POLITICS
12/19/2012 07:35 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Gun Control Push After Sandy Hook Shooting Echoes History Of School Fires, Then Reform

WASHINGTON -- Democrats' move to push new federal gun control legislation following the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., echoes a historical pattern in which political reform has followed catastrophes involving children, schools and horrific loss of life.

Does that mean history is on the side of stricter gun laws? Although the past is not always prologue, political scientist Bryan Jones, who has studied how major policy changes occur, said firearms policy may be "ripe" for a major shift.

In the first half of the 20th century, the policy-changing tragedies involved not guns but fire:

Collinwood School Fire -- In 1908, 172 children and two teachers died in a fire near Cleveland due to various building design flaws, including a narrowing passageway near a rear exit that caused panicked children to jam the doors while trying to escape. The fire led to nationwide school inspections and laws mandating changes in school safety and construction.

Cleveland School Fire -- Fifteen years later, 76 students died in a school fire started by an oil lamp in Camden, S.C. Once again, panicked children jammed a narrow exit stairwell preventing others from escaping. The 1923 fire prodded state and local governments across the country to begin requiring fire drills, occupancy limits, marked and lighted exits, and fire inspections.

New London School Explosion -- In 1937, a massive explosion resulting from a natural gas leak killed more than 295 schoolchildren in New London, Texas. Faulty engineering was blamed for the explosion, leading the Texas Legislature to enact government regulation and licensing of the practice of engineering.

Our Lady of Angels School Fire -- Eighty-seven elementary school children and three nuns died in a school fire in Chicago in 1958. The school had just one fire escape and was exempt from the sort of safety regulations put in place following the earlier fires due to a grandfather clause in state laws. Once again in reaction to tragedy, a memorial website says, "sweeping changes in school fire safety regulations were enacted nationwide."

These events all shared a similar pattern: The massive loss of life among schoolchildren received national attention and spurred government action. Although we lack opinion polling on the impact of each calamity, the history suggests that policymakers felt great public pressure to act. The net result is the regime of tougher building codes and mandatory fire alarms, sprinklers, fire escapes and drills that are now ubiquitous for schools across the country.

There are differences, of course, between the earlier disasters and the Sandy Hook shootings -- not the least being that efforts to boost fire safety in public buildings did not face the sort of entrenched opposition and constitutional obstacles now hindering stricter gun laws. A somewhat better parallel may be the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 and its aftermath.

The calamity took the lives of 146 garment workers, mostly girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 23. It highlighted child labor abuses, inhumane working conditions and inadequate fire safety precautions and led to the adoption of fire safety measures, as well as an overhaul of New York's labor codes that became a model for other states and, ultimately, for federal legislation. It also helped spur the rise of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

Business interests, however, resisted many of the reforms pushed after the Triangle fire, and much of the labor legislation faced constitutional challenges in the first half of the 20th century. Yet the fire and its aftermath are widely considered central to the reform of fire codes and labor laws during that era.

This pattern of reform in reaction to tragedy tracks a theory of how government policy does and does not change, proposed by Jones and fellow political scientist Frank Baumgartner. They looked particularly at the way hardened, persistent policies suddenly give way as the result of a series of events that cause a shift in public or policymaker opinion.

Jones told HuffPost via email that gun control policy looks ready for such rapid change, primarily because of three potential changes in the perceptions of policymakers.

First, the prevailing "casual story" among policymakers regarding gun violence had focused on the public's helplessness, Jones said: "We can't do anything to stop crazies from killing." More recently, he said, "the connection between gun availability and mass killings is coming to be the dominant story" -- something President Barack Obama addressed in his speech on Sunday.

Second, some policymakers may perceive the influence of the National Rifle Association to be waning, Jones said. "The sense of weakness in the power structure can empower gun control activists," he explained, particularly at a moment when Democrats have found a way to win national elections without the gun lobby's base.

Third, Jones argued, "the policies we have right now make no sense -- that includes the availability of assault weapons ... the background check sham, and the gun show loophole. They are kind of out of equilibrium so far that it may not take much to shift them."

Jones' point here is less about broader public opinion than about the beliefs of policymakers and activists. Lawmakers, he said, typically share an "image" of policy in a certain area that dominates their decisions and makes change difficult. But, he said, "When the image breaks down, as I think is happening now for guns, the policy can collapse quickly."

So will the Sandy Hook shootings produce the sort of meaningful reform produced by the school fires of the last century? Jones sees potential, but both he and Baumgartner stop short of hard predictions.

"There is no way that this tragedy has not moved automatic weapons control higher onto the political agenda and into the realm of feasibility," Baumgartner said, "but it depends on how many political actors take strong stands over the next few days."

UPDATE: Wednesday, 3:40 p.m. -- Bryan Jones has more on the potential for rapid change in gun control policy in a post on The Monkey Cage.

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