Will There Be Gun Control Legislation?

by John Sides on December 17, 2012 · 23 comments

in Legislative Politics,Violence

Jon Chait is pessimistic.  Jon Bernstein perhaps less so.  Alec MacGillis even less so.  Here is my two cents:

First, this shift in public opinion is worth mentioning:

More than half of Americans see the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday as a sign of broader problems in society, not merely the isolated act of a troubled individual, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The finding represents a major reversal from previous polling conducted after mass shootings.

And people who think such massacres are signs of “broader problems” are more likely to favor gun control.  This is a familiar finding within political science.  See, for example, Shanto Iyengar’s work on poverty.  If you think that people are poor or people commit mass atrocities because of who they are as individuals—lazy, crazy, etc.—then there is less reason to want or expect the government to do something about it.  But if it’s a broader society problem, then the government can do more.  The point is: how people explain an event is crucial to how they respond to that event.

Of course, public opinion alone doesn’t guarantee action.  Which leads me to…

Second, any negotiation over gun control is in some ways the opposite of the negotiation over the fiscal cliff.  With the fiscal cliff, as Robert Frank noted, Republicans need an agreement much more than Obama does, since the consequences of no agreement—especially the tax increases—are more noxious to the GOP.  In other words, Obama’s BATNA is no agreement at all, followed perhaps by his own tax cut initiative.

But with gun control, this is reversed.  It’s Republicans that would prefer nothing to happen—i.e., no new restrictions on guns.  Obama is forced to negotiate with them, as Bernstein noted.

Third, will Republicans, especially House Republicans, negotiate a deal on gun control?  Here are two reasons to be skeptical.  One is the National Review:

It is easy, and in moments of despair such as Friday quite understandable, to scream “more” to gun control, “more” to the morass of airport-style security that is spreading its way across our institutions, “more” to the diagnosis and institutionalization of the mentally ill. But it is much harder to write the laws that would have guaranteed Adam Lanza could never find a gun, or enter a school by force, or go without what diagnosis, treatment, and supervision he might have needed. And hardest of all to write them in such a way that the republic we’d be left with would still look like America in the ways we value most.

The other is Ben Domenech:

…those who are more naturally given to see problems of law or culture as the reason for evil look at the horror of Newtown as something that can be prevented, if only we do this or that thing, pass this or that law. Something must be done, they say. But their somethings all have this in common: none of their proposals, on guns or mental health or any other factor, would have prevented this awful crime. In the real world, there is no law that can make the murderously insane sane, or remove all weapons from their grasp. The tweaks that have been attempted in the past in our nation and others have proven insufficient time and again. And no step which disarms the law-abiding will help.

Here are two prominent opinion leaders within the Republican Party who are, very soon after the shooting, arguing against responding to Newtown by passing new gun control laws.  The point isn’t whether that argument is wrong or right.  It may very well be right that such laws would not have prevented Newtown or any future mass shooting.

The point is that I take the National Review and Domenech as indicative of a conversation going on within the GOP.  And that conversation does not seem to be pointing toward allowing gun control legislation to go forward.

The problem, too, is that there isn’t much time.  As Danny Hayes noted, by the time the next Congress is in session, news coverage of Newtown will have dwindled significantly and, perhaps with it, any impetus for new legislation to get done.  Of course, Obama could do things on his own, via executive orders and bureaucratic rule-making.

This post isn’t a prediction.  Just my sense of where things stand right now.


thomas82 December 17, 2012 at 4:41 pm

then there’s also the problem that the bulk of the peer-reviewed research on the subject calls into question the effectiveness of gun control laws

John Sides December 17, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Domenech links to some of that research.

Davis December 17, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Since when have the conclusions of peer reviewed research had any effect on our legislative agenda?

thomas82 December 17, 2012 at 7:32 pm

well liberals certainly are quick to point out how “the research” bears out their policy positions on abstinence-only education, climate change, teaching creationism in schools. i’m not pro-liberal or pro-conservative. i’m anti-hypocrisy. and it stinks of hypocrisy to me that liberals like Diane Feinstein have no problems worshipping at the alter of “research” and “science” on their pet issues, but then don’t want to talk about the research on gun control. i usually applaud liberals willingness to put science and reason > emotions and religion, yet on this issue they devolve into young earth creationists.

Davis December 17, 2012 at 8:24 pm

And again I ask, how much of that research actually gets applied? We still have abstinence only education, elected officials who are openly climate change deniers and young earth creationists heading up committees on energy and science, etc.

Even if all the peer reviewed research pointed to 100% effectiveness for gun control, we’d never get to that point, since gun policy in this country isn’t about science, its about religion, specifically the worship of firearms by a paranoid subset of our population.

Simply throwing up your hands and saying “nothing could have been done, so lets not even consider anything because having 10000 gun deaths is totally normal for a developed country in the year 2012″ is nothing but a cowardly way to weasel away from the issue, which is exactly what the two articles above do.

thomas82 December 17, 2012 at 8:54 pm

so what is your proposal? and what empirical evidence do you have to back up that such a proposal is likely to work? sure we still have crappy policies like abstinence only ed, creationism, etc., but liberals sure never miss a chance to call the GOP anti-science and anti-empiricism, so what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. you NEVER hear congressional democrats talk about the research behind gun control. NEVER. you just hear emotional arguments.

Davis December 17, 2012 at 9:12 pm

Hows this for empirical evidence:

Gun Homicides by nation
US: 10000 per year
Every other western developed country: less than 300 per year, and usually less than 100 per year.


And while we’re at it, lets greatly expand the scope and accessibility of our mental health services. Attack this thing from both angles.

thomas82 December 17, 2012 at 9:32 pm

That’s really rigorous analysis, you’ve got there. You’ve shown a cross-country correlation. There are literally hundreds of other variables (e.g. culture) that you have to account for when arguing that X led to Y in your example. A 3rd tier political science journal wouldn’t publish something like that. Most of the more sophisticated analyses that have at least attempted a serious quasi-experimental observational study have uncovered the opposite or at least a null effect (that is they find that policy changes that enact gun control do not have an impact on violent crime).

Now, I will not make a statement about the mental health services issue because I have not studied the issue in depth and have not read the literature in this area.

P.S. If you’re so taken with cross-national comparisons of descriptive stats you might at least want to paint the full picture of the U.K. which is no safe haven:

The UK has the second highest overall crime rate in the EU.
It has a higher homicide rate than most of our western European neighbours, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
The UK has the fifth highest robbery rate in the EU.
It has the fourth highest burglary rate and the highest absolute number of burglaries in the EU, with double the number of offences than recorded in Germany and France

Davis December 17, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Or perhaps something more detailed:


Shorter: Australia had a bunch of mass shootings. In response, they enacted tighter gun control laws. Gun deaths declined, and the number of mass shootings went from 13 to 0. Peer reviewed and everything. So lets not pretend like the evidence is overwhelming against gun control, or that there’s nothing that can be done, or that this one case somehow balances out the deep, almost psychotic anti-science bias in the GOP.

thomas82 December 17, 2012 at 9:41 pm


A re-analysis in a highly respected Economics Journal calls the Chapman study into question:

The 1996-97 National Firearms Agreement (NFA) in Australia introduced strict gun laws, primarily as a reaction to the mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996, where 35 people were killed. Despite the fact that several researchers using the same data have examined the impact of the NFA on firearm deaths, a consensus does not appear to have been reached. In this paper, we re-analyze the same data on firearm deaths used in previous research, using tests for unknown structural breaks as a means to identifying impacts of the NFA. The results of these tests suggest that the NFA did not have any large effects on reducing firearm homicide or suicide rates.

But at least you’re now TALKING about studies and not resorting to Piers Morgan’s estrogen-laden emotional tirades. I’m sick of the media and politicians not talking data.

John Sides December 17, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Since you guys are talking about Australia, here’s a more comprehensive round-up of research on the effects of their law:


Rocco Giuliano December 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Interesting comment here from an article by an Israeli commentator: “If the United States, itself awash with weapons, wishes to benefit from Israel’s experience, it must make sure it learns the right lessons. The first and most universal one is that ever more stringent gun control is bad policy: As is the case with drugs, as was the case with liquor during Prohibition, the strict banning of anything does little but push the market underground into the hands of criminals and thugs. Rather than spend fortunes and ruin lives in a futile attempt to eradicate every last trigger in America, we would do well to follow Israel’s example and educate gun owners about their rights and responsibilities, so as to foster a culture of sensible and mindful gun ownership.”

Dave December 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm

I don’t doubt that as time passes the probability of policy being passed decreases dramatically. But the view of the shooting as being a “broader problem” could include issues besides gun control such as cultural (e.g., it’s the video games and Hollywood’s obsession with violence) and mental health issues.

It’s this latter issue where you could see movement since the left would favor more government resources for those with mental health problems, and the pro-gun advocates would like the focus to not be on gun control. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if improved access to mental health care would have helped in the case of the Newtown shooting given that the shooter came from a wealthy family that could have afforded top notch care for their son.

William December 17, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Gun control effectiveness, in my opinion, will be irrelevant in the in gun control battle that will surely take place. Our President’s own opinions, beliefs, and sheer disregard for constitutional procedure will more likely usur in a new era of controls. He has already expressed his determination for strengthening gun controls. And we know he is capable of passing controversial legislature regardless of massive oppostition from voters, elected officials and constitutional validity.

Davis December 17, 2012 at 7:16 pm

Ya, because he he did so much in his first term on this issue.

And we know he is capable of passing controversial legislature regardless of massive oppostition from voters, elected officials and constitutional validity.

Yup, he single handedly passed legislation and upheld it. Never was Congress consulted or required to approve said legislation. Never were 60 positive votes in the Senate required. Never was anything on his agenda blocked by opposition obstructionism or divided government. Never did SCOTUS have the chance to review or strike down that legislation as Unconstitutional. Never did he have to face the supposedly angry public in an election following the passage of this amazing legislation.

Andrew Straticzuk December 17, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Nobody knows and should not pretend to know that tougher gun control laws would not have prevented this or any other mass murder rampage. In fact there is good reason that is would prevent or at least diminish the carnage. The argument in not based on surveys but on reasoning itself. If we achieve a lessening of the availability of these type of weapons, then as a matter of practical reason, people who would contemplate such acts would not have it so easy to carry them out.

The less assault weapons available in the public marketplace the less chance someone who is prone to commit these types of crimes will have the opportunity to avail himself of the weapons, or, at least the more trouble the person would have to go through to acquire such weapons and thus the more likely he will give up on his murderous project or lessen the scale of it. In fact if such weapons are effectively removed from the streets, the less likely a potential shooter will even contemplate such an action. In order to form a plan to commit such a crime, the person needs to envision the means to acquire such weapons. If the weapons are removed from the marketplace chances are the person would be less likely to form the thought. This, of course is a statistical argument.

I’m really not impressed with Ben Domenech’s rather unsubstantiated pessimistic projections.

I do believe however that–as an immediate measure–we should have armed persons in schools (not the principal for God’s sake, but a professional), to be there to take out the deranged shooter as soon as possible to minimize the damage. That is something that needs to be done pronto. We cannot wait for the slow legislative process to come up with some other workable plans. We need to take immediate defensive action right now.
In a strange way I see something to the saying that it is not the wapons that kill people but people that kill people with these weapons. But make the weapons scared and chances are those options will not be there de facto for a potential killer.

LFC December 17, 2012 at 11:32 pm

The quoted passage from Ben Domenech is just the standard reactionary rhetoric of futility. Nothing would work; nothing would have prevented it; so let’s not even try to do anything. I find this line to be, under the circumstances, nothing short of nauseating.

aed939 December 18, 2012 at 12:28 am

You have to be careful what is done at the federal level. Most gun regulation should be done at the state level. However, the federal government may get involved to facilitate background check and mental health databases (although these could also be coordinated by the states). The real solution might be more responsible enactment of gun-free zones. Any school that wants to enact gun-free hours might be required (via state regs) to provide adequate substitute armed security during those hours.

LFC December 18, 2012 at 12:33 pm

You have to be careful what is done at the federal level. Most gun regulation should be done at the state level.

Why? Because aed939 says so?

Dd December 19, 2012 at 8:43 pm


Andrew December 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm

NJ and CT have some of the strictest gun control laws in the US. Criminals don’t care about violating laws- that is the problem. These guns were stolen and it’s illegal for a 20 year old to even have a pistol in CT.

1) We need to keep mentally ill people from hurting others @ 50% of these mass shooters had diagnosed mental problems. Insanity is not a civil right it is a treatable disease. Gun data bases have criminal records, but mental health officials refuse to share their records with the FBI.

2) For the people who want gun control- would you have any problem getting pot if you wanted? There are at least 200 million guns in the US and a hundred year supply of high capacity clips. All a proposed law will do is cause a huge spike in gun sales.

3) Data suggests video games do not cause violence in normal children or adults and gun control has no effect on public safety. Why do liberals only buy into science when they agree with it?

Crash December 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm

These guns were only allowed to be stolen because they were legally purchased and owned in the first place. Great scam you gun nuts have going: fight to block or water down every law so they won’t be effective, and then point to the non-existent or ineffective laws as proof that no laws could ever work and therefore you should be allowed to own machine guns and howitzers.

We already had a huge spike in gun sales the last few years fueled by paranoid fear about Obama “coming to take er gunz!”. You can’t just say “it already exists, therefore we can’t stop it”. Here’s an idea: BUY THEM BACK!. Get a giant smelter and turn them into lawn chairs and tomato cages. Its unacceptable to just shrug and refuse to even try.

There’s plenty of data to suggest that effective gun control is possible, and liberals are ready and willing to address that data, unlike conservatives who seem to revel in hating science.

Shane December 19, 2012 at 3:25 pm

I’m wondering whether any of you drink beer, wine, or liquor. Reason I ask is because according to the CDC, alcohol kills 75,000 annually and 41,000 of those are from alcohol-related accidents. Thousands are children. Alcohol consumption is entirely unnecessary and is not guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Tobacco kills 443,000 Americans every year, with over 49,000 dying from other people’s smoke. Yet there is nothing in the Bill of Rights that guarantees a right to drink or smoke. If saving lives it the goal, why aren’t we outraged, demanding stronger alcohol-control laws and stronger tobacco-control laws?

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