On the latest episode of Policy Outsider, guest Robert J. Spitzer, a distinguished service professor at SUNY Cortland and member of the Rockefeller Institute of Government’s Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium, speaks with Consortium Executive Director Joe Popcun about recent developments in firearm policy and politics.

Over the past five months, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely and suddenly upended the lives and livelihoods of many Americans, generating fear, anxiety, and uncertainty across the country. In the midst of this crisis, there has been a record increase in gun sales and a reported increase in shootings and firearm-involved deaths. At the same time, the police-involved death of George Floyd ignited civil unrest and hundreds of protests calling for police reform and social justice.

Spitzer discusses New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit against the NRA and how that affects the battle between gun safety/control advocates and gun rights advocates. In recent years, several large, national not-for-profit advocacy organizations pushing for stricter gun regulations have refined their strategies and build up larger money pools.


Robert J. Spitzer, Distinguished Service Professor, SUNY Cortland

Joseph Popcun, Executive Director, Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium

Learn More:

Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium


  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 0:04

    Welcome to a special episode of Policy Outsider. I’m Alex Morse. Today, we’ve invited Joe Popcun, director of policy and practice at the Rockefeller Institute and executive director of the Institute’s Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium to interview Dr. Robert Spitzer, a distinguished service professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland and renowned gun policy expert. We’ve heard Joe on a recent episode, What It Takes to Research Gun Violence, where he and Rockefeller Institute Project Coordinator Nick Simons discussed the role of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium in finding and developing effective gun policy to reduce gun violence. We’ve also heard from Dr. Spitzer in the episode of Gun Policy 101, where he outlines the trends of gun ownership and gun violence and the new developments in the gun policy realm. Today, Joe and Dr. Spitzer discuss the state of gun violence and gun policy during the COVID-19 public health emergency, including reports of increased gun violence across the nation and how the recent lawsuit against the NRA by New York Attorney General Letitia James affects the battle between gun control advocates and gun rights advocates. Before we begin, this interview was recorded over Zoom, the teleconference video software, please bear with us as you may hear an occasional glitch or poor sound quality. This doesn’t distract from a great conversation next.

    Joseph Popcun 1:45

    Welcome to a special episode of Policy Outsider. I’m today’s guest host, Joe Popcun, director of policy and practice at the Rockefeller Institute and the executive director of the Institute’s Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium. Today, we’re joined by Dr. Robert Spitzer, who’s the author of 15 books, including four on the presidency, five on gun control, and over 600 scholarly articles, book chapters, reviews, papers, and essays. We really appreciate you joining us, Dr. Spitzer, over the years you’ve prolifically studied and written about gun policy and rights in the United States, often blending your insights from political science, history, public policy, and real world practice, it’d be great if you could talk a little bit about how you began studying the topic of gun violence and gun policy and your general approach to the research.

    Robert Spitzer 2:29

    Well, at the risk of boring your listeners, I’ll say something about how I got interested in this. It was several decades ago in the 1980s, a colleague at another institution was putting together a book of readings about various controversial social issues and asked if I wanted to pick an issue and contribute a chapter. One of the topics under this category was gun control. It’s not a subject that I had studied in any systematic way up until then, but I thought it would be interesting. So I did the research, found it interesting, wrote the chapter, and the book was published. I continued to read, research, and write about the issue and had an aha moment when I realized that, in political science at least, there was no book about the politics of gun control. The issue was interesting and illustrative, for a lot of different reasons, and so I proceeded to write this book, it was first published in 1985. I found that there was quite a bit to say about the issue and that there continued to be more to say and more to research. That has led to a lot of other writing on my part on this subject, which I’ve found really just terribly interesting from a variety of points of view. I will just say that one other element to studying the subject of great interest to me is the fact that it brings together many different disciplines. It’s not just political sciences. Its law, history, public health, health and medicine, criminology, and I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to examine these other kinds of areas.

    Joseph Popcun 4:17

    That’s great. And thank you very much. One of the things that I was doing before the podcast was looking up your TED talks from 2014 and 2015. You went through a series of old laws that were on the books and really challenged the assumption that gun rights and gun laws are always in conflict and always a zero sum game, which I think is fascinating. So, we’re talking today a little bit because over the past 170 days, five months, we’ve been dealing with the COVID-19 public health emergency and then in the midst of this crisis, you have the police involved death of George Floyd, which ignited civil unrest and hundreds of protests calling for police reform and social justice reform. Coinciding with this heightened state of affairs, I think there’s been three significant developments or trends in firearm activity. One is the record increases in gun sales. The second is recorded increases in shootings and firearm involved deaths. And then finally, the growing symbolic use of guns and protests and counter protests, both to the government’s pandemic response but also to the calls for police reform through those protests. Given those type of dynamics, starting with the first trend of increases in gun sales, what do you think is the primary motivator for this surge in sales? And what if anything does it mean for the issue of gun policy in politics?

    Robert Spitzer 5:44

    There are a couple of things going on with the surge in gun sales. And indeed, there has been quite a spike in gun sales. On the other hand, when you look at this in the longer term, it’s not clear to me that this is quite as dramatic as the immediate numbers seem to suggest, partly because we know that most gun sales generally tend to involve people who already own guns and who are buying more guns. The average number of guns per owner has increased dramatically. Back in the 1960s, the average gun owner owned about two and a half guns. These days, the average gun owner owns more than eight guns. Simply on that basis, that at least, in part, explains the uptick in gun sales. Now there is more going on. I think the related phenomenon is a rise in insecurity. For some Americans, one answer to insecurity or unrest is buying a gun. Most Americans don’t respond that way but some do. There are certainly some new gun owners among those who are purchasing guns, and they are clearly buying into the sense that buying a gun is a way to protect themselves and was a reasonable thing to do. Of course, people have the right to buy guns as long as they’re not a convicted felon or in other prohibited categories. So I would take it as one symptom of insecurity and also the challenges that law enforcement have faced throughout the country. I think that’s the other part of this equation. I would not suggest, and I do not mean to say that law enforcement haven’t made mistakes, haven’t had racism problems, I think they clearly have. But by the same token, I think there’s also a sense that perhaps police are weakened or on the defensive these days, and that might embolden some people or spur some people to buy guns thinking more about protecting themselves rather than just calling 911. So I think those factors come together to help explain the upsurge in gun purchases.

    Joseph Popcun 7:54

    That’s interesting. I think as time goes on, it’d be great to explore a little bit of the, to your point, demographic differences, the regional differences in these gun purchases, and particularly where they’re concentrated. If it is really with the gun owners who already have two to eight firearms on average. On the second trend of increased shootings and deaths, there’s been a lot of reports about the causes and consequences, and those are being debated by public officials but also within the press. A lot of the explanations range from increased trafficking of illegal firearms. I think there’s been a lot of reports about people buying firearms in one state and then trafficking them to other states and selling them for resale. There’s been a lot of talk about associations with rises in other crimes, including increases in drug sales was cited in a few press articles. Then there’s another body of thought that there’s decreased available resources within the community to deescalate these community disputes. The COVID-19 public health emergency obviously has put a strain on both state and local government agencies and resources, but it’s also disrupted community-based organizations who typically would be out in the field doing their work to resolve disputes. Then finally, I think, there’s just the general correlations with increased economic hardship, whenever there’s a downturn, it exacerbates the existing persistent poverty that exists within certain communities. You’re talking a little bit about the public discourse on recent violence, do you think that this is an increase that is an otherwise brief interruption into what has been an otherwise downward decline? Or is it something that’s different or it might be around for a while as a new and emerging facet of crime involving firearms?

    Robert Spitzer 9:48

    It’s early to, I think, predict whether this recent uptick in crime and in violent crime is the harbinger of a longer-term uptick. I’m inclined to think the answer is no. But there are many people who study those questions who have better data and information and insight than I do. I mean, we’ll obviously see as the months go by, but given that it seems very closely tied to a very specific current event, it does suggest that when that subsides, as it will sooner or later, that the increase in crime will also decrease. After all, that’s been a trend spanning nearly 30 years now. It’s important to remind people that crime in all categories, including violent crime and murder, had been steadily declining for the last 30 years. We have seen an uptick in the last couple, three years perhaps, at least in some places in the moderate and that’s a matter of great concern. But as to the specific circumstances of right now, I would mention one other factor that comes into play, which is concerns about interpersonal and familial violence. People are at home more than ever and there were predictions, and they seem to be coming true at least in some degree, that there’s been a rise in family violence, violence between partners, between couples, within families. Given the fact that there are more guns circulating that means that it’s more likely that guns may play a role in that and therefore a more lethal role. The stresses and strains on families undoubtedly are exacerbating serious violence and also deaths as well. There have been some reports about them and some evidence to suggest that that indeed has been happening. Increase in drug trafficking, and I would add a point I made earlier, which is a sense or a belief that the police are on the defensive, that they are overmatched with what’s going on right now and that this could be opportunistic to some degree. And that, I think, would bring in the question of drug trafficking, gang activity, that sort of thing, taking off in at least in some places. I think all of those things are coming together to push up the murder rate. It doesn’t seem to be uniform by any means. It seems to be happening more significantly in some places than others. It has increased in New York City and that’s notable not just because New York City is the largest city in America, but because New York City has consistently witnessed an ever downward slope of murder, which is certainly a good thing. Only quite recently has those numbers begun to go back up. That, of course, is a matter of great concern. But I think these factors are coming together to push the murder rate up. Guns are critically important to that, because it’s important to remember that something called the instrumentality effects. That is the fact that when you have a gun in a situation, the likelihood of serious injury or death is far greater than for any other kind of weapon that people might use against other human beings, knives, clubs, or anything else. With more guns around, whatever the reason people have for getting them or whatever way they get them, the net result does indeed seem to be an increase in murder. And that’s a matter of great concern.

    Joseph Popcun 13:25

    Absolutely. Do you think, just in general on that point, that there’s likely to be the research community revisiting to a lot of the interventions? I think, to your point, there’s been 30 years of decline in violent crime. Largely along that trajectory, there’s been a lot of research done on what are the available evidence base for certain interventions, whether they’re models of community-based violence interruption work or things like call-ins. Do you think this is a time when researchers will really on the back end of this pandemic start to revisit, potentially evaluate the programs and policies that are out there to see if they still are effective for this in the aftermath of the public health emergency and also for a new generation of people, 30 years being a generational period?

    Robert Spitzer 14:15

    We have seen, I think, in just recent years an increase in research and new lines of inquiry. There’s been a lot of good research published in the last few years. For one example, on the links between gun availability and suicide. That link was already well understood, but I think there’s been some important research that helps us understand better what’s going on there, as one example. The government has also started, at a very small level, refunding gun violence research. That was in last year’s budget and I think we’ll see it in this year’s budget whenever that’s finally ironed out. I think these changing circumstances invite new research. I think it will be and is a priority. I think that will be an opportunity for us to learn more about what’s going on now and what the relationship is between long-term factors and factors that are unique to the current moment.

    Joseph Popcun 15:17

    Thank you. So on the third and more nebulous topic that we’ve seen as a trend after the COVID-19 public health emergency, there’s been the prominent use of firearms and protests and counterprotests. I think, really, there’s two symbols or two images that come to my mind. One is the nation saw protesters with assault weapons overwhelm the Michigan State Capitol in opposition to the governor’s COVID-19 shutdown orders. And then a few weeks later, we witnessed a couple aiming firearms from their lawn at protesters who had assembled nearby. These images and really the symbol behind them have now entered the public consciousness. What was your reaction to these images, and then as a researcher, did they strike you as uncharacteristic about America’s relationship with firearms.

    Robert Spitzer 16:04

    In recent times, the gun has become a more expressly political symbol. One indicator of that is the fact that gun sales in recent years have been tied very specifically to political events, to the presidential election cycle, to some mass shootings when gun sales spiked. That happened after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, for example. And that’s not something we’ve really seen in the past. Certainly there is a political aura or political symbolism attached to firearms, especially in the modern gun debate. What we’re seeing now, I think, is a much closer link between these two things. Indeed, we are seeing protests in a number of state capitals around the country by protesters who were objecting to new regulations and restrictions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic response by the government. Some of those protesters were carrying guns because they considered it their right because it’s a way to make a political statement. And I think partly because it is intimidating, though they might be reluctant to admit that. But armed protesting seems very much more a part of the social fabric and the political fabric right now, partly because gun owners feel, I think, more besieged. This is part of the messaging that gun owners continue to get that the government is on the verge of taking their guns away and depriving them of their rights and other things. There’s been so much hysteria surrounding or as a part of that rhetoric, that I think it has encouraged and cultivated this more extreme action. I think it is a concern precisely because the presence of firearms, even if the intention is not a violent one, can too easily lead to violence. We’ve seen a couple of instances of shootings that have occurred at what were otherwise supposed to be peaceful political protests. I think the protesters would argue that this is part of a long American tradition. There is some truth to that. But I think in the modern context that is being inflated and is much more a part of the current politicization of our politics, but specifically, of the gun debate and gun owners feeling that this is a thing they need to be doing right now. I think it is a new twist on the introduction of guns to the process of political protest. People also do this in part, they claim, for defense purposes. We have seen some gun displays by people who said they were defending their homes or their properties against protesters, even though the facts didn’t seem to support their claims. Nevertheless, this is part of the ethos of having a gun and using it for defensive purposes. Part of the complexity is that in fact difficult to disentangle defense from offense with a firearm, you can claim that you’re using it for defensive purposes, but to those around you, it looks like an act of offense. It replicates something that I talked about in the last chapter of my book, The Politics of Gun Control, first published 25 years ago, where I brought in some international relations theory to try and explain and understand the American domestic gun issue. I think the current situation supports the principle of using principles from international relations to better understand what’s going on now. One of those principles is that nations take actions that they believe to be defensive in nature to defend themselves, but yet are perceived as offensive in nature. That in turn, prompts potential enemies to engage in actions in reprisal. This leads to escalation and often to outbreaks of violence between nations. I think that kind of analysis applies very much to what’s going on right now with some protests.

    Joseph Popcun 20:25

    Do you think that those type of protests and in the commingling of gun rights with government protests against particularly pandemic response activities? I think we now see 30 or more states with a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the state governments are contemplating lockdowns again in a lot of localities. Do you think this is something that’s going to continue to reemerge so long as we’re in this public health emergency or was it something that happened very early on and the point has been made?

    Robert Spitzer 20:58

    I have not noticed in recent weeks, the kind and degree of activity with respect to protests and gun carrying that we saw a couple of months ago, let’s say. Partly, I think it is because the reality of the pandemic has really come home to roost, so to speak, in states where we have seen some of this gun carrying and part of what was connected with that is the belief that the pandemic was not as serious as people were saying or perhaps was a hoax or other things. Yet, it’s abundantly clear that those things aren’t true, precisely because of the massive rise in infections in states that didn’t have them before. So I think the reality of the virus and the fact that the country is finally coming to understand that the government must take more severe actions to restrict the spread of the virus in the way that for example, New York State has done successfully. New York State went from being the highest infection rate state to the lowest and that was because of following pretty strictly the policies that medical professionals recommend and that many states have ignored or not treated seriously. I think the point has been made by the gun carriers to some degree, but also the reality of the virus, I think, is causing more people to realize that these things simply have to be done. At some point, this virus will subside. When it does then the pressure, I think, will be relieved.

    Joseph Popcun 22:37

    Turning gears a little bit, in the midst of all of this public health emergency, things are continuing in the political sphere and also in the sphere of the Supreme Court. There were a number of, I believe, 10 gun rights cases, that were on the docket for the Supreme Court. Then in June, it was announced that they weren’t going to be hearing any of those cases. Given the fact that there’s two newer justices now, were you surprised that they had reached the decision to not hear any new cases, just in general?

    Robert Spitzer 23:10

    I began the year 2020 with the belief that the Supreme Court was poised to take on one or more gun cases, they have denied certiorari for close to 100 cases over the last 10 years, with one or two very narrow exceptions. Given the current makeup of the court, I had assumed that the Supreme Court was going to take a gun case and was prepared to significantly expand the definition of gun rights beyond the standard set in the 2008 case of DC vs. Heller. What happened was something different. The swing justice, as of course many people know, turned out to be Chief Justice John Roberts. And while Roberts clearly is sympathetic to the gun rights side, it seemed, I think what we have learned, that he was not prepared to join the four other conservative justices in issuing rulings that would significantly expand gun rights. As a consequence, they decided against accepting these gun cases rather than hear one or more of them and produce a ruling that didn’t materially increase gun rights. That doesn’t mean that Chief Justice Roberts has suddenly become a liberal or a closet liberal or that he’s abandoned his responsibilities. There’s been some really silly writing about Judge Justice Roberts about this. People who are simply unhappy that the court hasn’t done what many expected them to do. I just think Roberts is trying to walk a delicate line in terms of how to navigate this issue. One element of this, I think, is the fact that as the old saying goes, the Supreme Court does keep an eye on the election returns. The public is more supportive of stronger gun laws than ever. We are seeing an upsurge in gun violence. So given that political reality and given the argument I would make, which is that, I think, the Heller decision, now it’s been over 10 years, has, I think, found roughly a reasonable place to sit in American jurisprudence that does manage to balance the gun rights, gun regulations, seesaw, although it ought not to be viewed as a seesaw, I think. I don’t think we’re in any dire legal situation right now where the court must resolve the issues that some would like it to resolve. But I think Justice Roberts really, I think, was the pivotal figure in the court winding up not hearing these 10 cases. That doesn’t mean that the court’s not going to be doing anything more on the issue. But I think for the short term, at least, it’s pretty clear that they’re going to be turning aside any other cases that might come their way on this issue.

    Joseph Popcun 26:15

    Yes, precisely to your point. I think Justice Kavanaugh had wrote that the court should address that issue soon in one of his dissenting or concurring in the dismissal. We had talked before a little bit about different policy areas and gun control being different than other different policies. Do you think that the court, because of the same factors you’ve outlined, given the societal changes, is likely to take a more conservative approach to other policy domains for the foreseeable future? Or do you think that they’re doing a balancing test themselves to say, “Okay, let’s see where the public is going to be and where the lower court decisions are going to land”?

    Robert Spitzer 26:59

    I think to a great degree, because the leadership of Chief Justice Roberts, they have been walking somewhat carefully on or treading carefully on a number of controversial issues, although on others, I think they had been indisputably swinging to the conservative side. Some of those cases, I think, have received less attention. But I would trace that back to the two constitutional challenges to the Affordable Care Act earlier this past decade. Where here again, Justice Roberts was the swing vote in a five-to-four decision that resulted in upholding the Affordable Care Act. There is a new Affordable Care Act challenge right now in the courts. I don’t recall offhand just where it sits, but Roberts’ decision or his role in those two cases, I think, upset conservatives quite a bit. But here, I think he was, again, trying to walk a fine line between striking the Affordable Care Act down outright, which would have immediately taken health care away from over 20 million Americans. In just purely policy terms would have been, I think, a disastrous outcome. But it’s part of the way in which the court, as a whole, has been balancing the prevailing legal conservatism philosophy with the political configuration of the country. I don’t mean to say that the court has become suddenly liberal, because it’s really not. Nor has it finally fallen fully into the lap of the arch conservatives, arguably, it’s not even traditional conservatism. Much will hinge on who the next court appointee will be and when that will be, whether it’s in the near term or the further term. But I think balancing has been the bottom line to where the court has been, and the gun cases illustrate a kind of balancing act right now.

    Joseph Popcun 29:08

    That makes sense. Finally, the New York attorney general recently announced a lawsuit against the NRA, the National Rifle Association, which you wrote about in the Washington Post recently. Why do you think this lawsuit is different than any others that have been filed against the NRA? And then kind more broadly, how might this change the advocacy landscape of gun rights in our country?

    Robert Spitzer 29:33

    The lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James is a huge broadside aimed specifically at the NRA. While some people dismiss her actions as political grandstanding, in New York State, the attorney general is an elected job and she’s a Democrat and she’s a liberal. She was speaking against the NRA when she was campaigning for the position. But that doesn’t mean that the case is without merit, it is not possible to read the 160+ page lawsuit from the Attorney General’s Office without coming away with a jaw-dropping sense of incredible corruption and misuse of funds and sweetheart contracts, and top officials using the NRA treasury essentially as a personal checking account. I mean, the degree of corruption is mammoth and it’s been on display. It really was not a surprise when the attorney general’s document came out, but that document goes into much more detail about the mystique. It certainly was a shocking moment, generally, because it calls for the dismantling of the NRA. But people don’t understand that within the confines of New York State, the attorney general has this power. That power was heightened a few years ago in law and similar actions have been taken by the New York Attorney General’s Office against other nonprofits and other organizations that have abused their power, that have plundered their treasuries, and things like that. So her actions are not unprecedented by any means in that respect. It may be a drastic proposed remedy, but we don’t know exactly where this is going to come out. There will certainly will be negotiations between the NRA and the State of New York, and they may result in a less drastic final outcome, because that’s how the legal system typically operates with some kind of plea bargaining going on. But it’s equally clear that the NRA is a severely wounded organization, not just because of this lawsuit, but because of the fact that their treasury has been drained because they’ve been taking money from the NRA Foundation and using it to prop up the organization, which is not a legal use of their funds, because many of their traditional donors have said they’re not going to contribute another nickel to the NRA until Wayne LaPierre, the executive director, is gone. He’s been the chief person involved in absconding with money and using tens of millions of dollars for personal gain, personal spending. The organization could be reformulated, could survive, could eventually come back. It could be disassembled. Gun rights people could gravitate more significantly to other gun organizations. There are a number of kinds of things that could happen. The gun rights community in the country is still there, they still believe in the cause. That’s always been the core strength of the NRA. That’s not gone. Although there is, I think, finally now some cynicism even among traditional members that the organization has been badly managed. And frankly, Leticia James is on the side of the NRA members because their dues are being squandered and pilfered and taken strictly against any standard of law and propriety. I think in the current election environment, despite the claims of the NRA, that it’s going to spend tens of millions of dollars in the upcoming election, I don’t think they have those kind of resources. I don’t think they’re going to have anything like the influence they did in 2016. But the movement is certainly not dead by any stretch of the imagination. Whether the NRA comes back as a new organization or remains itself and writes a new charter or some other version of that, certainly the gun rights movement will continue. It’ll be a big voice, but I think they’re in a seriously wounded situation right now. And mostly, it’s strictly their own faults.

    Joseph Popcun 33:47

    In terms of the advocacy landscape that obviously over the past 25 years since your first book came out on gun policy and politics in the United States, there’s been a slow growth in organizations and particularly advocacy organizations that are interested in stricter gun regulations. The Brady Campaign, Everytown, Giffords, there’s a bunch of these large national not-for-profit organizations and the NRA throughout that has been the balance against that. Do you think that with this mismanagement that’s been alleged that it’s likely that we’ll see the advocacy issue start to diminish or start to become less articulate? I think some of the political observers have said that this is going to be a redefining moment for gun rights. But I think a lot of it’s going to be played out. But I’d be curious what you see over the next year or so?

    Robert Spitzer 34:51

    There’s no doubt we have seen a resurgence in a new kind of gun safety movement or organizations supporting stronger gun laws. This really goes back to the early part of this past decade, where the Bloomberg organization reformulated as Everytown for Gun Safety. Gabby Gifford’s organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, and other elements have come together in a way that we’ve not seen in the past. It’s really 2.0 gun safety movement on the rise and they really flexed their muscles, I think, most significantly in the 2018 midterm elections. For the first time in history, they outspent the NRA in a nationwide election, midterm election. They’ve logged a rising number of successes. They have done a number of things in terms of money, in terms of resources, in terms of building grassroots support. The student led movement coming out of the Parkland High School shooting in Florida from 2018, I think, is another harbinger of another force pushing the gun safety agenda more strongly in the country. It has more support among people in America than ever. That really is the other side of the coin. Not only is the NRA weakened, but the gun safety side really has reinvented itself and I think has really surged. The door has already opened for that to persist. Clearly the Democratic Party and the Democratic nominee Joe Biden are strongly embracing a gun safety agenda. The 2020 elections results will tell us a lot in terms of how or whether that will have an effect on governance after the election. But certainly in the states. There has been a lot more action along these lines, more states have been adopting gun safety regulations, such as red flag laws for example, in 20 states. I think that momentum is on their side and the misfortunes of the NRA only seems to me to embolden the gun safety forces to continue and accelerate their agenda, although in the current political moment—the pandemic, the economic crash, Black Lives Matter movement—have to some degree overshadowed those activities.

    Joseph Popcun 37:17

    So Dr. Spitzer, one more question I think, from the Research Consortium perspective, and thank you for offering a brief and presenting in the past as a part of the Consortium, and as a member, we have largely thought about local and state governments being a laboratory for both research efforts, but also the practice of the policies and the programs to reduce gun violence. You just mentioned the red flag laws being new, now 20 states have them. What is your sense of the interplay between local, states, and federal government where the federal government, there really hasn’t been significant action taken up whether it’s in the Supreme Court or in Congress or from the presidency in a meaningful way. Can you just talk a little bit about how local and state governments have filled that void and may continue to fill that void for the foreseeable future?

    Robert Spitzer 38:11

    This is all about federalism. That old dusty concept that puts students to sleep almost immediately. As soon as I mention the word federalism, you can hear the snores arising from the class. Not quite. But this is an exemplar of the federalist system in operation. People who study intergovernmental relations have often pointed out that there’s a fulcrum between the federal government and the states when there’s a rising push for action by the government. And the federal government fails to act, but certainly has been the case with regard to the gun issue in the past decade. The pivot point there was the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, Barack Obama had just been reelected. He suddenly wakes up to the issue, having been reelected pushes Congress to do something. They ultimately failed to act. What happens thereafter is an explosion of action at the state level in virtually every state on gun laws and proposals. Now, certainly some states responded by weakening their gun laws, more conservative states, other states by strengthening them. But it really illustrates quite clearly how failure of the federal government to act in an area where the public is pushing for change, fans the flames of action at the state level. We may be at a point now, the fall elections will tell, where we may see the federal government jump back into the gun issue in a bigger way. That is part of this ongoing dynamic process. But it really is important to point out, state action receives often less attention than federal government action. To some degree, this is happening beneath the radar screens of many. But it illustrates how this dynamic relationship between the federal government and the states can respond to public pressures. In a way, I think that is certainly good. Even though it’s a clumsy and an inefficient way for policy change to occur.

    Joseph Popcun 40:13

    Dr. Spitzer, thank you so much for your time, really appreciate you joining us, on behalf of the Rockefeller Institute and the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium.

    Robert Spitzer 40:20

    It was great to speak with you.

    Alexander Morse 40:30

    Thanks again to Joe Popcun and Dr. Robert Spitzer for coming on today’s show to discuss the current state of gun violence and gun policy. I encourage you to check out the Rockefeller Institute’s Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium by visiting rockinst.org/gun-violence and keeping up with the latest information by following the Consortium account on Twitter, @RockGunResearch. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at Rockinst.org or by following RockefellerInst social media. Have a question or comment or idea? Email us at [email protected].

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