Mass Shootings, Legislative Responses, and Public Policy: An Endless Cycle of Inaction

By Schildkraut, Jaclyn; Carr, Collin M. | Emory Law Journal, January 1, 2020 | Go to article overview

Mass Shootings, Legislative Responses, and Public Policy: An Endless Cycle of Inaction


Schildkraut, Jaclyn, Carr, Collin M., Emory Law Journal


INTRODUCTION

Though within the context of the national crime picture, mass shootings are statistically rare events, their frequency of occurrence has been found to be on the rise in recent years.1 The disproportional amount of attention they receive, particularly from the media, however, makes it appear as though mass shootings are reaching an epidemic-like proportion2 with many accepting these events as a fixed part of American culture.3 Consequently, mass shootings have become, and continue to be, a cause for concern for politicians, pundits, and the public alike.4 Some events are viewed as reflecting broader problems within society.5 Conversely, others have been perceived as isolated incidents.6 Still, all events elicit some type of collective response that something needs to be done.

Despite such perceptions, however, the response to mass shootings has become almost scripted and therefore predictable. When word of a shooting breaks, politicians and the public alike immediately rush to offer their "thoughts and prayers" to those who have been impacted.7 Debates ensue across both the public (often via social media) and political arenas about the root causes of mass shootings,8 a conversation that routinely falls to the "usual suspects" of guns, mental health, and violent media.9 Yet despite such outrage, the conversation often is short-lived,10 and Congress fails to take any meaningful steps to address the issues surrounding these events-in some cases even noting that the immediate aftermath, when support for change often is at its highest, is not the time to politicize the tragedy.11 That time, however, seems to never come, and the conversation fades as quickly as it began, only to be reignited with the next mass shooting, causing the cycle of inaction to restart.

This is not to say, however, that no legislative efforts have been offered in responses to mass shootings.12 Numerous proposals have been put to the floors of both the Senate and House of Representatives, though the majority never make it past introduction.13 At the same time, laws that already exist on the books that could potentially play a role in helping to prevent mass shootings (or at least make it more difficult for them to occur) are not utilized to their fullest capacities. The occurrence of such attacks also may highlight gaping loopholes in the existing legislation that need addressing to help prevent future attacks.

In short, the federal government has failed to respond adequately to mass shootings in a meaningful way. In this Article, we explore several of the key debates that arise after mass shootings-namely, whether assault weapons should be banned and if universal background check policies should be implemented. Specifically, we examine the key arguments from both supporters and those who are against such policies and related congressional action (or lack thereof) from each side. We also consider how such policies correlate with mass shootings and what impact, if any, the implementation of such legislation could have on the occurrence of these events. Finally, we explore what action has been taken at the state level and whether addressing mass shootings at the federal level can be achieved or if the partisan divide will continue to perpetuate this endless cycle of inaction.

I. ASSAULT WEAPONS

A common response in the aftermath of mass shootings is to call for the banning of assault-style weapons, such as AR-15s, AK-47s, and similar firearms. This call to action stems from the perception that these types of guns are the weapon of choice among mass shooters, despite the fact that handguns are three times more likely to be used by such perpetrators.14 Proponents of banning assault-style firearms also routinely claim that the usage of these by mass shooters has been significantly increasing.15 In reality, however, despite a small uptick in the proportion of events where these weapons were present, their use in mass shooting events has remained largely stable over the past three decades. …

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