Gun Control, Mass Shootings, and Political Ignorance

Law professor Josh Blackman and Yale student Shelby Baird have posted an interesting paper entitled “The Shooting Cycle,” on the reaction of public opinion to mass shooting incidents, like the tragic events in Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard in 2012 and 2013. Political ignorance plays an important role in their explanation for why such events result in temporary spikes in public support for gun control, followed by reversion to the mean. Here is Josh’s more detailed description of the findings:

The pattern is a painfully familiar one. News breaks that an unknown number of victims were killed by gunfire at a school, store, or other public place. The perpetrator wantonly takes the lives of innocent people. After the police arrive, the perpetrator is soon captured or killed, often by suicide. Sadness for the losses soon gives way to an emotional fervor for change. Different proposals for gun control are advanced—some ideas that were proposed earlier, but never obtained popular support, and other ideas that are developed in response to the recent tragedy. Politicians and advocates are optimistic for reform. However, as time elapses, support for these laws fades…..

This contribution to a symposium issue of the Connecticut Law Review on the Second Amendment peels back much of the rhetoric surrounding gun violence, and, distant from the passions, explores how the government and people react to these tragedies. This article offers a sober look at what we label the shooting cycle, and assesses how people and governments respond to mass killings….

We address this important issue in five parts. In Part I, we define the term “shooting,” and quantify how frequent they occur. Shootings, labeled “mass murders” by the FBI, are killings where the “four or more [murders] occur[] during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders.” These statistics exclude the overwhelming majority of death-by-firearms, though they capture the most attention. More precisely, mass shootings represent roughly .1% of all homicides by gunfire. Contrary to public opinion, they aren’t nearly as common as the media may perceive them, and they aren’t occurring more frequently in recent years. Rather, the rate has remained roughly constant over the last five decades.

In Part II, we rely on heuristics and cognitive biases to explain why these rare, but horrible events, hold such a prevalent place in the American zeitgeist. The availability heuristic leads people to overweigh the prominence of events that are easily retrievable from memory. In addition, people tend to consider unfamiliar events that they cannot relate to as being more risky. Further, those who have preexisting views on a certain topic are more likely to view harm in a way that gratifies their predisposition. These heuristics help to explain the media attention to, and political salience of mass shootings.

In Part III, we chronicle what we refer to as the shooting cycle. This painfully familiar pattern begins with a tragedy, as news breaks that a deranged gunman at some public place has inflicted mass casualties. The tragedy gives way to introspection as society attempts to make sense of what happened, and resolve to make sure it never happens again. With that resolve, society turns to action, as politicians, fueled by the emotions of the tragedy, offer solutions to stop not only mass shootings, but also are aimed at the broader problem of gun violence. Soon consensus for change is fractured by divergence, as the emotions from the tragedy fade, support dwindles for reform, and opposition grows. With time, the divergence brings us back to the status quo, as support for reform regresses to the mean, and returns to the pre-tragedy level.

In Part IV, we consider several concepts that help explain the changes during the shooting cycle. We begin by measuring the support for stricter gun control laws over the past two decades according to five polling firms. This graph shows an overall downward trend of support, with the exception of brief spikes in support following mass shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Newtown. After each spike, there is an even steeper decline, as support returns to the ex ante status quo. We explain the spikes as a result of emotional capture, where the emotions following the tragedy cause a heightened level of support for gun control. Politicians rely on this support to advance legislative agendas that would not have succeeded before the tragedy. But this support is short-lived. We explain the decline after the spike as an incidence of regression to the mean, whereby sentiments return to their pre-tragedy level as emotions fade…. These data explain, in part, why politicians seek to enact reforms quickly during the period of emotional capture before the passions fade.

Part V turns from theoretical to the experiential. We trace the sequence of events along the shooting cycle in the one-year from the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. This period begins with the tragedy, and the shock to our national conscience. From this tragedy, Americans became introspective, and with emotions high, the administration proposed a plan of action, that included several gun control reforms. Time was of the essence and supporters wanted to move as quickly as possible. Yet, following the trend of shootings before, emotional fervor weakened, causing a divergence in which support for gun control weakened, followed by the defeat of any new federal legislation. On the one-year anniversary of Newtown, society returned to the status quo…

Political ignorance plays an important role in Blackman and Baird’s analysis in three separate ways. First, most people simply don’t think about the problem of mass shootings or are largely unaware of it until some high-profile tragedy occurs. Second, when a tragedy does occur, this leads many to be more supportive of gun control policies, despite the fact that mass shootings are extremely rare, are not increasing, and are highly unlikely to be prevented by the kinds of policies proposed by would-be reformers. Finally, public opinion reverts to the mean in the weeks and months following a tragedy, because voters start to forget about the event and to focus on other issues. As Blackman points out, all of this is very consistent with the model of rational political ignorance outlined in my recent book, Democracy and Political Ignorance. Voters who pay little or not attention to political issues, because it is not rational for them to do so, are easily influenced by high-profile dramatic events, in part because they may not know these events are unusual. Over time, they may also forget about the events, or at least stop thinking about them.

The shooting cycle could, however, be a case where the harmful effects of political ignorance in one area are mitigated by ignorance of another, a phenomenon I discuss in Chapter 2 of my book. Ignorance about the frequency of mass shootings and the likelihood that gun control can prevent them helps lead to spikes in support for gun control in the wake of high-profile shootings. On the other hand, political ignorance also leads voters to forget about or ignore the event after the initial shock begins to wear off. And the forgetting usually happens fast enough to prevent ill-advised “reforms” from being enacted.

But this happy story is probably not the whole truth. If voters were more knowledgeable, they might instead focus their attention on promoting crime control efforts (whether gun control or otherwise), that could reduce far more common ordinary murders. They would also do a better job of discerning which measures are actually effective in achieving that objective and which ones are not. Unfortunately, however, most voters are ignorant even about such basic facts as the reality that crime rates have fallen rather than risen over the last twenty years.

UPDATE: Josh Blackman comments on this post here:

I agree with Ilya’s comments. I would add that if people were attuned to the causes of the overwhelming majority of gun deaths (guns and gangs, not mass shootings, with handguns, not rifles), the focus on gun control efforts would be very different. But ignorance redirects the focus to regulating law-abiding citizens with weapons seldom used in gun deaths.

I would add that part of the ignorance is that most people who don’t own guns themselves (and perhaps some who do) are often ignorant of the differences between various types of guns and how they are (or are not) used to commit crimes.