Immediately after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) argued that the best way to prevent such a horror from happening again would have been to arm the school staff.
“We cannot stop bad people from doing bad things. We may be able to arm and prepare and train teachers and other administrators to respond quickly.” he said on Fox News†
The fact that Robb had an armed school security guard didn’t seem to deter Paxton (police have given conflicting answers as to whether this cop) exchanged fire with the gunner† Nor is the fact that what he describes is already permitted under Texas law: a bill from 2013, passed as a direct response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, allowed trained staffers in Texas schools to carry weapons secretly. The state this policy extended in 2018 in response to a mass shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas.
Recent research has shown that this seemingly perverse response – using a mass shooting as a justification for easing gun laws and calls for more guns – is actually the norm in the United States. A study, published in the Public Economy Magazine in 2020 examined state lawmakers’ policy responses in the wake of mass shootings — and found they had tilted sharply toward lax regulation.
“In states with Republican-controlled legislatures, a mass shooting roughly doubles the number of laws easing gun restrictions in the year after the incident,” the authors write. “We find no significant effect of mass shootings on laws enacted when there is a Democrat-controlled legislature. We also find no significant effect of mass shootings on the number of laws enacted tightening gun restrictions.”
Research by Kristin Goss, a political scientist at Duke University, helps explain why this is happening. in half recently publications, Goss compares the political activity of civilians and gun rights activists to those who advocate gun regulation. She finds strong evidence that citizens who support gun rights are consistently more involved in the political process, both after mass shootings and otherwise (although the gap has narrowed).
“Different levels of mobilization reflect the different capacities of groups on each side to mobilize,” Goss writes. “These measures give the gun rights side a strong advantage.”
In summary, the political science on gun control after mass shootings paints a grim picture of America’s future after Uvalde.
While polls show strong public support for improved gun control policies such as background checks, the most likely outcome is no breakthrough in this area. Instead, the strong convictions and superior organization of pro-gun citizens—along with a political system that is structurally biased in favor of the GOP—make the opposite more likely: a future where the intense efforts of a radically pro-gun minority availability of firearms and their presence in everyday American life.
Recent mass shootings have made America’s gun laws looser, not stricter
In the Public Economy Magazine Harvard’s Michael Luca and Deepak Malhotra, along with UCLA’s Christopher Poliquin, examine every piece of gun legislation passed between 1989 and 2014, comparing what happens in the year after mass shootings to more “normal” legislative sessions.
Their first finding is that mass shootings do indeed drive legislative efforts to change gun laws — and that the worse the mass shootings are, the more likely it is that there will be incitement to legislation.
†[A] mass shooting leads to a 15% increase in imported firearms bills. For the average state, this equates to 2.4 additional firearms bills introduced in the year following a mass shooting,” they write. “On average, each additional death in a mass shooting leads to a 2.3% increase in the number of gun bills entered.”
When you break down these figures by party, the results are striking. Republican lawmakers introduce about 50 percent more bills in years of mass shooting in that state than in other years. Democratic lawmakers appear to be introducing 11 percent more bills, but the authors note that the finding was not significantly significant.
The difference is even more striking when you look at bills that actually become law.
†[A] mass shooting in the previous year increases the number of laws enacted easing gun restrictions by about 120% in states with Republican-controlled legislatures,” they write. “If there is a Democrat-controlled legislature, mass shootings lead to a statistically insignificant reduction in laws easing gun control.”
The authors suggest that the overall increase in legislative activity is the result of increased media coverage of guns following mass shootings. However, this by itself cannot explain the partisan asymmetry in legislative activity – which they propose, but do not attempt to prove, is the result of gun rights advocates being more involved in the political process.
Gun rights supporters are more likely to advocate for their views by letter writing or donating money) and are more organized than civilians who prefer gun control, the authors theorize.
But is this what really happens in the aftermath of tragedy?
Civilians in favor of gun rights are really more involved than their opponents
Goss, the Duke’s political scientist, explores this phenomenon in a few recent articles.
In an article from 2017, she studies a range of topics related to gender and political views on weapons. In general, she believes both partisanship and gender matter: Democrats are consistently more in favor of gun control than Republicans, but women in both parties are more in favor of gun control than their male counterparts.
To see how these divisions play out in practice, Goss examines political activism in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, looking specifically at three investigations conducted over a six-month period surrounding the attack. The survey assessed whether respondents had “contacted a government official to express their views on gun policy; contributed money to an organization that takes a position on gun policy; gave their opinion on gun policy via Facebook, Twitter or another social network; or signed a petition on gun policy.”
What she found was striking: Men who advocated gun rights were by far the most likely to engage in political activism in the months following Sandy Hook.
These men were more involved in every measure except expressing an opinion on social media, where pro-gun rights women were (slightly) more active. Gun control supporters consistently lagged, sometimes by huge margins: For example, men who favored gun control were nearly five times more likely to donate to a gun control group than gun control advocates of both sexes would donate to a gun control group. The lone exception was part of the post-shooting debate over background checks, in which pro-regulatory women reached out to lawmakers more than pro-gun rights men.
The general discrepancy is not necessarily because gun rights activists care more about the issue than their anti-gun comrades, Goss said. Rather, the main difference is that the organizational capacity for weapons is stronger: advocacy groups such as the NRA are significantly better at mobilizing their supporters than their weapons opponents.
†[Pro-regulation] women generally remain under-mobilized compared to pro-gun men when it comes to other forms of involvement in gun policy,” Goss writes. “Although pro-gun men are fewer in number than pro-regulatory women, the men generally produce more political activity.”
In a paper from 2019Goss examines whether anything in the years since Sandy Hook has changed this general pattern.
She discovers that the shooting has profoundly changed the pro-regulation activist landscape, leading to an influx of money from pro-regulation billionaire Mike Bloomberg and the formation of new advocacy groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety. These changes made for a more active and disciplined gun control movement, one that was more effectively involved in the political process and better equipped to win legislative victories.
Yet, she writes, “these groups are David of the Goliath of the gun lobby” — a political behemoth whose revenues (according to 2017 data) were “five times that of national gun violence prevention groups.” The result was a string of victories, even after Sandy Hook and the ensuing decade of mass shootings, that surpassed the more modest victories of the new pro-regulation movement.
“In the early 1990s, the majority of states banned people from carrying concealed firearms in public or strictly regulated permits to do so,” she writes. “In 2018, the situation was reversed. All states allowed concealed transportation, and less than one in five states strictly regulated licenses.”
It is possible that this trend is changing. In recent years, the NRA has faced with huge legal problems while gun control proponents have continued to organize.
But in an intensely polarized society where legislation faces many political veto points — like the Senate filibuster and the extremely pro-gun majority of the Supreme Court — it’s difficult to make significant changes at the federal or Republican-controlled level. states. Gun control proponents not only have an organizational disadvantage; they are on a structural. They would have to outdo the NRA and its allies not just slightly, but dramatically to really change the way Americans respond to mass shootings.
As a result, the most likely outcome, at least in the short and medium term, is that things continue as they did after Uvalde. Republican-controlled state lawmakers will expand gun rights or at least maintain the status quo, entrenching gun hegemony over American civilian life.
Political reality can and will of course change. But the challenge on the arms reform side remains daunting.