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December 20, 2012 9:08 AM Policy Windows and Gun Control

By Hans Noel

Since the tragic shooting in Newtown, we’ve heard a lot of policy proposals. We’ve also heard from people saying we should just slow down and not have a policy discussion while the nation is grieving.

I don’t know what the right way to grieve is, but I do know that those saying we should slow down are essentially working to prevent policy change, whether they think they are or not. At least that’s what the political science on this suggests. 

A long tradition of scholarship, begun by John Kingdon and continued by Frank Baumgartner, Bryan Jones and others, suggests that the policy process is the result of policy entrepreneurs and other advocates who take advantage of the way events, like a school shooting, change the policy agenda. Groups of policy advocates have been working on a variety of issues all along, even if the rest of us are not paying attention. And then, when some major event or crisis comes along, this creates a policy window, in which something may well be done. Advocates work to make sure what is done is what they would like to have done. 

What is done may not even be the best solution. Indeed, policy advocates may be seen as champion solutions in search of a problem, and when an event like Newtown happens, they bring in their ready made solution. It’s not that the proposed solutions are necessarily bad ideas; only that they were not devised for this current crisis. They were devised by their advocates to solve some more general problem, and they are now matched with the current problem, because that is the problem that there is political will to solve. 

So I’ll make a strong but ultimately obvious claim. Better gun control wouldn’t stop every mass shooting. Probably not even this one. Better mental health care wouldn’t either. Neither would arming teachers or prayer in school or more male teachers. But some of those policies may be good ideas anyway. Some would not be.

The time to have the debate about that is now, because now is when attention is focused on the problem. It’s not a rational, detached process. It’s politics. The best we can do is try to make sure that, if anything is done now, it’s something we like. And that means talking about it. Right now.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Hans Noel is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.
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