The Shooting Cycle, Again

October 4th, 2015

In light of recent events, I post a link to my 2014 article with Shelby Baird (now a 1L at Duke Law!) titled The Shooting Cycle. Here is the abstract:

The pattern is a painfully familiar one. A gunman opens fire in a public place, killing many innocent victims. After this tragedy, support for gun control surges. With a closing window for reform, politicians and activists quickly push for new gun laws. But as time elapses, support decreases. Soon enough, the passions fade, and society returns to the status quo.

We call this paradigm “the shooting cycle.” This article provides the first qualitative and quantitative analysis of the shooting cycle, and explains how and why people and governments react to mass shootings.

This article proceeds in five parts. First, we bring empirical clarity to the debate over mass shootings, and show that contrary to popular opinion, they are fairly rare, and are not occurring more frequently. Second, relying on cognitive biases such as the availability heuristic, substitution effect, and cultural cognition theory, we demonstrate why the perception of risk and reaction to these rare and unfamiliar events are heightened. Third we chronicle the various stages of the shooting cycle: tragedy, introspection, action, divergence, and return to the status quo. During the earlier stages, emotional capture sets in, allowing politicians and activists to garner support for reform. But, after the spike, soon support for reform fades, and regresses to the mean. Fifth, with this framework, we view the year following the horrific massacre in Newtown through the lens of the shooting cycle. We conclude by addressing whether the shooting cycle can be broken.

Everything we wrote in 2014 is just as, if not more true today. The President commented, “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. ” He’s exactly right.

Mass shootings constitute a very small percentage of gun homicides in the United States (depending on how you count, less than 1%). But because of various cognitive  heuristics, they capture the hearts and minds of the public. But these events, no matter how hard the media tries, do little to affect public opinion anymore.  Perhaps the one positive outcome of this experience has been the decision of some, but not all, media sources to refuse to identify, and thus glorify the assailant. This murderer in particular was likely a copycast, who sought the same notoriety as the person who killed two reporters in Virginia on live television. He wrote on his blog, “A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone … seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” One of the most “common-sense” approaches that can be taken now is to not give him what he wants.