Mass shootings, more laws — and somehow, more guns
The pattern is by now numbingly familiar. A lone lunatic murders a mass of innocent people in some public location. There is a heartfelt cry for tighter control on gun ownership. Then state legislatures swing into action. They pass a series of laws loosening controls on gun ownership.
As David Frum points out in The Atlantic, the five years since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School “have seen one of the most intense bursts of gun legislation in U.S. history.” More than two dozen states have passed new gun laws. And in almost all cases these laws have made it easier to buy or carry guns.
Wisconsin eliminated its 48-hour waiting period to buy handguns. Ohio allowed concealed-carry weapons to be brought into day-care facilities and airports. Florida changed its “stand your ground” law to make it harder to prosecute gun owners.
The expansion of gun rights is directly related to the epidemic of mass shootings. A study by Michael Luca, Deepak Malhotra and Christopher Poliquin found that a single mass shooting leads to a 15 percent increase in firearm bills introduced in the same state’s legislature within a year.
In Republican states, they found, a mass killing “increases the number of enacted laws that loosen gun restrictions by 75 percent.” In Democratic states, mass shootings have no significant effect on laws passed.
So why are lawmakers responding to mass killings by loosening gun laws? The reality is that in some places, people want these laws. In 2000, according to a Pew survey, only 29 percent of Americans supported more gun rights and 67 percent supported more gun control. By 2016, 52 percent of Americans supported more gun rights and only 46 percent supported more control.
This shift in public opinion hasn’t come about because the facts support the gun rights position. The research doesn’t overwhelmingly support either side. Gun control proposals don’t seriously impinge freedom; on the other hand, there’s not much evidence that they would prevent many attacks.
Besides, better facts tend to be counterproductive on hot-button issues like gun control. As Tali Sharot notes in her book “The Influential Mind,” when you present people with evidence that goes against their deeply held beliefs, the evidence doesn’t sway them.
The real reason the gun rights side is winning is postindustrialization. The gun issue has become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.
A century ago, the forces of industrialization swept over agricultural America, and monetary policy became the proxy fight in that larger conflict. Today, people in agricultural and industrial America legitimately feel that their way of life is being threatened by postindustrial society. The members of this resistance have seized on issues like guns, immigration, the flag as places to mobilize their counterassault. Guns are a proxy for larger issues.
Four in 10 American households own guns. As Hahrie Han, a political science professor, noted in The Times, there are more gun clubs and gun shops in this country than McDonald’s. For many people, the gun is a way to protect against crime. But it is also an identity marker. It stands for freedom, self-reliance and the ability to control your own destiny.