The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Shooting Cycle Continues in 2021


In 2014, I co-authored an article with Shelby Baird titled The Shooting Cycle. We published the piece the Connecticut Law Review. The symposium was organized in the wake of the Newtown mass killing. Shortly before I presented the paper, then-Governor Malloy talked about the urgent need for gun control laws to deal with the tragedy in his state. Our presentation took a very different approach. We wrote:

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.

Seven years later, the shooting cycle seems to continue. And don't take my word for it. Today, the New York Times published an op-ed from Dan Gross, the former President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He described the shooting cycle in almost the same terms that Shelby and I described it.

It also breaks my heart to see gun control supporters, part of a movement I once helped to lead, repeat the mistakes that doom us all to the unacceptable status quo: tens of thousands of shooting deaths a year. The pattern is as familiar as it is tragic: In the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, the main demand of political leaders and gun control groups is a federal assault weapons ban. The news media, which seems to pay attention to gun laws only in the wake of mass shootings, amplifies that call, mostly taking at face value the idea that an assault weapons ban is the best way to prevent "gun violence". Then, as headlines about the latest calamity fade, so do the hopes of federal policy change. If this pattern plays out again after the shootings in Georgia and Colorado, no one should be surprised.

No, I am not surprised at all. Gross writes that gun control advocates should not focus on big, bad scary weapons like so-called "assault weapons." Instead, gun control advocates should focus on the cause of the overwhelming majority of gun deaths: simple handguns.

Though it does not grab national headlines, the daily toll of gun deaths and injuries is just as horrifying as our mass shootings, and more preventable as a matter of policy. The gun control movement should focus on the deaths and injuries that are most common, rather than be galvanized by mass shootings like the one that put my brother in a coma.

Gross explains that mass shootings represent a very, very small number of gun deaths.

Of the nearly 40,000 deaths involving guns in 2019, well under 1 percent were caused by what the F.B.I. defines as "active shooter" incidents. In an average year, around 60 percent of deaths involving guns are suicides and upward of 30 percent are homicides that don't meet the "active shooter" definition, like episodes of domestic and gang violence. Even unintentional shootings (about 1 percent of the total) outnumber mass shootings. . . .

But the fact is that if one were to objectively list solutions based purely on how much they would lower the number of gun deaths in our country, an assault weapons ban would not be high on the list.

Gross is exactly right. Gun control advocates should not fixate on long guns.

There are far more effective means to prevent these sadly routine tragedies than by focusing on assault weapons. And that means that it is both wrong and counterproductive for advocacy organizations and elected leaders to use the moments when the public is focused on gun control to push an assault weapons ban.

Of course, Gross can certainly speculate why gun control advocate will not focus on hand guns. Indeed, the organization he led was initially called "Handgun Control." But it dropped that name because the goal of banning handguns was seen as too radical. You have to start with the big, bad scary long guns, then work your way down to handguns. Nations around the world have followed a similar trajectory: ban long guns after a tragedy, and then when people are desensitized, move onto handguns. Gun control advocates are not focusing on banning the types of weapons that result in the most deaths, but are focusing on banning the types of weapons for which the political opposition is less severe.

One final note about my co-author. In 2014, Shelby Baird was still a senior at Yale University. Since then, she graduated from Duke Law School magna cum laude, was the President of her FedSoc chapter, was an editor on the Duke Law Journal, and clerked for Judge Hardiman on the Third Circuit. Now, she is an associate at Cooper & Kirk. I am very proud to have co-authored with her many years ago. I have known Shelby from my time clerking in Western Pennsylvania. I recognized early she had great potential, and she has exceeded those expectations.