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

And why people think mass shootings are more common than they actually are


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:

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 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.