Among those attending the State of Union address on Feb. 7, 2022, was Brandon Tsay. Invited by President Joe Biden, the 26-year-old has been hailed as a hero for disarming a gunman who killed 11 people in a mass shooting in Monterey Park, California.
Biden mentioned Tsay by name as he launched into a segment of the speech in which he implored lawmakers to ban assault weapons “once and for all.”
We are political science scholars who study the framing of the gun policy debate in America. We believe the framing exemplified by Biden’s speech – which focuses on high-profile mass shootings and the role of assault weapons over other firearms – helps explain why so many Americans feel gun laws are doomed to fail.
Do gun laws work?
The Monterey Park rampage on Jan. 21 was just one of a number of mass shootings to occur in California in January. Two days after that event, seven people were killed at Half Moon Bay, while a mass shooting in Oakland claimed another life.
With over 100 gun control laws, California has an “A” rating from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and is ranked No. 1 in the country in gun law strength by gun control advocates Everytown for Gun Safety. How, then, could multiple mass shootings occur in California, leaving at least 19 dead and many others injured, in the span of one week?
The answer is nuanced and complex. First, stricter gun control laws do reduce gun-related deaths. This is true for homicides, suicides and accidental shootings. In California, the annual death rate from gun violence is 8.5 per 100,000 residents, compared with the national average of 13.7.
However, the effectiveness of state gun laws is influenced by those of other states. Trafficking of guns across state lines for purposes both legal and illicit is well documented, and guns used in crimes are more likely to flow from less regulated states into those with stronger gun laws.
According to a 2018 study, there are at least 393 million guns in the United States, making it the most heavily armed civilian population in the world. Given the wave of pandemic-fueled gun buying that started in 2020, that number is likely much higher.
Reframing the issue
Beyond these facts, the question of why mass shootings continue to happen reveals how policymakers, media, interest groups and citizens understand the problem.
Using an approach called the narrative policy framework, we identify the stories that politicians and interest groups tell about the problem of gun violence and how they use these stories to build political support for their policy goals. A policy narrative typically contains characters – the victims and perpetrators of violence; a setting – the location and other contextual details; and a moral or solution.
Research shows that gun policy narratives often focus on mass shootings while placing less emphasis on more common forms of gun injury and death, such as individual homicide and suicide. Studying the communications of gun policy organizations from 2000 to 2017, one of us found that gun control groups mentioned mass shootings in 30% of their blogs, emails and press releases, and in 11% of their Facebook posts. They devoted significantly less attention to all other types of gun violence.
This emphasis, however, does not accurately reflect statistics on gun injury and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2020, more than 45,000 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S. More than half of those deaths were suicides, while over 40% were murders.
Mass shootings – defined by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive as shooting incidents involving four or more victims – accounted for just 0.1% of gun fatalities.
The overemphasis on mass shootings likely has many causes, not least of which is the media’s tendency to highlight dramatic and shocking events. Given that public support for gun control temporarily increases in the wake of mass shootings, these events create brief windows of opportunity for policy change. Thus, it should be no surprise that gun control groups highlight mass shootings in their policy narratives.
In asking how mass shootings like the recent ones in California could happen, it’s important to acknowledge the implicit argument that precedes the question: the idea that gun laws simply don’t work.
This argument, which is pervasive in the gun policy debate, is labeled the futility thesis. The futility thesis holds that attempts at political change will ultimately amount to nothing, because the policy fails to appreciate that it is attempting to alter fundamental aspects of society.
In the case of gun policy, this may include the observation that the United States contains a constitutional right to bear arms, or that the country has a long-standing gun culture. Gun rights organizations, such as the National Rifle Association, also frequently claim that gun regulations do not work because criminals do not respect the law. According to this logic, any attempt to address the prevalence of firearms or to reduce criminal gun violence is destined to fail.
Consequences for politics and policy
As social scientists, we seek both to identify the major gun policy narratives and to explore their consequences. One potential consequence of focusing on mass shootings is it can lead policymakers to focus on solutions that address just one facet of the gun violence problem.
For instance, Democratic politicians and gun control advocates often call for a ban on “assault weapons,” with a focus on military-style rifles like the AR-15, while most shooting deaths in the U.S. involve handguns.
With each mass shooting, these arguments are reproduced, and over time the policy debate has become increasingly polarized. It is no wonder that while many Americans approve of federal efforts to regulate firearms, most don’t expect legislation to do much to reduce gun violence.
Is there a way to break the policy stalemate and make real progress on the problem of gun violence? We suggest that one path forward is to reformulate the policy narratives to better capture the full scope and severity of the problem. Mass shootings are horrific tragedies, but so is every gun death.