State-level Policy Response to Mass Shootings: A Timeseries Analysis Dr. Ramona Sue

State-level Policy Response to Mass Shootings: A Timeseries Analysis
Dr. Ramona Sue McNeal, University of Northern Iowa (ramona.mcneal@uni.edu)
Dr. Mary Schmeida, Kent State University (mschmeid@kent.edu)
Dr. Lisa Dotterweich Bryan, Western Iowa Tech Community College (lisa.bryan@witcc.edu)
Dr. Susan M Kunkle, Kent State University (skunkle@kent.edu)
INTRODUCTION
Mass homicides perpetrated with firearms and occurring in schools, houses of worship, workplaces, restaurants, and other public spaces are associated with a decrease in public perceptions of personal safety and an increase in public perceptions of personal vulnerability. One merely needs to reflect on the shock and public outcry demonstrated after the shootings in Charleston, SC, Chattanooga, TN, Chardon, OH, Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, and San Bernardino, California to appreciate the traumatizing effect these incidents have on affected communities (Lowe & Galea, 2016).
Public mass shootings account for a small number of the country’s gun deaths, but they are uniquely frightening because they occur without warning and in the most everyday places (Berkowitz, Lu & Alcantara, 2018). Furthermore, the majority of those victimized in a mass shooting are not selected for something they have done, but merely for where they happen to be at a given point in time (Berkowitz, Lu & Alcantara, 2018). Although mass shootings only account for a small proportion of gun deaths in America, their numbers are still disturbing. According to recent research (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2018, p. 2), there were approximately 173 mass shooting in the United States between 2009 and 2017 with a combined total of 1,793 shooting victims (1,001 fatally).
Generically, the term mass shooting or mass killings refers to a homicidal incident of violence, usually involving a gun and resulting in multiple fatalities and injuries. However, there is not an endorsed set of criteria or an official definition of mass shootings that resonates equally among academics, criminologists, and law enforcement personnel. For example, the term mass shooting has been described by Morton and Hilts (2008) as several murders (four or more) occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders (Morton & Hilts, 2008). Contrast that with the definition of ‘mass killing’ under 28 U.S. Code Subsection 530C(b)(1) which is three or more killings in a single incident in a public space (Public Law 112-265, 2012). According to the FBI, the term “mass murder” is usually defined as a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered within one event and in one or more locations in close geographical proximity (Douglas, et.al 2006, p.13).
Mass shootings characteristically reintroduce demands for broader gun control legislation (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). For example, in response to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, Congress passed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 also known as P.L. 110-180 (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). P.L. 110-180 addresses improving federal and state electronic recordkeeping on persons barred from possession of firearms under federal law due to histories of mental illness or domestic violence (Krouse & Richardson, 2015).
Luca, Malhotra, and Poliquin (2016) showed that mass shootings evoke substantial policy debate and response. Their research found that one mass shooting occurrence is indicative of a 15% increase in the number of firearm bills introduced in a state legislative body over the course of a year following the event (2016). Additionally, while resulting in a significantly lower number of deaths than other gun crimes, mass shootings evoke a disproportionate response from citizens and political actors. Finally, a review of legislation proposed because of a mass shooting suggests that the type of laws enacted is dependent upon the political party in power. Legislatures controlled by the Republican Party tend to loosen gun restrictions immediately following a mass shooting whereas under legislatures controlled by the Democratic Party mass shootings did not noticeably influence laws that were subsequently enacted (Luca, Malhotra, & Poliquin, 2016). Party control of the state legislature is not the only political factor influencing policy response to mass shootings. The literature on policy adoption finds that a variety of other political factors influence criminal justice policy including ideology, public opinion, and media coverage (Kellstedt, 2003). The impact of public opinion on legislative response for this policy area is complicated by the division between gun owners and non-gun owners on how the government should respond.
The response at the state-level following a mass shooting has varied significantly, with some states loosening gun restrictions and others adopting a variety of gun safety policies. While political factors play an important role in policy adoption in this issue area, they cannot alone account for differences in policy response. The goal of this research is to determine why the states have adopted such a wide range of policies. Following the agenda setting and policy adoption literature, this study will explore the impact of political influences, state resources, and the demands or needs within the states on policy response (Mooney & Lee, 1995; 2000). For laws passed following mass shootings, this chapter explores the extent of state-level gun control laws from 2009 through 2017. Pooled cross-sectional time series data that controls for variation between states and over time will be used. This chapter begins with an overview of the literature on mass shooting and gun policy in the United States.
BACKGROUND
The adoption of gun policy following mass shootings in the U.S. has had a historical mix of players and policy types. The Virginia General Assembly in 1619 adopted the first gun law, followed by a plethora of different types of related laws ranging from militia and hunting laws, dueling, gunpowder storage, minors, carry restrictions (Spitzer, 2017, pp. 59-61), taxation, other. The 1934 National Firearms Act passed after the attempted assassination of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the 1929 prohibition associated St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago Illinois are early examples of policy response to shootings. The 1934 law-imposed taxation on gun makers, importers and dealers of firearms such as machine guns, restricting/ regulating imports and interstate transportation (Public Law 73-474, p. 1236). More recent forms of gun laws in response to mass shootings are federal and state-local policy, including initiatives taken by school districts, as government entities, tailored to meet the needs of the locale.
Other players in gun policy are the Supreme Court, gun owners, political parties, interests, school government, the media, among other. The Supreme Court, refraining from setting parameters on state-local policy, has affirmed gun ownership rights in a few notable cases and has provided leadership in the clarification of gun rights; prohibiting restrictive state actions said to fall under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Notable cases are the District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), McDonald v. Chicago (2010) where the due process clause of the 14th Amendment limited state action, and Caetano v. Massachusetts (2016) where use of a stun gun in self-defense was constituted as bearable arms protected under the Second Amendment (Constitution Society, June 26, 2008; Mass.gov, 2019). Although the Court has backed the right to bear arms, the right is not unlimited and summarized as “subject to an array of legal restrictions, including: prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings” (Spitzer, 2017, p. 55). Largely, restrictions placed on the mentally ill and carrying firearms in schools, training, and administrative policy to improve implementation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System have most occupied recent state agenda.
While gun rules and rights have not always been at odds historically, more recently, ideological and political differences have grown (Spitzer, 2017, p. 56) with a mix of players and ideas. A 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center of U.S. adult gun owners found more owners reported to be Republican or Independent, 74% saying it is an essential right to own a firearm (p. 6), 67% reporting ownership is for protection (p. 9), with major differences between owners and non-owners across most policies, such as favoring a federal database to track sales, banning assault weapons, allowing teachers to carry guns on school grounds, shorter waiting periods to purchase a firearm, and permitting concealed carry without permit (p. 11). Survey respondents identifying as Republican and Republican-leaning gun owners are more likely to belong to the National Rifle Association (Pew, June 22, 2017, p. 14) interest group. Several other national interest groups are shaping gun policy today, with some more aligned with a political party over another as seen with the Pew survey.
The media has also played a role in the adoption of gun control policy. Although mass shootings are a relatively rare event, the media is more likely to cover some shootings more than others. Silva and Capellan (2019) found that the media is likely to provide more in-depth coverage of shootings with greater casualties and injuries, where more than one weapon was used and if the shooter is young, from the Middle East or has ideological motivation. In addition, they found that school shootings receive the greatest coverage while workplace shooting tend to receive less coverage. Similarly, Schildkraut, Elsass and Meredith (2018) found that the media was more likely to coverage a mass shooting if it took place at school, there was a high number of casualties and the perpetrator was of Asian descent. Finally, Duxbury, Frizzell and Lindsay (2018) found that the race/ethnicity of the shooter impacted how he was depicted. If they perpetrator was a White male, often the narrative would focus on mental illness and the shooter would be portrayed more sympathetically. Black and Hispanic males, on the other hand, would be described has having violent tendencies. Which mass shootings the media chooses to cover and how they are framed is likely to influence public opinion and the policy options.
CURRENT GUN CONTROL POLICY
School Shootings
Despite most mass shootings being linked to domestic violence (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2018; Issa, 2019), the media has given school shootings greater coverage compared to other locations (Schildkraut, Elsass, & Meredith,2018; Silva, & Capellan, 2019). It is therefore not unexpected that school safety has received the bulk of the recent attention at all government levels. Federal agenda largely supports implementation of state-local initiatives taking a context-specific approach to school safety (NCSL, January 2019), providing support to states by way of grants, and helping school safety via national law, such as the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 made part of the Crime Control Act of 1990 (Public Law 101-647). The 1990 federal law laid a foundation for states, placing restrictions on persons knowingly carrying a “loaded or unsecured” firearm and knowingly onto school grounds, whether public, private, or parochial school. Currently, several federal school safety regulatory bills sit in congressional committee.
Some federal agencies have partnered together pooling resources to combat school threats. The U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Safe and Drug-free Schools, for example created an alliance to study “targeted school violence” called the Safe School Initiative that assessed safety risks, such as “students of concern,” risk for violence and harm, and best strategy to mitigate risk (U.S. Secret Service, February 2018, para 2). The federal U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center initiative guides safety training to schools, and to law enforcement training on threat assessment and prevention practices (U.S. Secret Service, July 2018).
The National Conference of State Legislatures (May 8, 2019) reports, from 2017 to 2019 states responded to school shootings by enacting 142 bills and 12 resolutions. This legislation is a mix in category from arming of personnel on K-12 school grounds to restricted firearm carry, training requirements, school empowerment, evidence-based practices, funding, and other. Without funding policy does not implement. As an example of funding policy, the Maryland Senate Bill 1265 authorized grants, funding appropriations toward local school systems, curriculum and security training, the Safe Schools Fund, other. Both Maryland and Florida are noted as comprehensive laws, establishing “school and district threat assessment teams” as a school safety resource (NCSL, May 8, 2019; NCSL, January 2019; LegiScan, April 2018). Within the mix of categories, states have passed laws regulating school personnel and concealed weapons to promote school safety. For example, in Idaho, Kansas, and Wyoming school employees are required “to be concealed carry permit holders” (p. 1). In addition, some states permit school employees having pre-approval from authorities to be exempt from the firearm ban and carry firearms on school grounds for the Kindergarten-12 schools. Table 1, (adapted from NCSL, March 8, 2019) provides a thematic snapshot on state gun policies for Kindergarten-12 school grounds, and not exhaustive on the types of state school safety policies enacted. Hawaii is identified as not having any “relevant” policy.
Table 1. States at A Glance: Allowing Firearms on K-12 Grounds
State Policy
No. of States
State Names
Anyone with School Authority Permission
19
Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Vermont
Concealed Carry for License Holders-Permit Alone Required
4
Alabama, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah
Concealed Carry for License Holders-Permit & School Permission Required
3
Idaho, Indiana, Missouri
Non-Security School Employees with Concealed Carry Permit and School Permission.
3
Idaho, Kansas, Wyoming
Non-Security School Employees with School Permission and Training
6
Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee (qualifying districts), Texas, South Dakota
School Security Permitted
21
Alabama, California, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, West Virginia
Only Students Prohibited on K-12 Grounds
1
New Hampshire
National Conference of State Legislatures. (March 8, 2019). School safety: guns in schools. Retrieved May 10, 2019 from http://www.ncsl.org
Florida is one of the leaders in state policy having passed a comprehensive 2018 statute known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. This Act established the Office of Safe Schools within their Department of Education, authorized school watch programs and appointing of school employees (volunteer) as school guardians. It placed more parameters on those “adjudicated” as mentally ill from possessing a firearm, age limits on firearm purchase, and constraining sale and possession of bump-fire stocks (used to accelerate firing), other (Florida Senate Bill 7026, 2018, para 1; NCSL, March 8, 2019). Georgia has adopted a broad scope of regulatory and administrative laws making it illegal to carry or possess a firearm into public institutions including postsecondary education. They have revised penalties, updated policy definitions, established a list of exceptions to firearm carry and possession onto property, and other (Georgia General Assembly, 2017-2018). In the Arkansas State Legislature (2017), Act 562 prohibits to knowingly carry or possess a “loaded firearm or other deadly weapon” in a publicly owned building or State Capital grounds, except for law enforcement/ security or federal military personnel.
Mental Illness
Like school shootings, mental illness has been a recent emphasis of the media in its coverage of mass shootings (Duxbury, Frizzell, & Lindsay, 2018). Nevertheless, there are differences in the politics regarding the debate on gun control legislation when regulating mental illness and access to firearms. Although there is typically a party affiliation division on gun policy, there are some exception including the regulated purchase of firearms by those adjudicated as mentally ill (Pew, June 22, 2017). Both the federal government and most states have laws regulating mental illness and firearm possession and purchase. Federal code 18 U.S.C. § 922(d), prohibits disposing / selling firearms or ammunition to a person knowing or believing is considered mentally ill (para 1). Some states are more restrictive expanding their constraints onto other health conditions. Kansas law for example, specifies persons with alcohol and substance abuse as those regulated. Illinois expands it to those with intellectual disability and specifies the prohibition of firearm sale or delivery if the recipient was in a mental institution within the previous 5-year time (NCSL, January 5, 2018).
States have also approached the agenda on mental illness and firearms from the standpoint of regulating the psychotherapist/ mental-health provider by having them report/ warn of imminent risk of patient violent behavior, as referred by some sources as a duty to protect law. This category is not as clear cut as a background check or restricting the carry of firearms based on age, largely because of the long-standing professional ethic of confidentiality between psychotherapist and patient. As a result, there is a varying of opinion across mental health institutions and providers on the duty to warn others, or unleashing information to third parties if a patient poses a potential or imminent threat to harm others. To date, we find states do vary as to the level of regulation placed upon their psychotherapists, and other health professionals interfacing with the mentally challenged (NCSL, October 12, 2018, para 2). At this time, 30 states are reported as having a mandatory duty to protect/ warn law. For example, in Colorado it is considered mandatory for a patient provider (physician, social worker, psychiatric nurse, psychologist, mental-health hospital or center, clinic, institution or staff) to protect/ warn against risk of violent behavior, but, yet not be held civilly liable or disciplined professionally for failure to warn of or to predict behavior. Aside the laws categorized as a “mandatory” to warn, 15 states have passed a “permissive” duty to protect/ warn. Of this group, Oregon for example, having a permissive state law keeps the patient-provider confidentiality ethic unless professional judgement finds imminent danger to others or society at large (NCSL, October 12, 2018; May 8, 2019). Reading across laws, there is some blurring in differences between mandatory reporting and permissive laws across the states, nevertheless, many states have recognized and adopted laws on reporting risk of violent behavior to appropriate parties
HISTORY OF FEDERAL GUN CONTROL POLICY
Federal regulation of gun usage dates to the late 1700s with the ratification of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It was not until the passage of the National Firearms Act in 1934 that the federal government again addressed civilian usage of guns. In response to violent mob crime committed by Al Capone and his contemporaries, this law imposed a $200 tax on the manufacture and sale of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. The law further stipulated that all gun sales were to be documented in a national registry (Washington Post, 2012). The reauthorization of the National Firearms Act in 1938 required the licensure of interstate gun dealers and the documentation of their sales. This legislation also criminalized the sales of guns to persons who were indicted for or found guilty of violent crimes (Washington Post, 2012).
In response to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Johnson secured passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and Gun Control Act in 1968. The Act increased the minimum age to buy guns to 21 and prohibited convicted felons, drug users and the mentally challenged from purchasing firearms (Washington Post, 2012). The Firearm Owners Protection Act passed in 1986 relaxed some previously enacted gun control restrictions. It prohibited the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from inspecting gun dealers more than once a year. Further inspections were only permitted if multiple violations were found during the initial inspection. An amendment to this legislation banned civilian possession of machine guns made after May 19, 1986. Guns manufactured and registered before this date were not impacted. Furthermore, this law prohibited the government from creating a national registry of gun owners. It also allowed gun dealers, importers, and manufacturers to conduct business at impermanent places such as gun shows (Associated Press, 2018; Washington Post, 2012).
Seven years later the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Public Law 103-159) was enacted, laying most of the groundwork to regulate interstate and foreign commerce. The “Brady Act” mandates for a waiting period to occur before the purchase of a handgun, and the establishment of a national instant criminal background check system for firearm dealer contact prior to the transfer of any firearm (p. 1536). It “applies only in states without an acceptable alternate system of conducting background checks on handgun purchasers” (para 1). The 5-day wait on handguns however ceased in 1998, although provisions that apply to all firearms remain permanent (ATF, April 28, 2017). In 2007, the Brady Act was amended by the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2008 establishing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (Public Law 110-180, 2008) widely used today.
In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement which imposed a 10-year ban on the manufacture, transfer, and ownership of new semi-automatic assault weapons. It also prohibited large-capacity ammunition magazines, restricting them to 10 rounds. This Act only applied to weapons made after the ban was passed and expired in 2004, with subsequent efforts to reauthorize it having been futile (Associated Press, 2018; Washington Post, 2012).
During the George W. Bush administration, many efforts to weaken federal gun control measures were successful. In 2003, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) secured passage of a proposed amendment to prohibit the ATF from publicly releasing information regarding where offenders purchased guns. Two years later, President Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act into law. This Act grants immunity to gun manufacturers from civil lawsuits in federal and state courts for crimes committed with firearms. In 2008, in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that Americans have a constitutional right to keep handguns in their homes for self-defense. This ruling overturned a local law that banned handguns in the District of Columbia (Associated Press, 2018; Washington Post, 2012).
After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT, President Obama announced a plan to reduce gun violence in January of 2013. It included four parts, which were to close gaps in background checks, ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, make schools safer, and to increase access to mental health services. The plan was comprised of 23 executive actions and twelve congressional actions (White House, 2013). The executive actions were signed immediately, but the proposed assault weapons plan sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and 24 fellow Democrats failed in the Senate (Simon, 2013).
STATE GUN CONTROL POLICIES FOLLOWING THE SANDY HOOK SHOOTING
Although Congress was unsuccessful in its attempt to passing legislation following the Sandy Hook shootings, some states reacted with stricter gun control laws. Laws requiring background checks for sales of firearms became a popular response by state legislatures. The election of state-level politicians who support strict gun control and the provision of ballot referendums and initiatives were credited with the successful passage of stricter gun control laws in many of these states (Keneally, 2017). While stricter policy for background checks were adopted in some states, others passed additional gun rights laws. The involvement of interest groups may explain limited state-level legislative actions. In the years between 2007 and 2012, gun control groups spent only $55,000 in lobbying efforts at the state-level while pro-gun groups spent $2.3 million on state-level lobbying activities during the same period (Hartmann, 2013).
Like the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the mass shooting at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival drew attention to the issue of gun safety yet resulting in limited legislative action at the state level. Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and wounded over 400 more on Sunday, October 1, 2017 in Las Vegas. Paddock shoot at concert goers attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival from his hotel room. Although the shooting lasted approximately 10 minutes, he was able to fire 1,000 rounds of ammunition because he used a bump stock, which allows a shooter to fire a gun in rapid succession (Elliot & Sweetland Edwards, 2017). In response, Massachusetts became the first state to ban bump stocks in November 2017 and the Justice Department banned bump stocks in December 2018 (Balsamo, 2018).
On February 14, 2018, Nicolas Cruz, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, killed 17 students and staff members. Congress did not pass any legislation in response to this massacre. Like the incidences at Sandy Hook and the Route 91 Harvest Festival, there was legislative response in the states. Legislatures enacting 69 new gun control laws during 2018 with over fifty percent of the states enacted at least one measure. Moreover, during 2018, there were fewer measures passed by state legislatures to increase access to firearms in contrast to the year following the Sandy Hook shooting. Furthermore, state lawmakers voted against approximately 90 percent of bills supported by the NRA in 2018 (Astor & Russell, 2018).
The Parkland shooting marked a turning point in state response to mass shootings. Over half of the gun control measures enacted in 2018 were in March and April, the months immediately following the shooting. Many state legislators claimed that the Parkland shooting inspired them to introduce and pass gun control measures. Due to disenchantment with the federal and state response to the Sandy Hook shooting, many grass-roots organizations formed such as Moms Demand Action and lobbied the state for legislation supporting gun control and against permit less carry bills. Ballot measures were also introduced to control access to guns (Astor & Russell, 2018). Why have state respond differently in the past to mass shootings, with some states making it easier to gain access to firearms while others placing greater restrictions on access to guns? In answering this question, this chapter begins with a summary of the literature on policy adoption and agenda setting.
STATE-LEVEL POLICY ADOPTION LITERATURE
Agenda setting theory can be used to explain the consideration of gun control legislation in Congress and state legislatures. The punctuated equilibrium model proposed by Baumgartner and Jones (1993, 2002) provides a roadmap for understanding why certain events such as the assassination of President Kennedy and the mass shooting at Parkland were able to alter the trajectory of gun control policy in the United Sates. In this model, a policy monopoly renders stable policy outcomes that last over long periods of time. This monopoly is characterized and supported by ideas and institutions. The ideas shape how issues are understood and discussed by lawmakers, and institutional structures limit who takes part in policy debates. “Outsiders” are believed to be not qualified to participate in decision making in the policy domain since they are viewed as being unapprised, careless, and even dangerous (Baumgartner & Jones, 2002, pp. 12-13). If a group convinces others that their ideas serve widely accepted goals, they may create a policy monopoly. Pro-gun rights advocates have dominated the policy debate, acting as a policy monopoly, and the issue has been framed in terms of the protected constitutional rights to own a gun. Policy monopolies are supported by the “acceptance of a positive image and the rejection of possible competing images” (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993, p. 26). Policy equilibrium is punctuated by points of policy change. These points occur when new understandings of problems take place and new interests are mobilized. When this occurs, the current policy monopoly could lose support for its ideas and dissolve. Often policy equilibrium is disrupted by a policy shock (such as the mass shooting at Parkland) that draws attention to the issue and can result in policy change (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993).
To break through the inertia (tendency toward policy monopoly) inherent in the fragmented American democratic system, an idea must first be recognized as a public problem. More specifically, an issue must be seen by the public as negatively impacting a segment of society and the government must be perceived as the appropriate actor to address the situation. Building on Baumgartner and Jones’ idea of a policy image, Rochefort and Cobb (1994) set forth causality, severity, incidence, proximity and crisis as key elements that influence whether an issue is recognized as a public problem. This identification is a matter of perception. Problems are more likely to be perceived as public problems when the public reaches consensus that institutional failures are the cause, that the consequences of a lack of government action are severe, that the problem occurs with frequency, and/or that it closely affects many people (1994, p.16). Times of crisis such as mass shootings in schools and other public places can focus attention by combining dimensions of proximity and severity in the public mind.
Although a policy shock can draw attention to a problem, it does not guarantee policy change. State legislatures have varied in their reaction to recent mass shootings with some states loosening gun restrictions and others strengthening them. The literature on policy adoption suggests a set of variables that can be used to explore why certain states are more likely to enact government policy (Mooney & Lee, 1995). Early research found that measures state wealth was important to policy adoption (Walker, 1969; Gray, 1973) while later studies (Meier, 1994; Mooney & Lee, 1995) suggest that both politics and public demand/need are also important in explain policy action. The type of policy often dictates which of these factors play a more leading role in explaining legislative action. Gun control is a form of regulatory policy which are rules of behavior applied to specific groups of individuals or industries and their adoption tends to be dominated by political factors (Lowi, 1964). This is supported by the literature on criminal justice policy which finds that the adoption of criminal policy is influenced by political variables including ideology, public opinion, and media coverage (Kellstedt, 2003).
Following the policy adoption literature, the next sections will explore the impact of political influences, state resources, and the demands or needs within the states on policy response (Mooney & Lee, 1995; 2000). For laws passed following mass shootings, this chapter explores the adoption of state-level gun control laws from 2009 through 2017. This time period was chosen because it was marked by periods of policy change at the state-level and high-profile mass shootings.
EMPIRICAL MODELS: DATA AND METHODS
The focus of this research is whether mass shootings act as a policy shock, motivating changes in existing state gun laws. The main independent variable is the number of mass shootings in a state for a given year where mass shooting is defined as an incident where four or more people are killed with a firearm, not including the shooter (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2018). Two dependent variables were included. The first is the overall strength of the state’s gun laws and is measured with the count of the number of 67 key gun laws (ranging from red flag laws to background checks) that had been adopted by the state (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2019). Because most mass shootings are linked to domestic violence (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2018; Issa, 2019), a second dependent variable is included to measure the strength of the state’s domestic violence laws. It is coded 1 if the state has a law prohibiting people who have been convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from having a firearm and 0 otherwise (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2019).
Because the literature (e.g. Luca, Malhotra, & Poliquin, 2016; Wozniak, 2017) finds that political factors play an important role in the adoption of gun laws, controls were included for political actors including interest groups, citizens and government officials. The history of gun policy in the United States as well as research (e.g. Issa, 2019; Vizzard, 2015) illustrate the importance of interest groups to the successful passage of gun control legislation; often with groups opposed to gun control prevailing. To control for the possible influence of state-level interest groups in this policy area, a five-point scale was included for the overall impact of interest group in state-level politics. A score of 5 indicates that interest groups are dominate to other groups such as political parties, and a score of 0 indicates that they are subservient (Thomas & Hrebenar, 2008). The literature also indicates that public opinion and ideology influence the adoption of criminal justice policy (Kellstedt, 2003). In order to control for the ideology of citizens and elected officials, two indices were added each ranging from 0 to 100 with higher scores indicating greater liberalism (Fording, 2018). These indices update and extend the measures developed by Berry et al. (1998). The measure of citizen ideology uses interest group ratings of members of Congress of each state and election results (Berry et al., 1998, pp. 330-331). Similarly, the measure of government ideology is based interest group ratings and is calculated using weighted ideological score averages for the state governor and both major parties in each legislative chamber (Berry et al., 1998, 332-333).
As a state’s chief policymaker, governors are uniquely positioned to influence the agenda. Nevertheless, the ability of the governor to impact policy is linked to their level of institutional power. To control for variation in power, a five-point scale for the institutional power of state governors was included where 1 indicates the governor has weak power while a 5 signifies that the governor has strong power based on the state’s constitution and statutes. The index is constructed based on indicators of the number of independently elected executives, appointment power, term length and term limits, budget control, veto strength and executive order power (Donovan, Mooney, & Smith, 2013). Another factor that might influence the adoption of gun control policy is the percentage of women in the state legislature. Because most mass shootings are linked to domestic violence (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2018; Issa, 2019) it is believed that more women in the state legislature would be associated with stricter gun policy. The presence of women legislators is measured using the percent women in a state legislature for each year (Center for American Women and Politics, 2019). Government agencies can influence policy adoption. Research (Volden, 2002) finds that under certain circumstances including uncertainty, legislatures are likely to delegate both advisory and policy making powers to the bureaucracy. How much discretion an agency can exercise is linked to legislative oversight. As an indicator of control over state agencies, an index measuring state legislative oversight of the bureaucracy was included. It is constructed using four-point scale where 1 indicates that the state legislature has no oversight power of the bureaucracy and 4 indicates that the legislature can impose costs and/or suspend rules (Gerber, Maestas & Dometruis, 2005).
Legislative professionalism was included as a measure of state resources. It is expected that more professional legislatures will be leaders in policy adoptions because they are more likely to possess expertise in the various policy areas. This factor is measured by an index created by Squire (2007; 2017) and is based on salary, staff, and time-in-session of the 50 state legislatures. Urbanization, educational attainment and gross state product were also included as measures of state resources. Gross state product is measured over time in millions of dollars (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2019) while urbanization is measured by the percent of the population living in urban areas (United States Census Bureau, 2012a, 2012b). Educational attainment is measured over time by the percent of the state population age 25 or older with a high school degree (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012a; Nation Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Finally, public need/demand (Meier, 1994; Mooney & Lee, 1995) has been found to be an important factor in predicting policy adoption. The number of deaths due to injury by firearms per 100,000 population was included as an indicator of need for gun control policy (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2018).
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
The Extent of State-Level Gun Control Policy
In Table 2, the dependent variable is coded so that higher scores are associated with a greater number of 67 key gun laws adopted by the state. Since the dependent variable is measured over time pooling the fifty states and is continuous, cross-sectional time series analysis is used. The findings in Table 2 are consistent with earlier research on regulatory policy which points to the importance of political factors in the adoption of laws in this policy area. As expected, states where governors have greater institutional power and a larger percentage of women in the state legislature were associated with adopting a greater number of gun control laws. Unexpected was the findings that interest group strength and legislative oversight of the bureaucracy were unrelated to the number of gun laws adopted. Volden (2002) argues that the legislature is more likely to delegate policy making powers to the bureaucracy during times of uncertainty. It is possible that gun control is a policy area where factors such as ideology or party affiliation have a strong influence on policy decisions and the legislature is less likely to delegate power to bureaucrats. The finding that interest group strength is not related to the extent of state-level gun control policy is inconsistent with the history of gun control policy in the U.S. One explanation could be that the dependent variable is measured by the number of gun control measures adopted but does not distinguish between laws in terms of their acceptance among citizens and interest groups or level of punishment. There may be specific gun policies whose adoption are influenced by interest group activities, but this measure is not constructed in a manner that can test these relationships.
The findings in Table 2 indicate that states dominated by liberal citizens were more likely to have a greater number of gun control laws. Although this is consistent with the history of gun control in the U.S., generally conservative citizens would be more likely to support the passage of stricter legislation to control criminal behavior. This is due, in part, because the media typically portrays criminal justice issues in terms of law and order policies. The debate over gun policies have been framed differently; it has been portrayed in terms of protecting constitutionally guaranteed rights verses averting future tragedies as well as a public health issue. How gun laws are portrayed in the media can influence public opinion (Rochefort and Cobb, 1994). As expected, gross state product, legislative professionalism and percent urban were significant and positively related to the number of laws adopted. This is consistent with early research that found state wealth was an important determinate of policy adoption (Walker, 1969; Gray, 1973). Education attainment was not significantly related to policy adoption. Unlike state resources and political factors, the measures for demand/need were found unrelated to policy adoption. Neither the number of mass shootings in the state for a given year or the number of deaths due to injury by firearms per 100,000 population were statistically significant. It is possible that the high-profile mass shootings that took place during the timeframe of this study are overshadowing the events taking place in each state.
Table 2. State Gun Control Legislation, 2009-2017
Variables
The Extent of State-Level Gun Control Policy
(se)
p>|z|
Interest group strength
Overall interest group impact i,t
– .181(1.656)
.913
Political constraints
Ideology of elected officials i,t
.003(.032)
.925
Ideology of citizens i,t
.153(.053)
.004
Gubernatorial institutional power i,t
2.489(1.210)
.040
% women in the state legislature i,t
State legislative oversight of bureaucracy i,t
.284(.075)
.084(.924)
.000
.373
State resources
Gross state product i,t
Urban population (%) i,t
Education attainment i,t
Institutions
Legislative professionalism i,t
Demands/needs
Gun deaths i,t
Mass murders i,t
8.05e-6(2.12e-6)
.197(.082)
-.538(.421)
12.653(5.013)
-.049(.130)
-.401(.297)
.000
.016
.210
.012
.709
.176
Constant
28.928(37.020)
.435
Wald Chi2 (12)
Number of Panels
N
103.38
50
450
.0000
Note: Panel corrected cross-sectional time series data for the 50 states. Unstandardized coefficients are presented with standard errors in parenthesis. Subscript i contains the unit to which the observations belong, in this case the state, and controls for variation in state legislative activity between the states. Subscript t represents the time or year the variable was measured.
Domestic Violence Gun Control Policy
In Table 3, the dependent variable is coded so that higher scores are associated with a greater likelihood of having a law prohibiting people who have been convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from having a firearm. Because the dependent variable is measured over time pooling the fifty states and is binary, a binary panel logistic regression was used. Compared to the findings in Table 2, political factors were found to be even more dominate in explaining the adoption of domestic violence gun policy. As with Table 2, states where governors have greater institutional power and a larger percentage of women in the state legislature were associated with adopting a greater number of gun control laws. Unlike the findings in Table 2, both interest group strength and legislative oversight of the bureaucracy were significant predictors of whether a state had a law prohibiting people who have been convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from having a firearm. States with greater legislative oversight and weaker interest groups were more likely to adopt this form of gun control policy.
Table 3. State Domestic Violence Gun Control Legislation, 2009-2017
Variables
Domestic Violence Gun Control Policy
(se)
p>|z|
Interest group strength
Overall interest group impact i,t
-3.305(1.488)
.026
Political constraints
Ideology of elected officials i,t
-.066(.035)
.061
Ideology of citizens i,t
-.147(.077)
.059
Gubernatorial institutional power i,t
2.224(1.220)
.068
% women in the state legislature i,t
State legislative oversight of bureaucracy i,t
.345(.150)
1.891(.877)
.021
.031
State resources
Gross state product i,t
Urban population (%) i,t
Education attainment i,t
Institutions
Legislative professionalism i,t
Demands/needs
Gun deaths i,t
Mass murder i,t
1.2e-5(4.80e-6)
-.008(.113)
.014(.448)
44.980(9.475)
-.102(.227)
-.903(.634)
.011
.946
.976
.000
.653
.155
Constant
-17.021(37.815)
.653
Wald Chi2 (12)
Number of Panels
N
79.16
50
450
.0000
Note: Binary panel logistic regression data for the 50 states. Unstandardized logistic coefficients are presented with standard errors in parenthesis. Subscript i contains the unit to which the observations belong, in this case the state, and controls for variation in state legislative activity between the states. Subscript t represents the time or year the variable was measured.
The findings indicate that in states with both conservative citizens and elected officials there was a greater likelihood that this domestic violence gun law would be adopted. This suggests that unlike gun control laws, in general, these policies are being portrayed in the media in terms of law and order policies. As expected, gross state product and legislative professionalism were significant and positively related to the number of provisions adopted. However, neither education attainment nor urbanization were significantly related to policy adoption. Like the findings in Table 2, neither the number of mass shootings in the state for a given year or the number of deaths due to injury by firearms per 100,000 population were statistically significant. Again, it is possible that the high-profile mass shootings that took place during the timeframe of this study are overshadowing the events taking place in each state. In addition, domestic violence related gun deaths do not receive the same media attention as other mass shootings such as those that take place at school.
FuTURE rESEARCH dIRECTIONS
This chapter explores the state-level policy response to mass shootings. The findings suggest that state actions follow the pattern of policy adoption predicted by the literature for regulatory policy with political factors taking the lead in explaining legislative action. Nevertheless, there were differences in the finding between the two models examined in this study. The first model (which used an overall measure of gun control policy adoption) found that liberal citizens were associated with a greater number of gun control laws adoption. The second model (which focused on the adoption of domestic violence gun policy), on the other hand, found that conservative citizens and elected officials were associated with the presence of a domestic violence gun law. This suggests that media coverage of mass shootings may be framed differently depending on the circumstance surrounding the shooting. To further explore the potential impact of media coverage on gun control measures, future research is needed to examine media cover of mass shooting under different circumstances and the subsequent language used in debate over the adoption of these laws.
In addition, this study used broad instruments to measure the two dependent variables. The first dependent variable was a measure represented by a count of 67 key gun control measures that had been adopted by the state while the second was binary, coded 1 if a state had law prohibiting people who have been convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from having a firearm and 0 otherwise. Neither measure accounted for difference among states in terms of the level of punishment prescribed for the various offences. Future research is needed where the level of punishment prescribed is accounted for when predicted legislative action. Finally, this study examined a time period in which there were numerous mass shootings garnering national media attention. To better understand the influence of mass murders on state policy, future research should examine a time frame with limited national media coverage of high-profile shootings overshadow events taking place within each state.
CONCLUSION
Among the news headlines on May 31, 2019 was that a mass shooting had taken place at the municipal building in Virginia Beach and at least 11 were dead. A few months earlier, the national media covered a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California in which 12 were killed (Almasy & Riess, May 31, 2019). Although these events seem to happen all too frequently, public mass shootings only account for a small number of the country’s gun deaths. Nonetheless, they can be exceptionally frightening because they occur without warning and in the most everyday places (Berkowitz, Lu & Alcantara, 2018). For this reason, mass shootings evoke substantial policy debate and response (Luca, Malhotra & Poliquin, 2016). The response from state legislatures varies significantly with some states loosening gun restrictions and others adopting more stringent policy. An important question is why? This study represents a preliminary effort to explore this question. Because gun control legislation can be regarded as a form of regulatory policy, it was expected that although state resources and citizen demands would play a role in their adoption, political factors would dominate the adoption process (Lowi, 1964). The findings in this study provided support for this argument.
In two models, one exploring the overall level of adoption of gun control measures and the other specifically examining domestic violence related gun policy, political factors had the greatest influence over policy adoption with measures of state wealth also having an impact. Although political factors played a leading role in adoption, the same political actors did not always prevail. For example, states with more liberal citizens were more likely to have a greater number of gun control measures. On the other hand, states with more conservative citizens and elected officials were associated with the adoption of a domestic violence gun law. This suggests that media coverage of mass shootings may be framed differently depending on the circumstance surrounding the shooting. How the problem becomes framed may determine the winner among competing political interests in this policy area. The variables not found related to changes in gun policy were measures of need/demand. Neither the number of mass shootings in the state for a given year or the number of deaths due to injury by firearms per 100,000 population were statistically significant in either model. This result may be because numerous high-profile mass shootings took place during the timeframe of this study and are overshadowing the events taking place in each state. It may also be that this is a policy area where stakeholders including interest groups are heavily involved in the political process. Schildkraut & Hernandez (2014) found that following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, numerous pieces of legislation at the state-level were introduced to curb gun violence but few were enacted. This suggests that while public opinion following a mass shooting may place gun control on the agenda, pro-gun rights group work to limit policy adoption. Events such as mass shootings may present an opportunity of pro-gun control groups to push for legislative action but do not guarantee change will take place.
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ADDITIONAL READING SECTION
Feldman, R. (2011). Ricochet: Confessions of a gun lobbyist. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Haider-Markel, D.P., & Joslyn, M. R. (2001). Gun policy, opinion, tragedy, and blame attribution: the conditional influence of issue frames. The Journal of Politics, 63(2), 520-543.
Hemenway, D. (2017). Private guns, public health. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Kalesan, B., Villarreal, M.D., Keyes, K.M., & Gelea, S. (2016). Gun ownership and social gun culture. Injury Prevention, 22(3), 216-220.
Kleck, G. (2009). Point blank: Guns and violence in America. New York: Transaction Publishers.
Kleck, G., Gertz, M., & Bratton, J. (2009). Why do people support gun control? Alternative explanations of support for handgun bans. Journal of Criminal Justice, 37(5), 496-504.
Logan T.K., & Lynch, K.R. (2018). Dangerous liaisons: examining the connection of stalking and gun threats among partner abuse victims. Violence and Victims, 33(3), 399-416.
Muschert, G.W. (2007). Research in school shootings. Sociology Compass, 1(1), 60-80.
Pirelli, G., Wechsler, H., & Cramer, R. (2015). Psychological evaluations for firearm ownership: Legal foundations, practical considerations, and a conceptual framework. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46(4), 250-257.
Wilcox, P., May, D.C., & Roberts, C.D. (2006). Student weapon possession and the “fear and victimization hypothesis”: Unraveling the temporal order. Justice Quarterly, 23(4), 502-529.
KEY TERMS & DEFINITIONS
Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993: A U.S. law that started the federal background checks on firearm purchasers in commerce.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: U.S. Department of Justice law enforcement agency aiming to safeguard the U.S. public.
District of Columbia v. Heller: 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding an individual’s right to firearm possession.
Framing: The process of emphasizing certain aspects of a topic when discussing the issue.
Mass shooting: A homicidal incident of violence, usually involving a gun and resulting in multiple fatalities and injuries.
Policy Shock: An event such as a mass shooting or natural disaster that draws attention to an issue and may result in changes to public policy.
Second Amendment: Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting the fundamental right to “keep and bear arms.”

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