The U.S. has been here before – after shootings in Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, Charleston, Roseburg, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland, El Paso, Boulder, and 10 days earlier at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y.
Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut was among the Democratic politicians who pleaded for action on gun control as horrifying details of the Uvalde school shooting unfolded.
Congress has declined to pass significant new gun legislation after dozens of shootings, including those that occurred during periods like this one, with Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, Senate and presidency.
This response may seem puzzling given that national opinion polls reveal extensive support for several gun control policies, including expanding background checks and banning assault weapons.
I am a professor of strategy at UCLA and have researched gun policy. With my co-authors at Harvard University, I’ve studied how gun laws change following mass shootings.
Stricter gun laws at the national level are more popular among Democrats than Republicans, and major new legislation would likely need votes from at least 10 Republican senators. Many of these senators represent constituencies opposed to gun control.
The absence of strict control policies in Republican-controlled states shows that senators crossing party lines to support gun control would be out of step with the views of voters whose support they need to win elections.
But a lack of action from Congress doesn’t mean gun laws are stagnant after mass shootings.
To examine how policy changes, we assembled data on shootings and gun legislation in the 50 states between 1990 and 2014. Overall, we identified more than 20,000 firearm bills and nearly 3,200 enacted laws. Some of these loosened gun restrictions, others tightened them, and still others did neither or both – that is, tightened in some dimensions but loosened in others.
We then compared gun laws before and after mass shootings in states where mass shootings occurred, relative to all other states.
Contrary to the view that nothing changes, state legislatures consider 15% more firearm bills the year after a mass shooting. Deadlier shootings – which receive more media attention – have larger effects.
In fact, mass shootings have a greater influence on lawmakers than other homicides, even though they account for less than 1% of gun deaths in the United States.
As impressive as this 15% increase in gun bills may sound, gun legislation can reduce gun violence only if it becomes law. And when it comes to enacting these bills into law, our research found that mass shootings do not regularly cause lawmakers to tighten gun restrictions.
In fact, we found the opposite. Republican state legislatures pass significantly more gun laws that loosen restrictions on firearms after mass shootings.
In 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a new law that eliminated a requirement for Texans to obtain a license or receive training to carry handguns. This came two years after a 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso.
That’s not to say Democrats never tighten gun laws – there are prominent examples of Democratic-controlled states passing new legislation following mass shootings.
California, for example, enacted several new gun laws following a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino. Our research shows, however, that Democrats don’t tighten gun laws more than usual following mass shootings.Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
Ideology governs response
The contrasting response from Democrats and Republicans is indicative of different philosophies regarding the causes of gun violence and the best ways to reduce deaths.
For both sides, mass shootings are an opportunity to propose bills consistent with their ideology.
Since we wrote our study of gun legislation following mass shootings, which covered the period through 2014, several additional tragedies have energized the gun control movement that emerged following the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. These include the May 2022 shooting at the Tops grocery store in Buffalo, as well as the Uvalde school massacre.
Student activism following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, did not result in congressional action but led several states to pass new gun control laws.
With more funding and better organization, this new movement is better positioned than prior gun control movements to advocate for stricter gun policies following mass shootings. Public outcry and devastation over the Uvalde shootings will likely provide fuel to this advocacy work.
But with states historically more active than Congress on the issue of guns, both advocates and opponents of new restrictions should look beyond Washington for action on gun policy.
- ^ for new gun legislation (rollcall.com)
- ^ killed at least (www.axios.com)
- ^ fourth grade students (www.npr.org)
- ^ Boulder (www.denverpost.com)
- ^ purchasing surge (everytownresearch.org)
- ^ industry sold (www.forbes.com)
- ^ Murphy asked (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ Congress has declined to pass significant new gun legislation after dozens of shootings (www.cbsnews.com)
- ^ extensive support for several gun control policies (news.gallup.com)
- ^ polled by Gallup (news.gallup.com)
- ^ polls do not determine policy (theconversation.com)
- ^ am a professor of strategy at UCLA and have researched gun policy (www.anderson.ucla.edu)
- ^ how gun laws change following mass shootings (doi.org)
- ^ Our research (doi.org)
- ^ Alex Wong/Getty Images (www.gettyimages.com)
- ^ more popular among Democrats than Republicans (www.pewresearch.org)
- ^ support for an assault weapons ban (www.pewresearch.org)
- ^ not one (giffords.org)
- ^ the 30 states with a Republican-controlled legislature (www.ncsl.org)
- ^ said on May 24 (edition.cnn.com)
- ^ they account for less than 1% of gun deaths in the United States (crsreports.congress.gov)
- ^ our research (doi.org)
- ^ signed a new law (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ This came (www.texastribune.org)
- ^ enacted several new gun laws following a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino (www.latimes.com)
- ^ New York Governor Kathy Hochul said (www.timesunion.com)
- ^ Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images (www.gettyimages.com)
- ^ blame the individual shooters (doi.org)
- ^ has said (www.axios.com)
- ^ law-abiding citizens to stop perpetrators (www.c-span.org)
- ^ gun sales often surge after mass shootings (doi.org)
- ^ focus more on trying to solve policy (aclanthology.org)
- ^ our study (doi.org)
- ^ gun control movement (www.sandyhookpromise.org)
- ^ executive orders (www.whitehouse.gov)
- ^ action in Congress remains elusive (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ new gun control laws (www.pewtrusts.org)
- ^ this new movement is better positioned (theconversation.com)
- ^ Public outcry (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ article originally published on March 21, 2021 (theconversation.com)
Authors: Christopher Poliquin, Assistant Professor of Strategy, University of California, Los Angeles