Of the hundreds of mass shooting over the years, two exceptional cases involved sitting members of Congress. After both tragedies, observers condemned harsh political imagery and heated partisan rhetoric that preceded the violence.
The shootings offer a unique context to examine citizen’s beliefs about partisan rhetoric and political violence. Specifically, do people identify incendiary political language as the major cause of violence? If so, does it matter?
In the summer of 2017, a gunman fueled by rage toward Republican legislators shot House Majority Republican Whip Steve Scalise and several others during a morning practice of congressional Republicans’ baseball team in Alexandria, Virginia. The assailant died after a 10 ten-minute shootout. Scalise sustained critical bone and organ injuries and underwent several surgeries.
Republicans immediately denounced Liberals’ ruthless anti-Trump rhetoric suggesting it had created a climate of violence which inspired the shooter. On Fox News, Newt Gingrich argued,
“You’ve had a series of things, which sends signals that tell people that it’s OK to hate Trump. It’s OK to think of Trump in violent terms. It’s OK to consider assassinating Trump and then…suddenly we’re supposed to rise above it – until next time.”
Republicans cited the controversial play in New York called Shakespeare in the Park as an example of the troubling ‘signals’ Gingrich eluded too. The production portrayed Julius Caesar as Trump. And, during the play, a blond Julius Caesar was assassinated – brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities. Corporate sponsors including Bank of America and Delta Airlines immediately pulled their financial support. Republicans also called attention to comedian Kathy Griffin posing with a fake severed and bloodied Trump head.
The local police were familiar with James Hodgkinson, the Alexandria shooter, having responded to many complaints from Hodgkinson’s neighbors and extended family. He was a member of several Facebook groups that were strongly anti-Republican, raged regularly on social media about destroying the president, and wrote nearly 30 letters to the editor expressing his anti-Republican feelings. In Hodgkinson’s pocket, the FBI found a list of Republican Congressman names.
Several years before Alexandria, Arizona’s Democrat representative Gabrielle Giffords barely survived an attempt on her life. In 2011, Giffords was shot in Tucson, and suffered a serious brain injury. The shooter killed 6 people – including a U.S. District Judge and a 9 year old child, and wounded 13 others.
Democrats accused Conservatives of encouraging the violence. They referenced callous campaign imagery and incendiary language, notably from the Tea Party and Sarah Palin’s PAC that featured stylized cross-hairs targeting Giffords in the 2010 midterm elections.
Local Pima County Sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, linked rhetoric to violence: “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of a certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”
Giffords had expressed similar concerns and specifically mentioned the Tea Party and Palin’s use of cross-hairs that targeted her congressional seat:
“We’re in Sarah Palin’s ‘targeted’ list, but the thing is that the way she has it depicted, we’re in the cross-hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize that there are consequences to that action.”
Giffords father was more direct. Asked if his daughter had enemies, “Yeah, the whole Tea party.”
After the shooting, the cross-hairs image was removed from Palin’s website.
The perpetrator, Jared Lee Loughner, was obsessed with Giffords and regularly posted anti-government views on social media. Authorities described Loughner as mentally unstable, though they did not characterize the motivation for the shooting.
Are mass shootings a symptom of deeper societal problems or the actions of disturbed individuals?
For every high profile mass shooting since Virginia Tech in 2007, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to think shootings reflected broader problems in society – instead of isolated acts of troubled individuals. Democrats consider the social and political context as a key factor shaping people’s behavior.
For example, as the political environment heats up, angry and divisive words flood the airways, rants and incivility grow, the stage is set for the unhinged and alienated to lash out. Therefore, political figures that foment hatred toward others should be held accountable.
By contrast, Republicans typically blame individuals. People make choices. Mass shootings are not the norm, they are isolated events, the invention of an unstable mind. Ultimately, the causes of mass shootings are within individuals. Attributions of blame are thus narrow and tailored to the characteristics of the shooter.
The circumstances of the Alexandria shooting changed Republican’s thinking
Just 3 days after Loughner shot Giffords, Gallup asked people the following question: “Just your best guess, do you think the heated language used in politics today was or was not a factor influencing the Arizona shooter to commit the attack? Major factor, minor factor, not a factor.”
Overall, 21% thought heated language was a major factor, 21% believed it was a minor factor, and 47% said it was a non-factor. Forty percent of Democrats identified heated language as a major factor and only 10% of Republicans.
Two weeks after Alexandria, Kansas University Political Science Department fielded a poll asking the identical question except referenced the “Virginia” shooter. Compared to Gallup’s Tucson survey, a notably higher proportion of the sample considered heated political language a major factor – 37%, or a minor factor – 46%. Forty three percent of Democrats thought heated language was a major factor and 34% of Republicans. Thus, after Alexandria, a larger proportion of Republicans identified political language as a major cause – nearly a 25% increase compared to the Arizona tragedy (see graph below).
The change is important. The Alexandria shooting was an attack on Republican legislators. This prompted Republicans to consider causality for mass shootings much like Democrats – many more attributed gun violence to the political environment.
This matters – more support for gun control laws
The Kansas University poll asked, “Have the shootings in Virginia made you more likely to support stricter gun control laws, less likely to support stricter gun control laws, or has your opinion on gun laws stayed the same? About a third of respondents said more likely.
The graph below demonstrates the relationship between the assessment about gun laws and beliefs about heated rhetoric (I derived estimates of probabilities from a multivariate model).
First, notice the pattern in estimated probabilities. People that did not consider inflammatory language a factor were largely unmoved – their gun law attitudes stayed the same. However, for the people that identified political rhetoric as a minor or major factor, the probabilities of supporting stricter gun laws rise.
In other words, the shooting appears to have influenced those that attributed violence to the political climate. This group believed the shooting changed their attitudes on gun laws — moving them toward stricter regulations. Importantly, this same pattern appeared among Democrats and Republicans – both were equally moved by the shooting.
For the Giffords’ tragedy, Gallup asked the following question. “Next, as you may know, this past weekend six people were killed and others including a member of Congress were wounded in a shooting in Tucson, Arizona. From what you know about the shootings, do you think— This tragedy would have been prevented if the state of Arizona had stricter gun laws, (or) This tragedy would have occurred even if the state of Arizona had stricter gun laws.
Once again, the familiar pattern emerged (see graph below). If people did not consider inflammatory language a factor in the Gifford’s shooting, they did not think stricter gun laws could have prevented it. But the likelihood of believing the shooting could have been averted with stricter gun laws increased as people recognized rhetoric as a significant factor. Once more, this pattern repeated among Republicans and Democrats.
The data offer 3 conclusions. First, after a mass shooting involving elected officials, a significant percentage of Americans are willing to identify heated political rhetoric as a major cause.
Second, regardless of the target – a Democrat or Republican official, Democrats were more likely to blame harsh rhetoric. Republicans increased blame on partisan rhetoric when a Republican leader was the target.
Third, the belief that harsh political language inspired the shooter to kill political figures produced significant support for stricter gun control laws – among both parties. Many more Republicans identified this connection after Alexandria than Tucson. Hence, the Alexandria shootings produced Republican support for stricter gun laws.
How long after events will these attitudes persist? I cannot say. However, the analyses does suggest a window of opportunity for gun control advocates. Indeed it’s not a coincidence that the only major federal gun control bills that passed Congress were prompted by the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.