Poster Paper: Policy Making Under Fire: How DV Advocates Are Undermining the Power of the Gun Lobby

Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Clement House, Ground Floor, Hong Kong Theatre (London School of Economics)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sierra Smucker, Duke University
One of the devastating consequences of growing inequality is the subversion of democratic principles as political power consolidates among the wealthy. By cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with politicians, the wealthiest citizens are able to shape policy outcomes often at the expense of those with less economic power. In the US, perhaps one of the clearest examples of this imbalance in power is the continued reluctance of policy makers to address gun violence.

Despite the threat firearms pose to Americans, political wisdom submits that calls for gun reform are futile because any federal reform will be killed by the powerful gun lobby. Consequently, social scientists have investigated political intransigence around gun reform but not areas of success. However, state legislatures have recently defied political wisdom and passed gun reforms that protect women in abusive relationships. Fully 18 states passed laws to protect victims of domestic violence (DV) from firearms, including states that have historically resisted gun reforms of any kind. These gun reforms include restrictions on convicted abusers ability to purchase, own, or possess fire arms as well as the right of police officers to remove firearms from the scene of a domestic violence incident. This endorsement of DV and firearms policy presents a puzzle for policy scholars and opportunity for policy makers. Why, in a time of deep political polarization around firearms and the loosening of other firearms restrictions, has this policy made such impressive headway in state legislatures?

This study is motivated by the puzzle this reform presents to the common wisdom that political battles are rarely won by the less funded and connected. My research aim is to isolate the factors that led to the passage of DV and firearm policy in states that generally resist change in this area. To achieve this, I use qualitative case studies to identify the key variables that lead to gun reform in states that have resisted all other forms of gun reform policy: Louisiana, Vermont, and North Carolina. This least likely or critical case approach (Eckstein, 1975) narrows the possible mechanisms that explain policy passage, increasing the likelihood of identifying a causal relationship.

This paper is the first to consider the politics of DV and firearms policy across the US and to study gun reform success instead of failure. This paper also adds to research on policy addressing violence against women (VAW), a small body of work that demands more attention from scholars (Htun & Weldon, 2012; O’Brien, 2015; Weldon, 2002). Furthermore, research that aims to understand the politics of gun reform has major policy implications. In the past ten years, gun regulations at the state and national levels have loosened (Goss, 2015). By investigating why some gun reform – such as domestic violence focused reforms -- resisted the national trend, this research will inform strategies of advocates, politicians, and policy makers interested in addressing this public health crisis.