Kristin Goss is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University and author of Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America. She spoke about the issue of gun control in light of the mass shootings at Virginia Tech.

It seems that every time something like this happens, there’s a conversation about gun control that quickly dies away.

That’s true and it’s not true. It’s true that after Columbine, Congress didn’t end up passing any new gun laws. But several states did, including Colorado and Oregon, both scenes of mass shootings.

Congress does sometimes react in response to these events. Not always, and certainly not with any bold gun control proposal or bills. The groundwork for our modern-day gun laws was laid in 1968 with the passage of the Gun Control Act. Congress had been debating and holding hearings on that legislation for years, but the political catalyst was the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The Brady bill came in 1993 after about a six- or seven-year epidemic of youth gun violence, mostly in urban areas, and the mass shooting in 1989 on the elementary school playground in Stockton, Calif.

National gun control leaders have always been ambivalent about the utility of state and local laws, and that’s understandable. Guns and bad guys flow easily across jurisdictional boundaries, so there is logic in having a national standard.

In a recent opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, you wrote that it is a “dangerous assumption” to think we can understand this crime if we only knew more about the killer. Why?

Don’t get me wrong. Individual cases can spotlight and call attention to holes in our legal regime and our laws. But any event, such as a mass shooting, can be interpreted in many different ways. You’ll hear some people say that this case is really about our immigration policies, others that this is about our mental health system, others that this is about violence in the media, others that this is about lax gun laws. Focusing on the stories of individual perpetrators takes our attention away from the patterns that might actually be a better basis for informing our policy.

But school shootings are rare, so how much of a pattern is there?

There are a lot of mass shootings in work places and other public spaces. If we understand the Virginia Tech case to be some sort of shortcoming of the mental health system on college campuses, we may come up with a policy that doesn’t respond at all to mass shootings in other settings, to the causal factors of both shootings.

What are those?

That’s a really interesting debate. I think we have made a tradeoff in this country, that with the liberty we afford to individuals we’re going to accept a certain amount of violence. I don’t know that that tradeoff has been made consciously, but it is certainly in place in our public policy. There are those on the gun rights side who would say that we need more guns, that that would make us safer and create more stability. But it’s also true that we have hundreds of millions of guns and we certainly have, by international standards, a very high gun-violence rate.

There is widespread popular support among Americans for stricter gun control laws, yet the Democratic political establishment has largely abandoned this issue. Why?

Politicians tend to be risk averse because they’re always looking to the next election. After Al Gore lost the electionthe electoral collegein 2000, a lot of people attributed that to losing a few swing states like Tennessee over the gun-control issue. I have seen no evidence to prove this is so, but it kind of doesn’t matter, because that came to be the commonly held belief of the Democratic Party. You saw John Kerry in 2004 donning an orange vest and going goose hunting, and he lost. Nonetheless, the Democrats stuck with the avoid-guns strategy. That was a core tenet of their 2006 strategy for taking back Congress, and when they did, it was as if that strategy had been validated.