In the aftermath of mass shootings in the United States, there is now a well-scripted response: public sadness; fear; anxiety and outrage; calls for prayers; and calls for policy change. Politicians appear to repeat a set of well-known ideological responses–liberals press for new gun laws and conservatives push back, often demanding greater expansion of gun use and gun rights. Entrenched ideological division is the result. And within weeks, and sometimes days, political attention drifts elsewhere and little seems to change.
However, we suspected that particularly notorious mass shootings may possess an underlying potential for consensus among the public. Based on previous research on emotional responses to threatening events, we anticipated public anxiety after a mass shooting might short-circuit reflexive ideological thinking. In particular, our research explored whether observers who felt more anxious following a mass shooting would be more likely to support restrictive gun laws and support government intervention.
We focused on the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history until October 2017. The gunman killed 49 people and wounded 58 others.
Our analysis of a nationally representative survey of American adults, conducted just after the tragic events in Orlando, revealed that about 25 percent of people indicated a significant level of anxiousness, a similar percentage said they were frightened, while 40 percent reported being very worried. We combined these three measures into an index of anxiety.
Among the most anxious respondents, we observed a marked decline in ideological thinking, with the most anxious supportive of new restrictive gun laws. The shift was especially apparent among anxious conservatives, and translated into greater confidence in government and beliefs that government could be effective in preventing shootings as well.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, our results show mass shootings can produce an unscripted change in ideological thinking, which in turn could provide motivation for policy change. Although dramatic, the reduction in ideological division among anxious respondents is likely short-lived, with the window of opportunity closing quickly.
It could be that the specific context of mass shootings, and related media coverage, affects the extent and influence of emotional responses. If so, only certain shootings may possess a potential for ideological consensus. The Orlando shooting involved young adults at a nightclub and was also declared a terrorist attack. By contrast, the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, now the deadliest in modern American history, involved people of all ages and was not linked to a political or otherwise terrorist motive. Public reactions may be much different.
At minimum, our study points to a greater need for research on how the public responds to threat and tragedy, be it a mass shooting or the aftermath of a hurricane. Citizens’ responses shape the opportunity for policy change and, potentially, the reduction of future harm.
Mark Joslyn is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in political science at the University of Kansas. His research explores how political attitudes are formed and changed, drawing on cognitive and motivational theories of the political mind.
Don Haider-Markel is Professor and Chair of political science at the University of Kansas. His research and teaching is focused on the representation of interests in the policy process and the dynamics between public opinion, political behavior, and public policy.
Mark R. Joslyn, Donald P. Haider-Markel
First Published: August 27, 2018
From Research & Politics
Featured image credit: Gov. Malloy visits Pulse nightclub memorial in Orlando by Dannel Malloy is licensed under CC BY 2.0