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When Gun Violence Outrage Isn’t Enough to Bring Reform

An examination of crises in the Americas — including school shootings in the U.S. — yields a sobering theory about why even a national outpouring of pain cannot always overcome political divides.

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On Friday, Oct. 2, 1992, military police stormed the Carandiru prison in Sāo Paolo, Brazil, during a riot. Then the killing started.

Although the police later tried to claim self-defense, the numbers told a different story: 111 prisoners were killed. Zero police officers were. It had been a massacre.

Brazilian media covered the story heavily, complete with photos of bloody corpses. Politicians and other public figures condemned the killings. Police violence was a longstanding problem in Brazil, but it had rarely had this kind of sustained news coverage and national attention. Anyone watching might have assumed that profound police reform was on the way.

But it wasn’t. Politicians made some minor changes, and a few people were fired. The news cycle moved on; police violence continued.

The story of the Carandiru massacre itself is a story about a lot of things, including poverty, racism, and the legacy of dictatorship. But the massacre’s aftermath is also a story about democratic limitations — and it is relevant to governments around the world.

It is one that I have found particularly helpful for understanding the relative lack of political consequences following recent crises in the United States, including repeated mass shootings and the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

There was once an expectation that in a democracy, mass outrage over a public scandal or crisis would translate into political change. But if you’ve been following the news, you may be frustrated about the ways that process now seems to break down in the middle: Something shocking occurs, the public expresses outrage and grief, but then that doesn’t translate into legislation or political change. Today’s newsletter is about a political theory that helps explain why that keeps happening — a diagnosis, though not yet a cure.

Yanilda Gonzalez, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, researches police reform in South America — how it happens and, perhaps more important, why it often doesn’t.

When she began her work, the general understanding was that South American countries had not reformed their police forces during their transitions to democracy because there was so much else that needed to be done. In that version of the story, fixing the police just hadn’t been a priority.

But when she dug a little deeper, she found that there actually was a great deal of public demand for better security and crime control, and often a great deal of anger in communities affected by police violence. The police hadn’t been overlooked: They had been protected.

The police were politically powerful because they could selectively withdraw their services, allowing crime and disorder to rise, provoking anger at elected officials. They also tended to be well connected, able to lobby effectively to protect their own interests. That meant conflict with the police was costly for politicians, who tended to avoid it, leaving police departments and practices largely unaltered.

But there was a specific, difficult to achieve set of conditions that, if met, would lead to police reform, Gonzalez found. Briefly summarized, her formula was this: scandal + public unity + credible political opposition = reform.

The sequence started with a scandal or crisis that led public opinion to unite a majority of people in favor of reform, she wrote in her book “Authoritarian Police in Democracy.” If there was also a real electoral threat from political opponents calling for reform, that could be enough to persuade leaders to act in order to stave off their competition.

In Argentina and Colombia, that sequence led to major reforms after high-profile police killings.

But if even one of those elements was missing, the status quo continued. In Brazil, the Carandiru massacre was certainly a scandal, and there was a fairly robust political opposition that joined in the criticism, to some degree. But public opinion about it was fragmented: citing polls at the time, Gonzalez found that about a third of Brazilians approved of the way that the police had handled the situation. The second element of the sequence, convergence of public opinion, was missing. The result: no reform.

To be clear, the process Gonzalez describes is not a formula in the scientific sense. Rather, it is a description of a political process, a story about what elements are needed for elected leaders to overcome staunch opposition from powerful interest groups. And that makes it a useful framework for thinking about other issues where the democratic process seems unresponsive in the face of public crisis — including in the United States.

When we spoke, Gonzalez was careful to note that her policy equation isn’t meant to be a theory of everything, and that it grew out of her research on policing, specifically. But she said that she did see parallels with the way other contentious political issues in the United States have played out — particularly those that seem resistant to reform despite regular public outcries. And her research suggests that those problems are structural, arising out of America’s divided nature, in addition to the specifics of any political issue.

Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

“In the U.S. right now, most saliently, you have gun reform,” Gonzalez said. It is an issue area that brings regular crises in the form of mass shootings, including the horrors that took place last month in Uvalde, Texas. But that has not led to convergence of public opinion: The country is deeply divided about assault-weapons bans and other significant gun control policies.

Her framework suggests that such divisions would make American politicians reluctant to take on contentious, politically risky reforms. To lead to change, “scandal has to shape people’s perceptions, it has to shape how people in the middle view a problem,” Gonzalez said. “It has to be something that moves people who are neutral or supportive into the ranks of critics.”

But America has become so divided along partisan lines that people are now less likely to change their minds about highly partisan, contested issues — and gun control has increasingly been taken up that way rather being treated as a matter of broad public health and safety.

And the nature of American politics today makes the third element of Gonzalez’s framework — a credible threat of political opposition — more difficult to achieve as well.

For many Americans, voting for the other party is unthinkable, because the moral and cultural gulf between the two parties has become so great.

“A realignment has occurred. The parties have really shifted around, so you have one party that wants to maintain the traditional, hierarchical system of white Christian patriarchy, and one that wants to move more toward equality,” Lilliana H. Mason, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies partisan polarization in America, told me. “So it’s really hard right now for people to get out of that pattern. Because we’re not just disagreeing about gun control, we’re disagreeing about ‘What does America look like’?”

She pointed to the Jan. 6 attack as another example of partisan loyalty shaping response to a crisis. “In the January 6th hearings, you’ve got Bill Barr saying that Trump was disconnected from reality,” she said. “But he says that he’d still vote for him because he’s better than any Democrat. So that’s where you get stuck.”

But not all political opposition comes from the opposing party. In both Argentina and Colombia, Gonzalez said, politicians were motivated to pursue reform after being challenged by other members of their own parties. In the United States, pro-police reform factions within the Democratic Party managed to build on the outrage following Eric Garner’s death and other police killings to elect progressive prosecutors and legislators in some heavily Democratic districts, although some have subsequently faced backlash from the police and lost public support.

That could be the most likely avenue for political opposition in the United States, she said. “When you have a dominant party, as the Democrats and Republicans are in various parts of the country, it has to be an internal challenge.”

Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.

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