The Missing Facts On Strengthening Gun Laws

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza is protecting politicians who oppose popular gun laws by predicting that the nation's latest mass murder will change nothing and pre-emptively blaming that on an indifferent public.

On May 23, a 22-year-old man apparently motivated by a deep-seated hatred of women stabbed three people to death before using a gun to kill three and wound eight others in Isla Vista, California. Five other victims were injured by the shooter's car.

The following day Richard Martinez, whose son Christopher was shot to death during the killing spree, gave an impassioned press conference in which he castigated “irresponsible politicians and the NRA” and asked, “When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, 'Stop this madness?' We don't have to live like this. Too many have died. We should say to ourselves, 'Not. One. More.'” Martinez later elaborated on his press conference, telling politicians, “I don't care about your sympathy ... Get to work and do something.”

While expressing sympathy for Martinez, Cillizza categorically rejected the idea that anything will change because of “Richard Martinez's grief” in a May 27 blog post. Cillizza concluded by writing, “Yes, Richard Martinez's grief is powerful. But it is also fleeting in the American consciousness. If the slaughter of 20 children at their elementary school didn't change things, it's hard to believe that Richard Martinez's anger -- or virtually anything else -- will.” (Cillizza published columns with similar conclusions following the Newtown massacre and the Aurora, Colorado movie theater mass shooting.)

Cillizza's description of the events since 20 children and six educators were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 both ignores the progress that has been made since and misrepresents public opinion on the gun issue.

To set up his argument that "[t]he simple fact is that tragedies involving guns do not move the political needle," Cillizza writes that “since Newtown, more states have loosened gun laws than have tightened them,” linking to a December 2013 New York Times report that identified 70 laws weakening gun regulation and 39 laws strengthening gun regulation enacted since Newtown.

This sort of count treats all gun legislation as if it were equally meaningful, creating the false narrative that state gun laws have, on balance, loosened nationwide since Newtown.

The Legal Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which provided data for the Times article, issued a report this month with current figures on gun laws passed since Newtown. LCPGV identified 70 laws loosening gun restrictions, 64 laws strengthening gun laws, and 38 laws with minimal impact.

But most significant was LCPGV's finding that since Newtown eight states have passed “significant or sweeping” legislation that strengthens gun laws, versus four states that have passed similarly substantial legislation to weaken gun laws.

As LCPGV explained in its report, media have erred in treating “small bills” that change gun laws as equal to significant legislation that bans assault weapons or requires background checks on gun sales:

Despite popular belief, in the last sixteen months since Newtown, the media has incorrectly portrayed the complicated and nuanced activity in fifty different state legislative bodies. The new laws have been tallied, and often, have been inappropriately equalized. Small bills which keep concealed weapons permit holders' information private have been categorized as having equal weight to sweeping new laws that require background checks and ban assault weapons.

Cillizza's second data point for his prediction is a Gallup poll that generically asks respondents whether they would prefer “more strict” or “less strict” gun laws. Note that despite recent fluctuations, the chart still shows nearly four times as many polled support stricter laws as opposed to less regulation:

Cillizza points to the fact that the total support for “more strict” has declined over the past two decades, and that the bump in favor of “more strict” following Newtown did not lead to the passage of federal legislation to conclude gun safety legislation is hopeless. But polling that uses generic questions like “more” or “less” strict is rarely useful, because it typically fails to track public opinion on specific gun safety measures -- even as respondents say they don't support making gun laws “more strict,” they may also say they support expanding background checks or banning assault weapons.

Indeed, regardless of polling on whether Americans vaguely prefer more or less strict gun laws, support for the specific policy of expanding the federal background check system -- which was blocked in the Senate last year -- remains overwhelmingly popular.

Cillizza's prediction that the Isla Vista shooting won't impact gun policy may come true. But his analysis inaccurately blames what he falsely characterizes as an indifferent public. This protects the intransigent politicians who are defying public opinion on the issue -- like the senators who filibustered the background check bill.