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. Perhaps some laws are adopted, but nothing close to what the immediate emotional tugging after the killing would have predicted. As more time elapses, the memories of the dead, though never truly forgotten, fade from our collective minds, and things return to business as usual. This is the shooting cycle.
I have uploaded to SSRN a new article, titled The Shooting Cycle, co-authored by Shelby Baird (Yale University, B.A. in political science, 2014.) 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. This article does not offer any normative judgment on whether gun regulations hinder or contribute to gun violence, or the influence that lobby groups on both side of the debate exert, or the constitutional arguments regarding the Second Amendment. Rather, we aim to describe this phenomenon, offer observations about how governments and people react, or do not respond, to these tragedies, and draw conclusion on how this cycle change be changed.
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. Our research also shows that the mean is in fact declining. In other words, after each spike subsides, support for gun control is even lower than it was before the shooting. 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.
This leaves us with a question we do not answer. Can this cycle be broken? In other words, is it possible for support of gun control laws among Americans to remain high enough, not just to pass something four months later, but to make Americans appreciate the law for years to come? Breaking the cycle will require a significant cultural shift. Only time will tell if this is possible.
We welcome any comments, though we ask that you not cite or quote from the article without asking first. It is still in draft form, and will likely change before publication.