Experts on mass shootings, guns in America, and political perceptions after terrorism

Donald Trump holds an advantage over Hillary Clinton when it comes to the public’s trust in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Orlando, says a Vanderbilt political science professor.

Zechmeister (Vanderbilt University)
Elizabeth Zechmeister (Vanderbilt University)

“The tendency is for the public to look to male, Republican leaders when concerns about terrorism run high,” says Elizabeth Zechmeister, co-author of Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public and many other articles on how terrorist threats affect evaluations of political leaders. “It also helps if those leaders are incumbents.”

Clinton could change the tide of public opinion, though.

“The biases against female leadership can be overcome when women leaders are seen as holding countervailing characteristics, such as experience with national security,” Zechmeister says.

Terrorist threats

Zechmeister’s research demonstrates how a terrorist threat increases:

  • Social distrust, intolerance and authoritarianism in the public
  • Voters’ preferences for strong leadership
  • Voters’ preferences for hawkish and hardline policies
  • The public’s willingness to give up certain civil liberties

“The electorate responds to strong leadership, hawkish policies and is willing to forgo certain civil liberties in exchange for stronger security measures if it makes them feel safer,” she says.

Democracy at Risk is the first of Zechmeister’s three books. She is also director of the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) at Vanderbilt.

What about guns?

Mass shootings like Orlando are unpredictable, but gun violence is highly preventable, says Jonathan Metzl, a Vanderbilt psychiatrist, sociologist and director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society.

Jonathan Metzl (Vanderbilt University)
Jonathan Metzl (Vanderbilt University)

“This horrific shooting yet again shows us that no community is safe from the scourge of gun crime in America, and the most marginalized communities are frequently the most targeted,” Metzl said.

In his research “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings and the Politics of American Firearms,” published in the American Journal of Public Health, Metzl analyzed data and literature linking guns and mental illness over the past 40 years.

People are much more likely to be the victim of gun violence by someone who is close to them, Metzl’s research shows.

“We should set our gun policies on the everyday shootings, not just on sensational shootings, because everyday gun death is often predictable and preventable,” says Metzl.

Signs to predict gun violence

The factors that often lead to gun violence are:

  • Drug and alcohol use
  • A history of violence
  • Access to firearms
  • Personal relationship stress

“People are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends, enemies or acquaintances than they are by random strangers, terrorists or lone violent psychopaths,” Metzl says. “We need to keep this in mind when we address gun crime.

Watch a video of Jonathan Metzl talking about his gun violence research here.

by Jim Patterson and Amy Wolf

Media contacts:
Amy Wolf, (615) 294-4021 (cell)

Jim Patterson