Let’s Politicize a Tragedy
Author: Berry Groeneveld
On February 14 2018 a mass shooting took place at Majority Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 and leaving 14 people injured. Such incidents are not very rare in the United States, unfortunately. According to the Washington Post, 150 mass shootings have been committed in the past 50 years. A common theme in the wake of such tragedies are calls for more stringent gun control laws. Common proposals are the prohibition of semi-automatic weapons, more extensive background checks and raising the minimum age for gun ownership from 18 to 21.
Such proposals, however, rarely become law, in no small part due to the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.), a powerful lobbying group opposing gun control. Two theories of the policy process as described by Cairney and Heikkila (2014) can be used to offer a more detailed analysis of the difficulty of passing gun control laws, namely Multiple Streams Analysis (MSA) and Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (PET).
Multiple Streams Analysis (MSA)
According to MSA there are three important streams in the policy process: the political stream, the policy stream and the problem stream. When these come together a window of opportunity for major change is created. In MSA events, in this case mass shootings, are important but not enough to get more than fleeting attention from policy makers. The context in which the event occurs needs to be right for a window of opportunity to open. According to Cairney and Heikkila (2014) the key sources of context are “national mood” as interpreted by policymakers and the policy conditions in each case. The anti-gun reform side tries to influence the national mood: pro-gun politicians and pundits often claim it is disrespectful to use a tragedy to enact change in gun law (Slate, 2016). House speaker Paul Ryan did just that (CNN, 2018):
"We need to think less about taking sides and fighting each other politically, and just pulling together. This House, and the whole country, stands with the Parkland community."
After a mass shooting they want to emphasize the mourning process, while at the same time targeting the momentum that the tragedy could bring to gun reform initiatives. The policy conditions seem to favor gun reform: the United States has, by far, the highest number of gun fatalities in the developed world (Grinshteyn and Hemenway, 2010), so reform would seem logical. This could be counteracted by claiming that gun control is un-American, the gun lobby often emphasizes the constitutional right of citizens to bear arms, again influencing the national mood with a cultural claim.
Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (PET)
PET assumes that the policy process is stable most of the time and that policy evolves incrementally in such a state of equilibrium. When that balance is disturbed, or the equilibrium punctuated, change occurs rapidly. Major events, like war, can punctuate that equilibrium, as well as “sustained and cumulative attention to minor events” (Cairney and Heikkila, 2014). In the context of PET mass shootings should be considered minor events, for 150 mass shootings in 50 years did not punctuate the policy equilibrium in such a way that rapid and major change has occurred. It seems to be the case that there exists an attention problem when it comes to gun reform. Major mass shootings are world news, but a quick search in the New York Times archives seem to indicate that most attention dissipates after a week or two following a shooting (a detailed analysis of media coverage on mass shootings falls outside the scope of this blogpost). Attention is not sustained long enough to force change.
Is the Parkland Shooting Something Different?
In the aftermath of the Parkland Shooting, survivors of the attack formed a group: Never Again MSA, demanding gun reform. A nationwide protest march is planned on March 24, and Walmart and Dicks Sporting Goods (two of the largest sellers of firearms in the US) changed store policy concerning guns, raising the minimum age of potential buyers to 21 and ceasing the sale of all assault-style rifles.
The pressure group formed by students undermines the pro-gun side’s call to not politicize the tragedy very effectively. It would be strange indeed for politicians to prescribe to survivors what they should and should not do. The fact that Walmart changed its policy of its own volition seems to indicate a shift in “National Mood” deemed so important in MSA. President Trump is sending mixed messages, claiming on March 1 that he is in favor of gun control (NYT, 2018), after proposing that teachers should be armed last week (NYT, 2018).
The hurdles that came to the fore using MSA to analyze gun control efforts seem to be countered effectively. PET however teaches us that sustained attention for mass shootings is needed if more stringent gun control is to become a reality.
Berkowitz, B. Lu, D. Alcantara, C. (02-16-2018) The terrible numbers that grow with each mass shooting, Washington Post, Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/mass-shootings-in-america/?utm_term=.60d1e8443ebb.
Cairney, P. and Heikkila, T. (2014) ‘A Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process’, in Sabatier, P. A. and Weible, C. (eds) Theories of the Policy Process. Avalon Publishing, pp. 363–389.
Grinshteyn, E. Hemenway, D. (2016) Violent Death Rates: The US Compared with Other High-income OECD Countries, 2010, The American Journal of Medicine, 129(3), pp. 266-273.
Killough, A. (02-15-2018) Paul Ryan says not yet time for political battles on guns. CNN. Retrieved from: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/15/politics/paul-ryan-gun-laws/index.html
NYT (no date) Trump Suggests Giving Teachers Guns, NYT, Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000005756976/trump-says-arming-teachers-could-solve-your-problem.html.
Shear, M.D. (03-01-2018) Trump Stuns Lawmakers With Seeming Embrace of Gun Control. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/us/politics/trump-gun-control.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news
Waldman, K. (12-06-2016). ‚A Brief, Inglorious History of ‘Not Politicizing Tragedy.’’ Slate Magazine, New York, NY. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2016/06/12/the_orlando_shootings_and_politicizing_tragedy.html.