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Why the Political Paralysis after So Many Gun Deaths?

SPH Dean Sandro Galea on conflicting theories

The slaughter of 17 people at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Valentine’s Day was the 17th school shooting of 2018—less than two months into the year. The United States has the 31st highest death rate from guns in the world, with many of the higher-ranking nations being in the developing world and beset by gangs and drug trafficking. This prompts the question of why US lawmakers—who could enact gun safety rules that even most gun owners support—have so far refused to.

Among the theories are the political influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), psychological numbing of the public after so much violence, and the fact that media coverage after each tragedy tends to go gentle into that good night, moving on to other matters.

Sandro Galea, dean of the School of Public Health and Robert A. Knox Professor, who researches gun safety laws, blames politics. But the question of mass shootings, he says, shouldn’t distract Americans from the more common occurrence of individual gun deaths.

“Continuing the conversation in between mass shootings is the only way we are ever going to realize that the issue is the day-to-day cost of gun violence, with nearly 100 Americans dying a day,” Galea says. “Insofar as mass shootings galvanize our attention, that is important. But we should not forget that Americans are dying, and twice as many are being injured, daily by guns, and those episodes seldom receive media attention.”

Galea discussed the why-haven’t-we-acted question with BU Today.

BU Today: Is it psychology, political forces, a drop in media coverage, or all of the above that have paralyzed action against mass shootings?

Galea: I think our paralysis is largely due to political forces. A special interest group—a manufacturers’ association, the National Rifle Association—has been extraordinarily successful in protecting the interests of its core constituency that, taken as a population total, is not very big. Remember that only a quarter of Americans own guns and that fewer than 5 percent of Americans own about 50 percent of all the guns in the country.

But the NRA and other groups like it have been able to make gun ownership an issue of ideology. The Second Amendment was never interpreted as an unfettered access to guns by all until the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision [allowing individuals to possess guns unrelated to militia duty], and that decision emerged as a result of decades of quiet advocacy that created a generation of judges for whom that had become normative. There are some interesting books to be written about how effective the gun lobby in this country has been.

What does research say about whether repeated violence makes the public inured to it?

This is a bit of a myth. About two decades ago, there was a debate in the psychological literature about whether more exposure to trauma results in inoculation (you become inured to it) or kindling (it results in ever more consequences). To my mind, this debate has long been resolved, and unfortunately, the latter is the answer. The more trauma any one individual is exposed to, the more consequences they experience.

Now, at the national, dispassionate level, yes, if we keep seeing shooting after shooting on TV, it becomes normative after a while, and we stop paying attention. The same way that we have not paid attention to the 34,000 or so annual firearm deaths that have characterized the firearm epidemic fairly constantly since 2000.

Does acceptance of routine violence beset other nations—for example, those that deal with repeated terrorist attacks?

Perhaps at the national level, but not at the individual level. At the individual level, each of us suffers more from more trauma, and it is in our collective interest to limit our exposure to traumatic events.

Does research suggest that people react to different forms of repeated violence differently? For instance, is the public reaction to repeated politically motivated terrorism different from Americans’ response to mass shootings by unhinged people?

This is difficult to answer. There has been some literature that suggests that yes, the reason behind the violence results in different consequences. I am not convinced. I think that that literature is misled by sampling differences. That is, it is easier to sample people who were directly affected by intentional violence (for example, we know exactly who was in the Pulse nightclub [scene of a mass shooting in Florida in 2016]) versus who is affected by a natural event (it’s hard to count all who were affected by Hurricane Maria).

So we have tended to sample people who are very much directly affected by intentional violence, showing that that type of violence results in worse outcomes. But in fact, we are simply sampling people who are affected by less severe exposures in the realm of natural events.

Bottom line: traumatic events have long-term effects on all of us, and in some ways, it does not matter what the genesis of the traumatic event is. If we experience injury or loss of a loved one or witness a horrific sight, we shall be affected regardless of the source of the violent or traumatic event.

Media coverage of last month’s Parkland, Fla., school shooting speculates that this time we might see legislative action taken against gun violence. Do you expect that to happen, and if so, what’s different about this shooting?

It is far too early to tell. Certainly, some unprecedented things have happened after Parkland, mostly in the private sector, where retailers have changed their patterns and some large companies have disassociated themselves from the NRA. That has not happened before. Parkland affected generation Z, a generation that is native to social media and that has been able to capitalize on that to amplify their message. Will it result in change? Hard to say, given the current administration, but we shall see. 

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

16 Comments on Why the Political Paralysis after So Many Gun Deaths?

  • Sanket on 03.12.2018 at 2:23 am

    The mass shooting was the reminder for politicians to take the gun laws seriously and upgrade to newer and better laws and enforcement there are many countries which do not face such problems in spite having easy gun-buying laws.

  • Bill on 03.12.2018 at 5:35 am

    What about violence perpetrated against children/PEOPLE of color with ILLEGAL firearms? Why is there no outcry against the powers that be for their lackadaisical enforcement of current gun laws? What about the catastrophic failure of law enforcement in the Parkland tragedy?

    • Joe on 03.12.2018 at 11:37 am

      Notice the lack of town halls and marches for the hundreds of victims of gun violence yearly in Chicago, DC, Detroit, New Orleans, St Louis, aka beacons of gun control. Instead we want to start talking about restricting the rights of millions of law abiding gun owners when a madman shoots up a school with a rifle. That tells me nobody really wants to solve the core issue of our gun violence problem, we just want to exploit tragedies for political agendas (and painting the NRA as a terror organizations doesn’t hurt, either).

      • Bill on 03.12.2018 at 2:35 pm

        I totally agree Joe.

    • Andrew Wolfe on 03.13.2018 at 12:15 am

      Condoleeza Rice told the story of how her father, with others in their black neighborhood, took their guns to stop KKK “night riders”: “after the first [Birmingham church bombing] explosion, Daddy just went outside and sat on the porch with his gun on his lap. He sat there all night looking for white [KKK] night riders.
      Eventually Daddy & the men of the neighborhood formed a watch. They would take shifts at the head of the entrances to our streets…. Had my father and his neighbors registered their weapons, Bull Connor surely would have confiscated them or worse.”

  • Tom on 03.12.2018 at 7:54 am

    Where does the author get this fact? “The United States has the highest death rate from guns in the world” A quick scan of the internet would indicate that the US has the 31st highest death rate from guns in the world.

    • Steve on 03.12.2018 at 9:15 am

      It comes from the made up fantasy world of liberal propaganda.

    • Rich Barlow, BU Today on 03.12.2018 at 9:19 am

      Thanks for catching the error–story has been updated.

  • Bob on 03.12.2018 at 7:55 am

    I was sad to see that HuffPost News was referenced as a news source for the shootings this year. That is where I lost respect for the article. The link below, is to a list of the school shootings this year, so you can better understand what HuffPost considers a school shooting. It includes many tragic instances, please read it. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/school-shootings-year-article-1.3821162

    • Todd on 03.12.2018 at 9:22 am

      Exactly, citing the Huff Compost as a legitimate news source is laughable. At least use the National Inquirer they’re a slightly more reputable source.

    • Not Surprised on 03.17.2018 at 10:57 pm

      “The first school shooting took place just three days into the new year, at East Olive Elementary School in St. Johns, Mich.

      A 31-year-old man died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the former school’s parking lot.”

      Taken from the link you posted, it is ridiculous that they consider this a school shooting. Like all death this is tragic, but to put it on the same level as a school shooting like Parkland is both misleading and insulting. Out of all of these incidences, only a handful were when a gunman entered a school and began shooting. Still a handful too many incidences, but nowhere near the 17 or 18 that they claim.

  • Andrew McKinley on 03.12.2018 at 10:10 am

    I feel like the fact that this article intentionally misstates the US as having the highest rate of gun violence proves an agenda that is more of a problem than gun violence it’s self

  • Joe on 03.12.2018 at 11:33 am

    “The Second Amendment was never interpreted as an unfettered access to guns by all…”

    Look, I’ll spare you the “shall not be infringed,” portion of the amendment but the second amendment never granted us access to any guns at all period. We were BORN with the right to adequately defend ourselves, the 2nd amendment just prevents the government from infringing on that right.

    I do wonder how we can have a republican white house, senate, and house and still not pass any laws to secure our schools as much as we secure our airports, courthouses, and concerts/sporting events.

    We could stop pretending the NRA is some giant juggernaut of political donations. It doesn’t even reach top 100 in political donors. If you have a problem with corporations or organizations donating to politicians, then make that argument. But we can stop acting like it’s something unique to the NRA.

  • Tom on 03.12.2018 at 1:49 pm

    Right, USA is #31 in gun deaths. We’re safer than countries with war raging, like Iraq, or those run by drug cartels like el Salvador. OTOH compare us to the developed world and we’re off the charts. So comforting to know we do well vs the 3’rd world, LOL. BTW USA gun deaths are primarily from people killing themselves, not shooting bad hombres in defense of their home like in fantasy.

    There is so much nonsense it’s hard to know where to start. The Founding Fathers wrote brilliantly and clearly. It is impossible to think they’d set up an individual right in a sentence beginning with “A well regulated militia…”. Anyone who can’t tell that the second clause in the 2’nd amendment is dependent on the first should take a class in English sentence structure. History Lesson: The FF thought that the presence of “standing armies” in Europe were responsible for all the wars in old Europe so they wanted no standing army and defense based on a militia system, with the soldiers providing their own guns. Everyone should know that we have a standing army now and mommy gub’mint provides the guns, so the 2A is irrelevant..

    We always hear “No law would have prevented the tragedy…”. Guess what, all laws are broken. Laws are supposed to deter crime and make it harder; nobody thinks any law will stop all the crime it targets. Seems we except that everywhere except re guns. Then, it’s argued that since no laws will stop all gun crimes, there is no reason to regulate guns.

    Very sick of “Pol x wants to take your guns”. I NEVER heard a proposal to take hunting rifles or handguns for those with a reason to have them.

    Fewer mil-style weapons would mean fewer mass shootings. They’re done with AR-15s, not deer rifles.

    • Andrew Wolfe on 03.13.2018 at 12:09 am

      AR-15s are deer rifles. “AR” stands for the manufacturer, ArmaLite. The only difference between an AR-15 and other semi-automatic deer rifles is that it “looks” military. The AR-15 shoots no faster. In fact, it would never be issued to soldiers—soldiers need full-auto like the M4. And even if someone modified an AR-15 for full auto, the gun would fall apart.

      Plenty of laws were already there that should have prevented Parkland, except for failure in enforcement and response to endless clear warnings.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 03.13.2018 at 12:00 am

    Sadly, Dean Galea doesn’t touch on theories that afford any legitimacy to the Second Amendment. Not that this wasn’t predictable. Treating crime as a public health issue rather than, well, CRIME, would be laughable if it were not such a craven arrogation of political power, aligned with Democrat political strategy, to undermine the Constitution.

    Blaming Parkland on the NRA or the Second Amendment, or just saying “we don’t know what could have prevented it,” is an outright and egregious lie. The FBI and the Broward Sheriff’s Office were notified dozens of times in detail—including a neighbor witnessing Cruz tormenting animals—and the authorities never did anything to stop that ticking time bomb. The Sheriff and/or municipal authorities should have revoked Cruz’s gun license, and the NRA would never have cared in the slightest. The Sheriff had three armed deputies on the school grounds, plus an armed “resource officer” charged with protecting the students, and not only did they not go in and stop it, they actually blocked medical responders from following their own policies to go in and treat people immediately.

    Parkland was a tragic failure of law enforcement; 17 dead students are poster children, not for more gun laws, but for demanding the police do their jobs. I think the Sheriff and the resource officer, at least, should be sued for wrongful deaths because they had plenty of authority to stop it before it happened, and were on-scene to reduce the carnage.

    The same with the Texas church shooting, where the existing gun laws were not enforced. How many more would have died if that madman had not been stopped? Stopped by whom? Not the police, although I’m sure they were racing to the scene. He was stopped by a legal gun owner who shot the murderer as he tried to flee. And by the way, that gun owner used an AR-15.

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