Newsletter: Essential Politics: Do mass shootings affect young voters?

Aaliyah Band places a bracelet in front of Uziyah Garcia's photo, one of the victims killed in last week's school shooting
Aaliyah Band places a bracelet in front of a photo of Uziyah Garcia, 10, one of the 21 victims killed in last week’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

I was 18, sitting on the floor of a dorm room on May 23, 2014, frantically texting friends to find out if they were alive.

A shooter was raging through Isla Vista, the mostly student community neighboring UC Santa Barbara, where I went to school. It was a Friday night, and the girls’ dorms were a blur of crop tops and lipstick, bubbling with the anticipation of a good time. Until the sirens.

The building fell silent, and soon the dorm’s fluorescent lights felt stifling. Through the open door, I could hear the resident advisor walking up and down the hall, telling us to “stay put, stay calm.” It was like being in the eye of a storm: We were still, but calamity surrounded us.

Six students were slain. The days after were filled with a familiar chorus of “never again.”

But it’s happened many times since.

Exactly eight years and one day after the Isla Vista shooting, as I scrolled through posts memorializing that tragedy, I read about the latest one: young lives stolen in a classroom in Uvalde, Texas. This followed two other recent tragedies — 10 Black grocery shoppers massacred in Buffalo, N.Y., and a worshipper killed and five others wounded in a shooting at a Laguna Woods church.

What does this seemingly endless onslaught of mass shootings do to us as a society? What does it mean for young voters, growing up amid mass shootings and lagging government response?

Hello, friends. Welcome to Essential Politics. I’m Anumita Kaur, a reporter with the L.A. Times. I’m helming this newsletter with your usual guide, Erin B. Logan. Today, we will explore the emotional toll of multiple mass shootings on the communities where they occur and how a generation of young voters views its leaders, who seem to be able to do nothing to stop the crisis.

How mass shootings affect communities

First, mass shootings can have devastating consequences beyond those who were killed or wounded.


“Mass shootings have such an impact on all of us,” said Aparna Soni, an assistant professor at American University who studied the effects of mass shootings on surrounding communities. “Mass shootings reduce the overall wellbeing of people in the whole community, and they have these spillover societal costs above and beyond the emotional toll that the victims and their families experience.”

According to Soni’s research, there’s a 27% decline in “community wellbeing” among residents in the county in which a shooting has taken place — this includes residents’ feelings of safety, pride and belonging. There’s also a 15% decline in residents’ emotional wellbeing. The trauma lasts for months after the event. The most deadly of shootings — those that have 10 or more victims — “affect outcomes even more,” particularly for emotional well-being, Soni said.

So far, there has not been comprehensive research on mass shootings’ impact on the nation’s overall well-being. Soni said there is little doubt, however, that the repeated massacres are changing our national psyche. “The social costs of mass shootings are just much larger than previously estimated,” Soni said.

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How these shootings affect young voters

It’s changing the political landscape, too.

Firearms were the leading cause of death among young people in the U.S.

In 2020, firearm-related injury overtook car accidents to become the primary cause of death for Americans ages 1-19. Nearly two thirds of the 4,368 killed by gunfire were homicide victims. In 2021, there were at least 34 school shootings, according to Education Week.

Active shooter drills are now standard in over 95% of U.S. public schools, signaling to young people that, like earthquakes or tornadoes, mass shooting events are inevitable.

It all adds up to this: The threat posed by shootings is ever present in the minds of many young people and has changed the way they think about voting and their government, experts say.

The shootings and their aftermaths have led younger voters to more closely identify with the Democratic party, experts say, but they remain frustrated that Congress has done little to address it.

Young voters feel that each shooting goes through a typical cycle: Democrats and gun control advocates demand legislation to regulate the use and sale of guns. Republicans, the National Rifle Assn. and other gun enthusiasts offer thoughts and prayers to the victims’ families and seek to put the focus on mental health and other issues, not firearms. Congress ends up doing nothing. Everyone moves on. Then the next shooting happens — rinse and repeat.

Congressional inaction, in particular, can frustrate and depress voter turnout, saidJohn Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.

“But it’s also a prime example of why politics matters,” Volpe said.

The shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., for example, showed that these horrific events can mobilize young voters. Survivors demanded action from state and local officials. Within weeks of the shooting, Florida legislators enacted new gun restrictions.

Young people also pushed for nationwide reform, and their protests and demands for reform were “a key driver of the historic youth turnout in 2018,” Volpe said.

The politics of the Ulvade shooting have yet to fully play out, and public outrage over the deaths may be somewhat scrambling the political calculus for Republicans in Washington. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has “encouraged” top Republicans to work with Democrats on potential legislation in response to the shooting.

Republican leadership made similar gestures after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in 2012, and nothing came of it. So, we will see whether this round of negotiations yields anything substantial.

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Washington responds to the Uvalde shooting

— President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden visited Uvalde on Sunday to meet and console the families of victims and survivors of the shooting, Times writers Kevin Rector and Molly Hennessy-Fiske reported. The Justice Department, meanwhile, announced it would conduct an independent review of the local law enforcement response. The review follows revelations that officers waited for about an hour to storm the classrooms where the gunman had barricaded himself, despite the fact that children inside were calling 911 begging for help.

— Democrats’ first attempt at responding to the back-to-back mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde failed in the Senate on Thursday as Republicans blocked a domestic terrorism bill that would have opened debate on difficult questions surrounding hate crimes and gun safety, the Associated Press reported. The final vote was 47 to 47, well short of the 60 needed to take up the bill. All Republicans voted against it.

The view from Washington

—Marking the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Biden last week signed an executive order to reform federal policing practices, Times writer Eli Stokols reported. Activists have hoped for more substantive police reform from Biden and Congress. But slow, incremental progress may not be enough to convince Black voters that Biden has delivered on his campaign promises to reform police forces, enact voting rights legislation and reduce racial inequities.

—The Supreme Court is heading into the final weeks of a term that may reveal the full impact of its newly dominant conservative bloc, Times writer David G. Savage reported. The justices have 33 remaining cases to be decided by the end of June or the first week in July. The issues include abortion, guns, religion and climate change. In years past, the end-of-term rush often featured a mix of conservative and liberal rulings.

— Despite a major U.S. lobbying effort, the president of Mexico hinted strongly that he will not attend the Summit of the Americas next month because the Biden administration has refused to invite a trio of leftist governments, Times writers Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sanchez reported. The White House has made it clear it will not invite Venezuela or Nicaragua, because those countries’ authoritarian leaders do not represent the model of democracy. U.S. officials also said initially they would not invite Cuba, then suggested they might welcome a “low level” delegation; Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said earlier this week he would not attend. Mexico is arguably the most important Latin American participant in the upcoming high-stakes regional summit next month in Los Angeles, which administration officials have said will include a special focus on immigration.

The view from California

— Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday said he tested positive for the coronavirus, Times writer Louis Sahagún reported. In accordance with local and state health guidelines, Newsom, 54, will remain in isolation at least through Thursday, his press office said. Newsom will test for the virus prior to leaving isolation, as outlined in the state’s new SMARTER plan, a seven-part strategy that includes continued reliance on vaccinations, masks and testing, his office said.

—The weekend arrest of Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), on suspicion of driving under the influence came after the Porsche he was driving was hit by another vehicle in wine country, the Associated Press reported. Paul Pelosi, 82, was taken into custody late Saturday night in Napa County, according to a sheriff’s office online booking report. He was driving a 2021 Porsche into an intersection near the town of Yountville and was hit by a 2014 Jeep, the California Highway Patrol said. No injuries were reported, and the 48-year-old driver of the Jeep was not arrested.

—It is possible but highly unlikely that the winner of Los Angeles’ mayoral race will be decided in the June primary, Times writers Julia Wick and David Zahniser reported. Over the last century, no new mayor has won outright during a primary election. The battle to occupy the top seat at City Hall has looked like a two-person race between billionaire first-time candidate Rick Caruso and Rep. Karen Bass for months. Councilmember Kevin de León, a prominent local politician, has trailed Caruso and Bass in recent polling.

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