Why Mass Shootings Haven't Ushered In a New Age of Gun Control

Imagine it in Thurl Ravenscroft's voice.Josh Blackman, a law professor, and Shelby Baird, a political scientist, have published an interesting paper in the Connecticut Law Review on what they call "the shooting cycle"—the pattern the public reaction seems to follow in the wake of a widely covered mass shooting. Carefully refraining from either endorsing or opposing any sort of gun legislation, the authors help us understand both the misleading media coverage that such crimes inspire and the trouble that gun control proponents have had translating public outrage over those crimes into new laws.

The paper begins by making the point that, contrary to the impression given by much of the press, mass shootings are very rare and have not been happening more frequently. (They do note a recent increase in "active shooter events," which unlike mass shootings need not involve more than one death, though even those may have peaked in 2010. The raw numbers in this category are too low to draw any strong conclusions from them, for reasons Michael Siegel explained in a similar context.) Blackman and Baird then examine the various cognitive biases that lead people to exaggerate some threats while minimizing others. This section includes a darkly comic quote from the Yale psychologist and legal scholar Dan Kahan:

Accidental insight?In one scene of Michael Moore's movie Bowling for Columbine, the "documentary" team rushes to get footage from the scene of a reported accidental shooting only to discover when they arrive that television news crews are packing up their gear. "What's going on? Did we miss it," Moore asks, to which one of the departing TV reporters answers, "no, it was a false alarm—just a kid who drowned in a pool." One would suspect Moore of trying to make a point—that the media's responsiveness to the public obsession with gun accidents contributes to the public's inattention to the greater risk for children posed by swimming pools—if the movie itself were not such an obvious example of exactly this puzzling, and self-reinforcing distortion.

Then we get to the meat of the article, a close analysis of the shooting cycle. A widely covered mass murder typically produces a period of "emotional capture," which frequently (though not always) includes greater public support for new gun controls. "Some who in the past moderately supported stricter gun laws now strongly support it," Blackman and Baird explain, "while some who in the past moderately opposed stricter gun laws will now moderately support them." This creates a window in which legislative action is more likely to succeed. But it's a small window: The period of emotional capture is followed by a regression to the mean, in part because many of those new supporters of gun laws "ask themselves if the purpose of these legislative moves was to stop the actual crime that occurred, or to advance a broader agenda they may not be comfortable with."

Looking at polling data from the last few shooting cycles, Blackman and Baird conclude that there isn't just a regression to the mean, but 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." They don't think this pattern is inevitable, but for now, "Less support for gun control laws after tragedies is the normal reaction to mass shootings. Not the other way around."Josh Blackman and Shelby BairdJosh Blackman and Shelby Baird

(Click here for a larger version of the chart.)

This helps explain not just why new federal gun legislation failed to get traction after the Sandy Hook murders, but why state-level laws in the last year have been more likely to loosen than to tighten the rules for gun ownership.

I differ with Blackman and Baird on a few points here and there, but their paper is a sharp take on a widely misunderstood phenomenon. Read the whole thing here.

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  • The Late P Brooks||

    "no, it was a false alarm—just a kid who drowned in a pool."

    Is this somehow analogous to the old saw about,

    "If you're being raped, yell,'FIRE!" because if you yell 'RAPE!' nobody will come"?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Moore left that incident in the movie? I never watched it but that doesn't make sense. It isn't moving his narrative along at all.

  • UnCivilServant||

    One of the brief ironies of that film, is that gathering facts briefly softened his line on the issue. Once he safely re-integrated himself into his normal bubble, he regressed.

  • Cytotoxic||

    The whole movie was hilariously confused. "We shouldn't be so scared of stuff! Canadians have lots of guns too and not many problems! GUN R SCARY"

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    I dare you guys to provide a graph that can be enlarged so one can actually read what is on it.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Sorry about that. I've added a link to a larger version.

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    My kindest thanks, Jesse.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    But it's a small window: The period of emotional capture is followed by a regression to the mean....

    Possibly because amorphous sentimentality evaporates when specific details are revealed.

  • Drake||

    Wasn't one of the big drivers for legal carry in Texas a mass shooting? I remember something about a woman watching helplessly while her relatives were shot in a restaurant - while her pistol was locked in the car because concealed carry was illegal.

  • Wandering Texan||

    The Luby's Shooting, yeah.

  • SIV||

    Luby's Cafeterias suck

  • Tonio||

    Perhaps so, but that's no excuse to condemn their patrons to dying in a hail of gunfire. :P

  • Agammamon||

    Look, people who eat at Luby's are just as guilty as Luby's itself. If it weren't for the demand they create there would be no Luby's in the first place.

    What? That's how the drug warriors justify what they do.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Shouldn't we try a rehabilitation approach for Luby's customers instead?

  • ||

    if the purpose of these legislative moves was to stop the actual crime that occurred, or to advance a broader agenda they may not be comfortable with.

    This is why the mean is declining. The proposals put forward are almost always shown to be completely ineffective at stopping the actual tragedy they are in response to and everyone soon realizes how disingenuous their supports are and it galvanizes and increases the opposition.

    This trend doesn't HAVE to last forever, but it will likely continue so long as the solutions put forward are so transparently unrelated to the the incidents at hand.

  • rts||

    Slightly off topic, but too good not to share... why would anyone need an assault rifle, answered in one image.

    (Hopefully the caption is accurate)

  • RBS||

  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    To be fair, people who listen to loud music at gas stations should be shot or arrested (regardless of race).

  • sarcasmic||

    She's got better trigger discipline than the average cop.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    something about a woman watching helplessly while her relatives were shot in a restaurant - while her pistol was locked in the car because concealed carry was illegal.

    Sounds like the Luby's shooting.

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    I wish examples like this would have any effect on the regular anti-gun Canadian. Sadly, my only solution will be to move to the US. Which isn't exactly sad, but the fact that Canada will likely never legalize any sort of concealed carry is sad.

    My 10 year plan, as it stands, goes a little like this: Start work as an engineer at the local nuke plant, finish out my PhD part-time which will likely take 5-6 years, and then begin to apply to jobs in the south east US. But that all hinges on the state of freedom and liberty in the US at that time. The trend is not positive for those things currently.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    then begin to apply to jobs in the south east US.

    Is that because there are a lot of jobs there in your field or because that's just where you'd like to live?

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    Bit of both. 4 new reactors in the SE and I like the Carolina's/have family down there.

  • Paul.||

    Sadly, my only solution will be to move to the US. Which isn't exactly sad, but the fact that Canada will likely never legalize any sort of concealed carry is sad.

    Keep America American! Secure our northern border!

  • sarcasmic||

    My cousin is chief engineer at a nuke plant. He works a couple weeks first shift. Then a few days off. Then a couple weeks second shift. Then a few days off. Then a couple weeks third shift. Then a few days off. Repeat. I could never do that.

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    Well, my new job is a simple 35 hour work week. But for the next while I will be putting in a lot more hours of "work" trying to keep up with my PhD dissertation.

    But having a good amount of industry experience and a PhD with (hopefully) a few papers out of it will put me in a good position for flexibility in location of work. At that point academia becomes a realistic option too, although I'm currently sour on academia so I'm not really entertaining that idea.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Don't worry, you'll get 2A rights in Canada - just as soon as we run low oil or firewood.

  • Agammamon||

    Or if we suddenly need lots and lots of ice.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Fellow Canucklehead here. At what level is concealed carry banned? Provincial? I think gun rights have a mildly positive prognosis in Canada, but it would help if the worthless POS Conservative federal government would kill C68. Killing the LGR was mostly theatre.

  • Dave C||

    Another Canucklehead here (with a restricted license). Concealed carry isn't banned but it's next impossible to get. So in general, the only place you can take a handgun to is a firing range.

  • Dave C||

    Another Canucklehead here (with a restricted license). Concealed carry isn't banned but it's next impossible to get. So in general, the only place you can take a handgun to is a firing range.

  • Dave C||

    3:00 squirrels.

  • Paul.||

    Why Mass Shootings Haven't Ushered In a New Age of Gun Control

    Because gun owners have been repeatedly lied to and lied about by the gun control industry, and we're simply fed up have fortified our position with the Truth?

  • R C Dean||

    I think this is a lot of it. We pro-gun rights folks have learned to, what's the phrase? "Hit back twice as hard."

    Now, when the sob sisters start wailing and reaching for their jackboots, they don't have the stage all to themselves.

  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    Smokers wish they'd been that alert.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Now, when the sob sisters start wailing and reaching for their jackboots, they don't have the stage all to themselves.

    Unfortunately, asking in a rational and dispassionate manner, "How exactly would this law have stopped the tragedy when the other five hundred already on the books did not?" does not make much of an impact on the True Believers.

  • sarcasmic||

    In the rare moments when the people calling for more laws are honest, they admit that the goal is total confiscation because they feel that only government should have guns.
    Of course they feel that that would never be abused because we are government and government is us and all that. Except that if we were government and government was us then we'd all be armed, or government would be unarmed, or something. Notice I used the word feel. I'd never accuse these people of thinking.

  • widget||

    In the rare moments when the people calling for more laws are honest, they admit that the goal is total confiscation because they feel that only government should have guns.

    No kook could possibly enter a crowded movie theater with a flame-thrower or grenade he built in his uncle's garage. Gun culture is good. The gun grabbers should pause and notice that guns have a mechanical limit to the havoc they reek.

  • LarryA||

    does not make much of an impact on the True Believers

    True. But it can impress folks nearby. I was at a party several years ago when a gun-grabber started a "debate." I kept cool and answered with facts, until she figured out I knew what I was talking about and retreated. I got three new students out of the people who were listening.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Less support for gun control laws after tragedies is the normal reaction to mass shootings. Not the other way around.

    That doesn't make my feelings good at all.

  • Tim||

    You're feelings have not been validated?

  • Paul.||

    My're feelings have been.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Mired in the grammarshlands.

  • OldMexican||

    Why Mass Shootings Haven't Ushered In a New Age of Gun Control


    Because the U.S. is still living under the Old Age of Gun Control which gave us conceal-carry "licenses" (as if a person really needed a license to exercise his or her constitutionally-protected right,) gun registration, useless and pointless background checks and laws forbidding immigrants from buying a gun or even possessing a gun at home.

  • Wandering Texan||

    Baby steps, brother, baby steps. The last twenty years have been good, and the next twenty will be better. More states will fall back into 2A carry over time, or slowly release their carry controls to a point that it is effectively 2A. The few that don't are already viewed as anachronisms of the 70's and 80's.

  • ||

    "just a kid who drowned in a pool."

    And yet nobody suggested requiring background checks and an extensive permitting process before you can construct a swimming pool? What is wrong with you people? Don't you care about the children?

  • The Last American Hero||

    Sounds like the SEIU should agitate for lifeguard training for pool owners, provided by the union of course, and unionize the pool owners through state mandate.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    If you think there is no extensive permitting process associated with building a pool, I would suggest that you have never tried to do any renovation work on your house while abiding by local building codes. At least not on either coast. Local governments can be and are as mired in nitwittery as any Federal agency.

  • GregMax||

    Simply installing a first-time garbage disposal requires a permit and inspection. In my neighborhood, there's a historic home committee who has authority to "approve" any changes to the appearance of the house. NOW they're trying to include anything visible from the frickin ALLEY. Even the guys at the city building department are leery of this group.

  • Number 2||

    Was this an Assault Pool of more than ten feet?? Don't you support Common Sense regulation?

  • UnCivilServant||

    On a tangentially related note: King Cuomo openly admits he favors a division between the plebs and the ruling class: here (Note, this is about the stroke victim commissioner who used a loaded pistol as a laser pointer and aimed at the heads of foreign visitors while waving it around)

    I really hate that man.

  • Wandering Texan||

    Does anyone actually like NY pols outside of NY?

  • UnCivilServant||

    Does anyone actually like NY pols outside of NY?

    Not even inside NY. Their machine has a lock on the City (accursed by thy name), which results in a lock on the statewide offices and the assembly.

  • widget||

    I grew up in a euro-diverse Philadelphia suburb in the 1960s. I played with Italians, respected them, but never made good friends with one.

    I was playing with one the Tenaglio boys one afternoon and was invited to stay and eat supper with them. After grace, with a plate of pasta before me, I rested my elbows on the table before digging in. The Irish are light on table manners. The sisters Tenaglio screamed at me for my rudeness. Mrs. Tenaglio grabbed them by their necks, took in the other room, and whacked them until they cried. Katy, bar the door.

  • MickinTX||

    Blackman and Baird's paper is attempting to frame policy-making opportunities around the most publicized events (those where people die). But don' be confused, it is a weekly fact: someone is going to start shooting at a group of people in the United States. As the authors note, more often it's someone shooting at people they know and not necessarily the nut job looking to kill indiscriminately. I worry the authors confuse the issue, making it sound "rare" that people are shot in a crowded public place. See this link www.reddit.com/r/GunsAreCool/wiki/

  • durron597||

    Oh please, a data set that has less than 100 data points over a 20 year period and an R^2 of .58 is, at best, moderately meaningful... especially since there's an uptrend at the end! Even if the correlation is correct, how do we know that there isn't a confounding factor? Especially since each poll itself has an error factor that isn't taken into account in this analysis...

    Further, (I only looked at the Gallup Poll), the numbers cited there that are copied in this graph are "stricter laws governing the sale of firearms". It said 51% of people would be in favor of stricter gun laws. However, when asked "are you dissatisfied", 57% said yes; of those, 39% wanted stricter gun laws, which means that only 22% of those polled were dissatisfied with the current ones... I assume this means that the difference are people who said they would be in favor of stricter gun laws if they happened but not dissatisfied enough to actually advocate for it.

    Basically I feel like this study was quite shoddy and I think the results are meaningless.

  • Michael S. Langston||

    Sure, but aren't the lack of data points over time a consequence that mass shootings don't happen that often?

    IE - if say they only had 100 temps over the past 20 years - that's a problem, because more temps obviously exist.

    But eschewing possible trends solely because what is being studied is a rare event in itself, thereby only producing rare events in which to study, doesn't seem a valid complaint.

    Though I do agree with your polling notes - too many US citizens are allowed to openly hold contradictory views and be seen as "cool" and "one of the good people" that polls are tough to discern anymore.

    You can see this in polls showing 80% hating Congress, but 90%+ re-election rates, or polls showing high percentage of people want less government, followed by a poll showing only a small percentage of people who believe anything specific in the government can actually be cut.

    So you have people who willingly say things like "I don't think we need stricter gun laws" in one poll, followed by "but assault weapons ban makes sense" in another poll...

    It's not the polls "fault" - it's the rampant inconsistency of the humans answering the questions (as like all cowards, they'd rather believe comfortably in mutually exclusive ideas than to challenge themselves in the least).

  • Ralph Wylie||

    Federal gun laws may not have gained much traction, but they sure as hell have in Kalifornia. You should check it out,Mr.Jesse Walker before you wax poetically about the state of affairs in the gun grabbing community. Things are not good for the Second Amendment. Many thanks to the NRA, Gun Owners of America and others for fighting the tyranny by Obama, Holder, Bloomberg, Cuomo, et al.
    MOLON LABE!

  • LarryA||

    California obviously, and a few others. But 30 states passed gun-rights legislation in 2013, and many are on track to pass more this year.

  • LarryA||

    Carefully refraining from either endorsing or opposing any sort of gun legislation, the authors help us...

    Well, not so much.

    Starting out "The pattern is a painfully familiar one" pretty much tells us which side they're on. Blackman and Baird are trying to answer the question, "How can we 'break the cycle' so that we can pass the gun control laws?"

    They conclude that the main obstacle is that gun-banners overreach, causing gun-rights supporters to effectively fight back. Their answer is to back off, wait until we relax, then institute a "cultural change" whereby we will realize that they are right, and voluntarily give up what we won't let them take.

    Nowhere in their mindset is any possibility that gun-rights folks might know something they don't, even though they cite several examples showing that gun control doesn't even address the problems they want to solve.

  • UnCivilServant||

    though they cite several examples showing that gun control doesn't even address the problems they want to solve


    The "Problem" they want to solve is the presense of gunowners among the civilian populace.

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