The pattern by now seems clear: A mass shooting with a stomach-turning number of victims is followed by loud calls to change the nation's gun laws, and there's no change from the status quo before the next massacre. That's not exactly accurate, however. On closer examination of the past three decades of violence, lawmakers, it turns out, are actually likely to loosen gun laws in the wake of mass shootings.
A recent working paper by three researchers at Harvard Business School attempted to analyze how states respond to these shootings at the policy level. The researchers tallied mass shootings across the U.S. since 1989 and looked at state gun laws introduced and passed over the same period. When Democrats controlled a legislature, the shootings didn’t prompt a significant increase in restrictive gun laws. But with Republicans in control, a mass shooting in the state was followed by a significant increase in the number of laws passed to ease gun restrictions.
There’s no way to predict what lawmakers might accomplish in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that left 49 dead, making it the deadliest shooting in U.S. history. But it is likely to have created an interval that political scientists describe as a “policy window,” a period when conditions are right for new laws or big policy changes. “If you think nothing ever changes, it turns out things do change,” said Deepak Malhotra, a professor of negotiation at Harvard Business School and one of the authors of the study. “These tragic events are perhaps policy windows,” he said.
Yet only those in favor of loosening gun laws appear to be able to take advantage of the opportunity. Malhotra and his colleagues began the research after the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012. Their goal was to systematically evaluate gun policies and try to identify common ground that would reduce innocent deaths—“the things that actually make a difference and things that actually have a chance of passing,” Malhotra said.
For the current paper, his colleagues catalogued mass shootings, based on media reports. Events with at least four deaths, not counting the shooter, were included in the tally. The researchers excluded gang- and drug-related shootings and events in which shooters primarily targeted their own families. The idea was to focus upon events most likely to gain the attention of the public. The researchers then reviewed gun legislation, sorting proposals as either loosening or tightening firearm rules.
There’s another important takeaway, beyond the suggestion that Republicans appear to be more effective in enacting state laws following mass shootings. These massacres don’t change people's minds. “If you’re hoping these events will lead people to change their opinions and come up with new approaches to gun control, we don’t really find support for that,” said Chris Poliquin, a doctoral student and co-author.
The policy window offers an opportunity to advance existing proposals, not create new ones. The paper doesn’t look explicitly at the role of the National Rifle Association or other advocacy groups, but the consistent pressure from the NRA may help explain the counterintuitive findings. “If there’s a lack of advocacy and support for a particular policy,” Poliquin said, “when that break happens, you shouldn’t expect a sudden increase in the number of ideas or policies after the event.”