It happened in Connecticut

by Andrew Gelman on December 17, 2012 · 24 comments

in General Politics,Law,Public opinion,Violence

After this latest school shooting, things seem different. I have no idea if we’ll end up with meaningful bullet control (as Chris Rock would say), but the translation of grief, anger, and frustration into policy seems more likely this time, compared to previous mass shootings in recent years.

What’s special about this case? Some natural hypotheses:

– The event itself is particularly horrifying: an elementary school instead of a high school, more kids getting killed, and the killer using three guns that were just lying around the house.

– Cumulation: each new shooting is added on to what came before, eventually enough people become motivated to act.

– Political timing: no national election for 23 months, now is the time for politicians to act without fear of the gun lobby.

– Political alignment: the Republicans have had so much success getting gun voters to their side that Democrats now have nothing to lose politically by supporting gun restrictions. And, if the Democrats move to restrict guns, savvy Republicans can move toward the center on the issue, confident that their Democratic opposition won’t outflank them on the right.

– The pendulum: to put that last point another way, gun policy has swung so far to the right in recent years that the force of public opinion will tend to pull it back to the center. This latest shooting has given politicians a chance to realize this and act on it.

Beyond all these reasons, let me suggest another which arises from my preoccupation with political geography.

The shooting happened in Connecticut. When people get massacred in Colorado, Arizona, or western Virginia, that’s every bit as horrible, but I wonder if there is an implicit social contract: we recognize that people in the southern and western states have lots of guns, they demand to have lots of guns, and it will be hard to take these guns away. People in these states don’t seem to mind all the guns. So from the standpoint of a voter in the east coast, sure, a shooting in Colorado or western Virginia is terrible, but nothing can be done about it because the voters there don’t want to do anything. It’s sad, but there’s nothing that can be done.

But if there’s a school shooting in Connecticut, that’s another story. The citizens of New England have not agreed to be bathed in guns. Yes, I know the long history of gun manufacture in the northeast, Springfield rifles and Smith & Wesson and all the rest. But bringing semiautomatic weapons to school is another story. Or, perhaps more to the point, the most prominent Americans defending the use of semiautomatic weapons in schools—the people who wanted to make sure that people like Nancy Lanza had the right to own these guns—are not, by and large, anywhere near Connecticut.

So, for the parts of the country that are generally in favor of gun restrictions, this latest shooting is particularly disturbing because it represents the politicians of the south and west imposing their will on residents of the northeast.

So, from this perspective, I can see why the Connecticut school shooting is different and could motivate political efforts, in a way that shootings in Colorado and elsewhere did not.

{ 24 comments }

Mark December 17, 2012 at 11:45 pm

I just commented on the prior post when I saw your post. I don’t think you understand how gun control laws work. When you say “So, for the parts of the country that are generally in favor of gun restrictions, this latest shooting is particularly disturbing because it represents the politicians of the south and west imposing their will on residents of the northeast” you are flat out wrong. As I wrote on the prior post CT has an assault rifle ban, modeled on the former Federal law, but the weapon used in the shooting is not covered by it. The weapon was legally purchased in CT. No one outside of CT imposed anything.
Also, the only state with no gun regulation is Vermont. Based on my interest in political geography I believe it is located in the northeast.

Andrew Gelman December 18, 2012 at 12:16 am

Mark:

What has been imposed on the northeast by national politics are: (a) a general availability of guns, (b) an attitude by which it’s considered acceptable (as well as legal) for a person with an emotionally disturbed son to possess semiautomatic guns at home, (c) a legal system (backed by recent Supreme Court rulings) that would seem to make it difficult to restrict gun ownership and gun use, (d) political pressure to relax existing gun restrictions, to stop new restrictions from being implemented, and to limit enforcement of gun restrictions. So, when you say that the weapon used in the shooting was not covered by Connecticut’s laws, one question is: why not? One reason is the organized national pressure by the gun lobby not to have such laws anywhere. Whatever the merit of the gun lobby’s position here might be, my point is that I can see a political will being motivated to do something here, in a way that did not happen after events in Colorado and Arizona. It could be difficult for east coast politicians to try to restrict guns after a Colorado shooting. But maybe not so much if the shooting is happening right here.

Thomas December 18, 2012 at 1:18 am

I can see (a), but as Mark points out, it isn’t relevant in this case. I’m not sure how to understand (b) an attitude being imposed on the northeast, nor do I see many defenses of the acceptability or sensibility of possessing guns in a home with an emotionally disturbed person. (c) would be relevant, if CT had attempted to go beyond the very recent case law on 2nd amendment rights, but as a matter of fact CT hasn’t. (d) again doesn’t seem to be something that can be imposed on the northeast by national politics. CT retained significant discretion to enforce legal restrictions on guns (and certainly had the same discretion, or more, than the federal government). I’m not sure I understand the mechanism by which organized national pressure without any local component has an effect in a state politically, but I’d be happy to hear it.

Andrew Gelman December 18, 2012 at 8:48 am

Thomas:

Your question is very relevant to the discussion but I would remove the phrase “without any local component” to your last sentence. There are several ways in which politics centered in other regions of the country have affected northeastern states’ abilities to regulate guns. These include: national laws making it easy to buy guns by mail and easy access to guns in other states (which make it more directly difficult to restrict guns and are also used as arguments against local gun laws based on the idea that they wouldn’t work anyway); federal court rulings interpreting the constitution to establish an individual right to own various sorts of guns; and influence by the gun lobby in individual states to relax existing laws and to fight against any new restrictions. Beyond all this, it is the national political climate which has made gun restriction seem like a political non-starter. Until last week (perhaps), neither the national Democratic nor the national Republican party was encouraging its local affiliates to make a big push to restrict guns, even in states where this would be popular.

As noted above, all these political actions have local components (after all, the northeast has votes in the national legislature, and the gun lobby has supporters in all states) but these are national political forces. The gun lobby in states like Connecticut does not act alone; rather, it draws much of its strength from its national profile. That’s what lobbying is all about and it has an important place in our modern political system. Nobody thinks that politics should all be local: of course gun policy cannot be set completely at a state level. But this induces tensions given our federal system.

My point is that activists in anti-gun states may well have some success pushing for political action this time, compared to their lack of success with shootings in places like Colorado and Arizona. The framing is different: instead of “East coast politicians are taking away our guns,” it’s “Southern and western politicians are flooding us with guns.” I don’t think geography is the whole story (see the list of reasons at the top of my post) but it seems reasonable to think it’s part of the story.

Nick Miller December 18, 2012 at 1:06 am

This is a smug argument. Only people in the East are going to validate an argument that the main reason this one matters is because it happened in the East. If you could produce some empirical evidence that gun ownership is somehow less a part of Northeastern political culture, I could begin to be swayed. But I think you were talking to yourself when you worked up this one.

Andrew Gelman December 18, 2012 at 1:19 am

Nick:

I labeled this clearly as speculation. But speculation can be useful too, in social science. Speculation can suggest ways in which we can collect data and analyze the data we have. I don’t see any smugness here. The shooting is horrible. Whatever emotions I feel here, smugness is not among them. I really have no idea where you got that from. I can’t imagine anyone feeling smug about this horrible shooting. The point of my post was to think a bit about the political context, and why things seem different this time than with previous high-profile shootings.

In regard to your question, “If you could produce some empirical evidence that gun ownership is somehow less a part of Northeastern political culture, I could begin to be swayed,” I did a quick google search and found this news article which linked to this poll report which says that people in the northeast support gun control 67%-31% and support banning high-capacity clips 70%-26%. In the south, these percentages are 46-50 and 49-48. So, yes, the northeast is different. (The poll also reports that gun control is supported 60-30 in the west, but the west is mostly California. I expect that gun control is not so popular in Arizona, Colorado, and the rest of the non-coastal western states.)

John Dickey December 18, 2012 at 1:54 am

I don’t know what other conditions he had but the only condition I have heard that he had was autism. Autism leads to issues with social behavior and acting out but is not knows for fits of violence. His mother thought that learning how to use and respect firearms would help him develop responsibility. This was the same feeling my father had when he taught me to shoot at an early age. I don’t know of any evidence that suggests that she is in the wrong for owning a gun. He may have had a condition besides autism that made him a danger to others but I am not aware of what that condition is.

I do believe that geography does have a role in attitudes towards firearms. You can’t shoot for recreation in New York City. I grew up being able to walk behind the house and shooting just because it would feel good. Its one of the things that I have missed at college/grad school. I am fairly sure that if one were to look at the link between attitudes towards guns/gun control and population density that there would be a significant relationship.

RobC December 18, 2012 at 2:09 am

Both common sense and experience suggest that people are much more likely to support restrictions on activities and behaviors in which they themselves do not engage than on activities and behaviors in which they do engage, just as they are more likely to support increasing taxes on incomes higher than their own or reducing benefits that they are not eligible for. I’d be inclined to call this selfishness, but I imagine the highfalutin term for it is rational self-interest.

tim December 18, 2012 at 7:45 am

When will Americans wake the hell up. Look at what all these shootings have in common…Mental illness. If you ban guns these types of shootings will still occur, but, if we stop sweeping mental illness under the rug as a country perhaps we can stop situations like this from happening.

Zxcv December 18, 2012 at 11:23 am

These shootings have two things in common : 1) homicidal forms of mental illness, and 2) firearms – frequently (semi)-automatic varieties. I certainly appreciate your well-formed consequentialist argument of course.

ceolaf December 18, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Tim,

I’m not sure about that.

Unless we say that all such shooters are — by definition — mentally ill, we need some sort of evidence to support that idea.

This was a painfully shy person. But what’s the mental illness. I’ve see that he was referred to a school shrink early in high school (not sure that this is true), but NOT seen anything about a diagnosis of mental illness. Have I missed that? (His brother — and others? — have likened him to a person with Asperger’s, but that doesn’t cut it.)

Even if this guy was mentally ill, what is there to be done? 20 year old son of a GE VP, living in with a stay-at-home mom in a $700k house in a bedroom community. This is NOT the kind of person who cannot get help. This is NOT the kind of person dependent upon slashed public/social services for mental health care. Sending such teenagers to therapy is quite common. It is not “swept under the rug” in these communities.

From what I understand, the mental health system got at least one look at him and did not see a mental illness. So, can you clarify what you think needs to be done — even in vague terms?

(To be clear: obviously, anyone who would commit such an act is nuts, wacko and…well, it’s hard for me not to think of this guy as something like evil. This is, to me, the most horrible thing. Colloquially, I’ve no doubt that this guy was crazy. But medically, psychologically, technically? I don’t know. Even if we was a week ago, I don’t know that he was a month ago. I just don’t know.)

LFC December 19, 2012 at 1:14 am

Colloquially, I’ve no doubt that this guy was crazy. But medically, psychologically, technically? I don’t know.

I don’t think anyone knows. I might speculate — as a lay person, not a mental-health professional — that anyone who commits such a horrific crime, and has not displayed obvious previous signs of severe mental illness, is either a sociopath (which is more a label, as far as I know, than a diagnosis) or has suffered some kind of ‘psychotic break’ (if there is such a thing), or both.

The WashPost piece today, coupled w/ a bit of other reporting I’ve seen, does not paint a picture of someone who was clearly mentally ill but rather someone who was very shy, socially awkward, had few if any friends, attended a series of schools (though I’ve not seen a definitive account of that), and his mother apparently told people he had Asperger’s. The latter, afaik, is certainly *not* usually predictive of violent behavior. There are probably thousands of adolescents and young adults who fit this sort of description. The proportion of them who commit murder is probably very small.

He should have been — and this is especially easy to say in hindsight — under treatment/therapy of some sort but I think there’s no way of knowing whether that would have averted this. His not having access to the guns definitely would have averted it. I’m in favor of more emphasis on mental health, but b.c psychology and psychiatry often can’t predict who will commit these acts, a focus on mental health alone is not enough.

Tec December 18, 2012 at 2:13 pm

You need to be careful about making such broad generalizations about New England when it comes to topics like this. I grew up on the shoreline of CT, where fishing was prevalent and I heard little about guns. My family has lived in New Hampshire and Vermont for over fifteen years and I have always struggled with the culture surrounding guns here, which i know is also around in the more rural wooded parts of CT. I currently live in NH and work in VT (which had included me spending a fair amt of time in the state house). People see Vermont as this crunchy, liberal state – and that is widely true – but that is hardly the case when it comes to guns. In fact, Vermont has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country (you can carry concealed weapons at 16 with no permit, 16 year olds can buy handguns and don’t even need their parents permission, etc) and may have the fewest laws regarding firearms of any state. New Hampshire is similar and in recent years have taken (and in some cases passed) many bills aimed at reducing regulation on guns – including one that would penalize ATF agents who try to enforce federal regulations on guns bought and kept in NH. Like Vermont there are very few permits needed to carry and purchase firearms and there are often no registration requirements. NH even now allows someone to walk onto the floor of the house or senate with a gun. I believe Maine is similar but have no personal knowledge of that. So, while I personally wish what you are saying about New England was true (my parents both teach in public high schools up here and are well aware of how accessible guns are to their students) – the citizens of New England are in fact very willingly bathed in guns.

Andrew Gelman December 18, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Tec:

Indeed, I am only speaking here about state-level and regional-level averages. There is a lot of variation within each state.

Tec December 18, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Definitely, I just think it’s important to point out that the whole gun culture may be just as prevalent across the northeast as it is out west and in the south. I think a lot of us like to try to attribute that mentality to places like Virginia and Colorado, but it is alive and well in the northeast, too. It goes to show just how hard it can be to change people’s minds when it comes to gun control.

zbicyclist December 18, 2012 at 6:25 pm

According to data at http://www.amfire.com/statistic.asp?page=32 (1994 data), Vermont and Maine are #6 and #7 on hunting license holders per capita (using 2000 population).

When we are saying “Northeast”, do we really mean “New York City media market”?

RobC December 18, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Just the Upper West Side, within a ten-minute walk to Zabar’s.

Andrew Gelman December 18, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Zbicyclist, RobC:

To repeat something from a response to an earlier commenter, here are some recent poll numbers: People in the northeast support gun control 67%-31% and support banning high-capacity clips 70%-26%. I agree that 70% is not 100%. My point is not that everyone in the northeast supports gun restrictions but that these positions are more popular in the northeast than in the rest of the country.

RobC December 18, 2012 at 9:47 pm

I don’t have a dog in this fight, but perhaps what others are seeking is the sort of deconstruction of broad averages that the author of Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State is superbly well-qualified to undertake.

Andrew Gelman December 18, 2012 at 10:18 pm

RobC:

Indeed, we do plan to look at individual poll data and break things down further.

Mike the Mad Biologist December 18, 2012 at 8:47 pm

I think there are geographic elements, but not the ones you describe. Newtown, CT’s proximity to NYC makes it easily accessible to news organizations. The other element is that this happened around 10am EST, which meant it hit the rest of the country in the early morning. That gave news organizations the ability to flog this all day long. By the time the evening news (or people surfing online after work) rolls around, there’s a full story in place.

Mayo December 18, 2012 at 11:22 pm

I’m tired of the constant bias against states that are not sufficiently northeastern to really count. I agree that mass murders in Northeastern states count more (to Northeasterners), but not mainly for the reasons given, but more like the fact that murders in the U.S. count more (to Americans) than the killing of innocent civilians in drone attacks, even in countries with which we are not at war. I am a New Yorker usually living in Virginia, and I recall this reaction (even from my family in NY) during the Virginia Tech massacre.

Z December 19, 2012 at 10:55 am

I don’t he’s saying that shootings outside the northeast “matter less”, just that they don’t have as much of an element of political unfairness to them. Political unfairness doesn’t (necessarily, or I think empirically) impact emotional response to shootings but may impact the political response.

Jacob December 20, 2012 at 12:13 pm

I think it matters that all the *local* politicians are more likely to be Democrats and can get in line to support gun control. That is something that is different from Arizona, for example.

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