Somin on The Shooting Cycle and Political Ignorance

January 13th, 2014

Ilya Somin comments on the new article I co-authored with Shelby Baird,  “The Shooting Cycle,” and how shifts in popular opinion track Somin’s theories of political ignorance:

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.

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.