How do school shootings affect voting?
Hundreds of children have been killed in US school shootings. It's so common that it's affecting voting patterns and who wins elections. How do voters respond to school shootings in their local area?
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From the ivory tower to your inbox
In this newsletter, I’ll occasionally include features like this one, in which I bring your attention to new academic research that hasn’t gotten much attention in the mainstream press. It’s unfortunate that significant findings like these are rarely covered in newspapers, as they tell us much about the political world, even if they’re not as clickbait worthy as breaking news.
Can you remember all the school shootings?
Here’s a disturbing experiment. Try to guess which of these schools listed below had fatal school shootings in the last five years:
Benito Juarez High School (Chicago, Illinois)
McLain High School (Tulsa, Oklahoma)
Central Visual and Performing Arts High School (St. Louis, Missouri)
Searles Elementary School (Union City, California)
Saugus High School (Santa Clarita, California)
Santa Fe High School (Santa Fe, Texas)
Great Mills High School (Great Mills, Maryland)
The answer, I’m sorry to say, is all of the above. School shootings have become so frequent, so routine, that we can’t keep track of them. There were 51 school shootings in 2022 alone—and 22 of them produced fatalities.
There are some grim research studies that are only possible to do in the United States.
In Britain, for example, there has been one school shooting — one — in the last century. After that, the country changed its gun laws. There hasn’t been a school shooting since that terrible day in 1996. As a result, British political scientists can’t even imagine asking the question: “How do school shootings affect vote choice?” It’s nonsensical. The entire study would be based on a single event.
By contrast, there were 117 major rampage-style school shootings in the United States between 1980 and 2016, which gave political scientists the dystopian opportunity to see how much, on average, school shootings lead to partisan shifts in voting.
There are two key questions to consider:
Does voter turnout increase in the area where a major school shooting takes place?
Do voters in the area around a school shooting tend to move more toward Republicans or more toward Democrats in its aftermath?
These questions, unfortunately, are important to answer in the United States, where the frequency of gun violence is becoming a key feature in close elections.
In other functioning democracies, the avoidable tragedy of the mass slaughter of innocent people is such a rare, freak occurrence that nobody has to ponder whether they systematically affect elections. Not so in the United States, where news of one mass shooting eclipses another.
Three political scientists—Laura-Garcia Montoya; Ana Arjona; and Matthew Lacombe—decided to crunch the numbers and see how vote share changes when tragedy strikes.
Is there a systematic effect? Does turnout spike? And if so, do more local residents vote for Democrats or Republicans in the wake of school shootings? The answers might surprise you.
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