A Frustrated President Wants But Doesn't Expect New Gun Controls

Why the Charleston church massacre isn't likely to lead to stricter gun laws


When Barack Obama spoke today about last night's massacre in Charleston, he devoted a portion of his remarks to gun control:

I don't like the way "lame duck" sounds. How about "LDOTUS"?

We don't have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let's be clear: At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it's going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.

If the president sounds pessimistic, it's because he knows chances are low that this crime will lead to new gun laws of the sort he'd like to see. But that isn't just because of "the politics in this town." If a recent pattern recurs, this story may end with less support for gun control altogether, not just in Washington but in the general public.

The pattern in question was identified last year by the legal scholar Josh Blackman and the political scientist Shelby Baird, who called it "the shooting cycle." As I wrote after their paper appeared, the process works like this:

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."

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 don't think it's difficult to guess whether South Carolina is more likely to make its gun laws looser or tighter.

Bonus links: On the broader issue of how common mass shootings are, you should read Grant Duwe's 2014 article for us on the subject. You may also want to look at my past blogging on the topic, such as the posts here, here, here, and here. For an interesting look at how violent America is in comparison to other OECD countries, check out Kieran Healy's graph here. (The short version: We're more violent than most of them, but we've also gotten a lot less violent over time.) Video of the president's remarks is embedded below the fold: