Could This Time Be Different? School Shooting Thrusts Sanford Experts into National Gun Policy Debate

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson – these place names have become shorthand for the worst mass shootings in the United States.  On Dec. 14, 2012, when 20 first-graders and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, Conn., was added to that miserable list.

In the intense media coverage that followed, two Sanford professors, Philip Cook, ITT/Terry Sanford Professor of Public Policy and professor of economics, and Kristin Goss, associate professor of public policy and political science, became important voices in the renewed national debate over gun policy.

Having studied mass shootings since the 1990s, Goss knew that even before the police had pieced together what had happened, reporters would want to know about the political and policy implications. Goss’ book, "Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America," examines the organizational, historical and policy factors that have shaped the gun control movement. The Columbine High School shooting in 1999 fueled the study. She had attended a high school just a few miles away, and she wondered why a nation with so much gun violence seemed to have had had such trouble mobilizing around a policy response.

Sisters, Sara, 12, Jessica, 6, and Kaitlyn Gerckens, 10, (from left) of Derby, Conn., gather at the Derby Green during a vigil to remember the lives lost during the shooting at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School. Photo credit: Josalee Thrift/Valley Independent Sentinel

Initially, Goss wondered whether the Sandy Hook shooting and its aftermath would follow the typical pattern.

“Usually, the media call the day after the shooting, and by the third day, it quiets down,” said Goss. After each tragedy, the questions from reporters are the same, Goss said. The international reporters ask her to explain American gun culture and wonder if things will change. American reporters want to know what will happen next.

That was the pattern after the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, where 32 people were killed; in Tucson in 2011, where six died and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded; and in Aurora, Colo., where 12 died and 58 were wounded in a movie theater. Moral outrage, sorrow, but little or no new policy.

At the same time, reporters sought out Cook for his expertise in gun and crime policy. Cook has researched the costs and consequences of widespread gun ownership for much of his career. He is the co-author with Jens Ludwig of the book Gun Violence: The Real Costs, which laid out a new and much more comprehensive method for evaluating the social costs of gun violence. They also are the co-editors of Evaluating Gun Policy: Effects on Crime and Violence. Like Goss, Cook was initially skeptical there would be any national policy response.


Responses Gain Steam

By January, it was clear media interest hadn’t waned, in part because state and federal lawmakers were showing signs of action.  Cook and Goss both wrote multiple op-eds, published by CNN, The Times of India, Newsweek, The News and Observer and other outlets.  Both continued to be interviewed by reporters from NPR, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, among others, and by media outlets from countries as diverse as Australia, France, Canada, Russia, Singapore and the UK. A Turkish TV station produced an hour-long special program that included an interview with Cook.

President Obama appointed Vice President Joe Biden to lead a gun violence task force. The NRA called for armed guards in every American school.  High-profile veterans, including Gen. Colin Powell, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Beau Biden, an Iraq War veteran and the attorney general of Delaware, spoke out in support of reform.

Public policy scholars harbor the hope that their work will inform the creation of policy, but the slow pace of research and publication often frustrates that hope.  This time, the scholarly community seized the moment.

On Jan. 10, more than 110 scholars sent a letter to Vice President Biden and members of his gun violence task force recommending that the government remove restrictions on “firearm-related research, policy formation, evaluation and enforcement efforts” and calling for direct investment in data collection and other research.

Since the early 1990s, federal legislation funding the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has mandated that none of the funds “may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.” The NIH and CDC are the primary sources of research grants in public health. When that language was introduced into the funding bills, “it completely cut out the public health people,” says Cook. He was one of the first three signatories on the letter to Biden. It included a list of the number of research awards from 1973-2012: There were only three.

Scholars Raise Their Voices

John Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels led the next major scholarly response. A summit held Jan. 14-15 assembled 20 leading experts who presented and analyzed research-based approaches to reducing gun violence. The experts drafted a list of recommendations, including new regulations on background checks, trafficking and dealer licensing, mental health, assault weapons and research funding.  Cook was one of the presenters, via Skype.

Two weeks later, the Johns Hopkins University Press published the edited volume, Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, which collected the work of the summit participants, with a forward by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Copies were sent to policymakers across the country, including members of Congress and the Obama administration.

Cook and Ludwig co-authored the second chapter, “The Limitations of the Brady Act: Evaluations and Implications.” Their research found little impact on the rate of homicides and suicides that could be attributed to the Brady Act and discussed possible reasons, including the restriction of background checks only to licensed dealers, the “private sale loophole.”

Cook also co-authored the chapter “Preventing Gun Violence Involving People with Serious Mental Illness,” which raised the frequently overlooked point that the majority of gun deaths each year are due to suicide, not homicide. The CDC reported that in 2010, 61 percent of all gun deaths in the United States—19,393 of 31,672—were suicides.


The 40 Percent Question

As the discussion of federal policy options intensified and began to focus on background checks, a figure from research done by Cook and Ludwig took center stage. The figure—40 percent—is an estimate of the amount of gun sales that did not involve a federally licensed dealer, and hence would not normally be subject to a background check under current law. It comes from a survey conducted in 1994 that they reported on in 1996.

President Obama used the 40 percent figure during his press conference announcing his plan for reducing gun violence.  His plan included 23 executive actions; he also called on Congress to close background-check loopholes, ban assault weapons, improve mental health services and lift restrictions on research. Hours after the president’s announcements, Cook and Goss took part in a conference call with staff members from the North Carolina legislative delegation in D.C., discussing the issues and the proposals made by the White House.

Goss, who lives outside Washington, has attended nearly every Capitol Hill hearing on gun policy reforms. At a public forum hosted by the House gun violence task force leader, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), “the 40 percent figure was the first statistic that Rep. Thompson mentioned, and it was featured on a huge pie chart on the dais,” Goss said. It also has come up “again and again” in the Senate hearings, she said.

“It’s obvious the 40 percent figure is laying the groundwork for the most important policy relating to guns in 20 years,” she said.

Cook says the estimate “has been misquoted a bit”; their conclusion was that the percentage was 30 to 40 percent, rather than precisely 40, and the figure refers to all sorts of transactions, not just sales. (Gifts and loans are quite common.)

Articles in The National Review contested the 40 percent figure, while The Washington Post ran a “fact-checker” piece on it, calling the information “stale” but acknowledging there is little other research available. Cook found some of the controversy surprising, as the research has long “been out there for everyone to use and enjoy.”

In an op-ed Cook and Ludwig wrote for The National Review wrote they made the point that the case for a universal background check is actually stronger if the true percentage is lower, since as a logical matter it would affect fewer transactions.  It’s one case where he hopes his critics are correct, he said.


A New Chapter—Perhaps

There have been some signs of political change.  Gun control was a major issue in a special Democratic primary for a Chicago congressional seat. The candidate with an “F” rating from the NRA attracted outside funders, including Mayor Bloomberg, and won the election over a favored candidate with an NRA “A” rating.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a series of hearings on gun violence in January and February. Goss attended the hearings, including one on Feb. 27, when Neil Heslin, the father of a boy shot at Sandy Hook, offered testimony. “It was very emotional; everyone was in tears,” she said.  In March, four bills passed out of committee and were expected to be considered by the full Senate. The bills would crack down on transfers to people not legally allowed to own guns, expand the background check system, fund improvements in school security and ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Gun policy reform measures have also passed, or are moving through, legislatures in several states.

Media converge on a gun rights advocate during a protest on Dec. 17, 2012 in Washington, D.C. outside the NRA office. Photo credit: Majunznk/Creative Commons License

Goss is writing a follow-up book to Disarmed. “There is so much to learn by studying this in real time,” she said. Social change often happens when new voices join the debate, and Goss sees that happening now on gun violence. For example, exactly two years after she was shot in the head at a constituent event, former Congresswoman Giffords launched Americans for Responsible Solutions to raise money for pro-gun-control candidates and lobby for the cause.

Both Cook and Goss think the legislation with the best chance of success is a measure to extend the scope of background checks.  At the request of Oxford University Press, they are in discussions to co-author a book on gun violence and policy in a short, accessible Q&A format. “It’s a chance to educate the public” on the issue, said Cook.

“The time for shrill, slogan-driven ‘national conversations’ is over,” said Goss. “The time to really talk has just begun.”