Mass shootings like the one at the country music festival in Las Vegas on the night of Sunday, October 1st, are horrible, gut-wrenching events. The evil of the act and the senseless loss of life stir grief and outrage and hopelessness, not just for these victims of this shooting, but also for other recent, memorable shootings like the ones at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, and many others. The public response to these shootings has become predictable: voices on the left call for new firearms restrictions, while voices on the right send their thoughts and prayers.
These horrifying mass shootings exemplify what scholars interchangeably refer to as “critical events,” “focusing events,” and “political shocks.” Focusing events like mass shootings bring otherwise invisible social problems (in this case, everyday gun violence) to the forefront of public attention. By focusing attention on the problem, these events can create an opportunity for policy change. Gun control groups recognize that these mass shootings are a mobilizing opportunity. After the Vegas shooting, top gun control groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety responded immediately with calls for Congressional action. Gun rights groups like the NRA, on the other hand, typically remain conspicuously silent for several days after a mass shooting.
While mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas are essential mobilizing opportunities for the gun control movement, the gun rights movement has every incentive to deflect attention. The gun control movement benefits from a surge in public support after these sorts of mass shootings, but this increased support is often short-lived, and overall, baseline support for stricter gun laws has eroded since the last major gun control law was passed in the mid-1990s. The gun rights movement benefits from a large, committed, grassroots membership. These members are highly engaged in gun politics, regardless of whether the broader public is paying attention. After all, as advertised on mugs, t-shirts, and bumper-stickers sold by the NRA, many of these supporters are “single-issue voters.” Gun rights groups like the NRA, therefore, have an advantage once attention to gun violence and gun control wanes. While support for gun control is episodic, rising and falling with mass shootings, support for gun rights is more enduring.
In a mass shooting, multiple contentious social problems converge. While guns are part of the equation, so too are many other important factors, like mental illness, sexism, and racism. As people decide what concrete steps to take, attention usually focuses on one part of the problem. Take, for example, a shooting in Isla Vista, California, in May 2014. The killer had released a series of YouTube videos and a Manifesto that featured misogynistic rants. After this shooting, attention focused on violence against women, coalescing around the hashtag media campaign “YesAllWomen.” The role that firearms played in this event fell out of the national conversation before the NRA ever issued a formal statement.
By the time the NRA issued its official statement three days after the Law Vegas shooting, attention had already coalesced around “bump stocks,” a legal device that the shooter used to modify his legal semi-automatic weapons so that they fired much more rapidly, like illegal automatic weapons. The NRA’s statement indicated a surprising openness to regulating bump stocks, and some took this as an encouraging sign. In the context of the rest of the statement, though, this apparent acquiescence functioned as just one of several techniques to demobilize opponents and mobilize supporters. The group attacked politicians and activists who spoke out for gun control, blamed the Obama Administration for the lack of bump stock regulations, and called on Congress to pass concealed carry reciprocity. The NRA conceded only that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) should “review whether [bump stocks] comply with federal law.”
The gun control movement is strongest immediately after a shooting, but this strength evaporates when attention fades. The NRA has every incentive to make this issue go away as quickly as possible. The NRA currently benefits from a sympathetic (and gridlocked) Congress and a sympathetic President, so the threat of major gun control legislation is small. By making a very small concession on bump stocks, the NRA contributes to an illusion of progress. The gun control movement can demobilize because its concerns are being addressed. Meanwhile, the gun rights movement can trust that the Republican-controlled Congress will probably not pass major gun control.
So, what should you do if you care about gun politics? If you support gun rights, you can just do what you usually do. You should give some money to the NRA, and then you can wait until the public’s attention turns to other issues. Once people stop paying attention, you can begin to (quietly!) push for concealed carry reciprocity again. If you support gun control, though, you need to do something different than you have probably done before. You need to keep focusing on gun control. You need to do so loudly and publicly long after mass shootings are no longer breaking news. You need to keep paying attention to Congress, because eventually that bill to establish concealed carry reciprocity will be back. You need to donate to a gun control group on a day when gun control is not in the news, because gun rights supporters are constantly contributing to their movement. And you need to check and see what bills your state legislature is considering because even when Congress does not pass major laws related to firearms, states sometimes do. Some lament that because Congress did not pass gun control after the Sandy Hook shooting, it probably never will. But social movement scholars know that major policy changes occur because activists have been working behind the scenes for years, positioning themselves to be ready to act when they finally get the chance.