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Anxiety surrounding mass shootings does briefly close ideological divides

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

LAWRENCE — People who feel anxious surrounding mass shootings tend to abandon their political ideology on typically divided issues, according to a study by two University of Kansas professors.

Yet policymakers — especially those seeking gun law reforms trying to stem the number of mass shootings — in recent years have largely failed to capitalize on attitudes surrounding this type of anxiety.

"The immediate aftermath of a well-publicized mass shooting therefore represents a policy-window of sorts," said Mark Joslyn, professor of political science. "The anxious public appears open and supportive to policy change. We are not certain how long this moderated ideological state may last, but clearly the public opinion context changes substantially after mass shootings – and it is the emotion of anxiety that inhibits people’s dependence on ideological thinking."

Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel, professor and chair of the KU Department of Political Science, examined the effects of individual anxiety in wake of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting in which a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 58 others.

The journal Research & Politics recently published their findings. Joslyn and Haider-Markel have published several studies on trends in gun politics during recent years. This study is the first research to examine the public's emotional responses to mass shootings.

During the shooting, gunman Omar Mateen called 911 and made a pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Police later killed him, and the shooting was the deadliest in U.S. history until the 2017 Las Vegas shooting.

For the study, researchers conducted a national survey of U.S. adults that began less than a week after the Orlando tragedy. Respondents were asked questions designed to measure their anxiety about the shooting. About 25 percent of people responded a significant level of anxiousness, while 40 percent reported being very anxious.

Joslyn said a key finding was the anxiety about a mass shooting produced a marked decline in ideological division among people. Support increased for new restrictive gun laws among these anxious people as well as an increase in confidence and support for government, especially among conservatives.

"An anxious public weighs information it may have otherwise ignored. Strong ideological differences recede, and often we found liberals and anxious conservatives appeared to agree on such contentious issues as guns, causes of mass shootings, and support for government," Joslyn said. "The emotional response of anxiety changes how people typically think about politics. Anxious citizens do not employ ideological patterns of thought but rather moderate and move away from left-right cognition." 

This moderated ideological state does not last, however, and the researchers are not sure how long it does.

"If elites acted decisively at this point, genuine policy changes would result," Joslyn said. "The anxious public is ready – and this represents a significant proportion of the public after mass shootings."

The researchers said more research is needed on anxiety and its effects.

"Given the increased frequency and magnitude of mass shootings," Joslyn said, "such events merit greater attention from social scientists."

Photo: Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, visited the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando on the three-month anniversary of the 2016 shooting that left 49 people dead. It was the deadliest shooting in U.S. history until the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. Two University of Kansas political science professors studied the effect of anxiety in the wake of the Orlando shooting and how it influences peoples opinions on ideologies surrounding political issues, like gun control laws. Credit: U.S. government work