Leveraging Public Support for Gun Laws to Reduce Mass Shootings

In the span of ten days, the United States experienced two of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. The first mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, claimed the lives of ten people and left three more injured—mostly elderly shoppers. The second mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, took the lives of nineteen students and two of their teachers. Another fifteen mass shootings occurred in that same ten-day span in which another ten people died, and sixty-nine others were wounded. There were also 1,300 firearm deaths from homicides and suicides in the same span of time.

Policy initiatives that could potentially reduce mass shootings and other firearm violence include universal background checks, assault weapon and high-capacity magazine bans, and extreme risk protection orders. This Article examines these measures from two vantage points. First, if these policies were adopted, would they be effective in reducing mass shootings? Aspirational claims of likely beneficial impacts are less meaningful than insights derived from a track record of policy performance. A detailed examination of the empirical evidence on experience with these policies suggests that the efforts offer substantial promise but differ in their likely efficacy. For example, the performance of extreme risk protection orders indicates that these laws are more effective at reducing suicides than homicides. Universal background checks and bans of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines offer greater potential along other dimensions of gun violence. Second, even if it is possible to identify potentially effective policies, would these policies have sufficient public support to make them politically viable? This Article reports on new survey evidence indicating that there is widespread support among the public at large for each of these measures. Perhaps surprisingly, there is support for these policies even within subgroups of the population that some might expect to be opposed to gun controls, such as people who voted for Donald Trump or who personally own guns. Current political opposition to reform efforts stems from a minority of the populace.

Notwithstanding the general public support for gun controls, many elected officials oppose these efforts even in light of jarring instances of gun violence and the sobering statistics they generate. The political response to the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde did, however, provide some evidence of progress. Shortly after these mass shootings, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act—the first major gun control legislation enacted in the past thirty years. This Act includes some beneficial provisions, such as offering support to states enacting extreme risk protection order laws, but it does not diminish the need for the more sweeping measures analyzed here. This Article documents the public support for and evidence of efficacy of policy options that can serve as the basis for future legal reforms.


* University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics, and Management, Vanderbilt Law School, 131 21st Ave. South, Nashville, TN 37203.

** Ph.D. Program in Law & Economics, Vanderbilt Law School, 131 21st Ave. South, Nashville, TN 37203.

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