The Duck of Minerva

Why Mass Shootings Make Gun Control Less Likely to Pass Congress

16 June 2014

**This is a guest post by Dr. Christopher Neff, Lecturer in Public Policy at University of Sydney.**

This past week President Obama marked one year since legislative efforts at gun control failed in the Congress. He lamented at the normalization of school shootings in the United States, noting, “my biggest frustration is that this society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do unbelievable damage.” What the President and his aides fail to realize is that mass shootings today make gun control less like to pass, not more likely.  Why? It’s all about emotional nature of the issues and the strength of the policy community, which is consistent with my research regarding policy responses to shark bites. Here’s how:

First, mass shootings and gun violence ‘turns off’ the wider public from the politics of ‘gun control.’ Mass shootings at schools create a series of aversive emotional conditions that cause emotional overload. These events become “temporally combined” (Linville and Fischer, 1991) in the minds of the public into one larger, more intense emotional event. For example, the shooting of each individual in a school tragedy get placed in the context of a larger event, such as “Columbine,”  “Virginia Tech,” or  “Sandy Hook.” We also see the public sharing lists and maps of mass shootings across the country in the past decade. The size and intensity of this emotional weight limits the number of people who have a capacity to engage. The natural response for the public therefore is to seek emotional relief from this condition and dreaded outcome. Simply put, people will not- and cannot- rally toward prolonged emotional distress. As a result, this limits the number of people who can compete with the entrenched gun rights lobby.

Secondly, the occurrence of mass shootings ‘turns on’ the support of gun rights advocates. The narrative that mass shootings will be used as the basis to take guns away from law-abiding citizens has created a ready-opposition to any legislative action. Moreover, recent responses from gun rights advocates, including Senator Rand Paul, following the Sandy Hook school shooting called for more gun access for teachers as the solution to the problem of school shootings. Senator Paul stated, “If my kids were at that school, I would have preferred that the teacher had concealed-carry and had a gun in her desk.” Thus, we see a highly emotional and well-coordinated response to these events in which the gun lobby bring its own passion to these efforts and ensures a long battle for gun control reformers.

In addition, this means that while the President is correct that the political issue of ‘gun control’ requires a collective social movement by the public to upend the control of organizations such as the National Rifle Association. The problem is that the current politicized framings ignite one side and extinguish another. An emotional contest between the number of people who care about ‘gun rights’ and the number of people who care about ‘gun violence’ places gun rights advocates on a firmer footing.

Thirdly, Congressional inaction can be used to diffuse the emotional demands of both sides following a mass shooting. Federal policymaking has the capacity to slow the process down, invite distraction, and highlight division to effectively stall gun reform. Indeed, the simple fact of the Christmas holiday on the legislative calendar may be one reason why political pressure dropped following the Sandy Hook school shooting, on December 14, 2012. This period of inaction had the effect of keeping gun rights advocates happy because nothing had been done and it removed the pressure from gun reform advocates of dwelling on a tragic issue. Simply put, difficult issues for politicians invite slowness and this can give the public a breather- an emotional break, if you will- even if they support action.

The political problem represented here is one of political will, however, rather than systematic dysfunction. Even this Congress can move quickly following tragedy. This past week, we saw Congress pass a bill to support veteran’s access to health care facilities following a series of tragic deaths. The difference is that the veteran’s issue provided a political penalty for inaction if not acted upon before the November elections. Where is the penalty on Congressional inaction regarding guns?


Moving forward from a policy perspective, the solution to the political advancement for gun reform may be taking the issue out of the hands of Congress and the President entirely. Establishing an Independent Commission, like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) outside of politics to look at ‘gun regulation’ provides one option. Indeed, having a body with statutory authority to regulate guns and ammunition in America is one way of bypassing the emotions and political institutions that appear incapable or unwilling to consider policy options. Just like there are drugs on the street that will never be reclaimed there are guns on the street that are difficult to remove. In all, I suggest that gun debates based on mass shootings are likely to fail because they impose an untenable emotional burden on reformers. An examination of the ‘emotional tax’ being placed around these events and the public is an important aspect of policy analysis, particularly short-term policymaking after tragic events. Whether the issue is school shootings, shark bites or international conflict the emotional capacity of the public helps inform the likelihood of success around these and other issues.