive politicians’ calls for action on gun violence, and protests across the nation. But does anything of substance actually happen in the aftermath of these tragedies?
Since nearly all gun regulations are passed at the state level, the researchers focused on state legislatures’ responses. But many state legislatures (including Washington’s) don’t meet year-round and are on biennial cycles, so there may be a long delay between a mass-shooting event and a legislative act in response, making it difficult to connect the dots. Also, some mass shootings generate national headlines, so an incident in one state might have an impact in other states. Nevertheless, the paper tries to wade through this noise and make sense of the underlying data.
The researchers cataloged mass-shooting events 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 in a single, continuous incident that is not related to gangs, drugs, or other criminal activity. They also tracked down all the firearm-related bills introduced into state legislatures between 1990 and 2014 — 20,409 of them — as well as 3,199 gun-related laws eventually passed over the same time period.
They found that mass-shooting incidents lead to a 15% increase in the number of firearm-related bills introduced in the following legislative session in that state, and the effect is larger for mass shootings with larger numbers of victims. Surprisingly, the increase was also more pronounced in state legislatures controlled by Republicans. However, those Republican-controlled bodies tended to introduce legislation that loosened restrictions on guns, rather than tighten them.
When looking at the laws that were ultimately enacted, Republicans were once again more prolific than Democrats. The researchers found that Republican-controlled legislatures more than doubled the number of laws enacted loosening gun regulations, while in legislatures controlled by Democrats, there was no significant difference in the number of gun-related bills enacted into law. In fact, mass shootings had no effect on the number of new laws that tighten gun restrictions.
The researchers speculate on 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 advocacy organization, such as the NRA — which then turns around and uses the funds to influence the political process.
The paper also includes some discussion of the impact of media coverage of mass shootings, and the researchers had difficulty reaching any firm conclusions — largely because this is one more case where it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between correlation and causation. Larger mass shootings generate more news coverage, and subsequently there are more gun-related bills introduced. But was the impact on gun policy due to the shootings themselves, or to the media coverage? If the news media hadn’t covered the incidents, would elected officials still respond?
Still, it’s clear that mass shootings have an outsized impact on gun policy. There are 30,000 gun-related deaths each year in the United States, of which 56% are suicides (another tragedy that needs far more attention), 40% are homicides, and 0.13% are related to mass shootings. But as the researchers point out in their concluding paragraph:
Overall, our results show that even random and infrequent events that account for a relatively small portion of total societal harm (as measured by fatalities in the current study) might nonetheless be crucial levers for policy consideration and change. This does not imply that politicians and policy makers are over-reacting; it may be that on issues where there is usually political deadlock, salient events create opportunities for change that has been sought all along. Whether these changes reflect appropriate responses to the problem remains an open question.
The Impact of Mass Shootings on Gun Policy
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
📸 Featured image by Jeffrey J Snyder/Shutterstock.com.
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