Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

What would it take to start a gun control debate in the US?

2012 has been a bad year for gun violence in the United States. Yesterday, Thomas Caffall, apparently distraught about being evicted from him home in College Station, Texas, shot and killed a Brazos County constable and a bystander. Earlier this month, white supremacist Wade Michael Page entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and killed or wounded 10 worshippers. And less than a month ago, James Holmes opened fire during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises”, killing or wounding 70 in Aurora, Colorado. Earlier this year, Ian Stawicki shot 7 people in a café in Seattle, Washington, and One L. Goh killed or injured 10 when he attacked students at Oikos University in Oakland, California.

Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan have compiled a map and timeline of mass shootings for Mother Jones, counting incidents where at least 4 people are killed. (By their criteria, yesterday’s shooting in Texas, while tragic, is not a mass killing.) Reviewing their data, 2012 is the worst year for mass shootings in recent memory, with 4 incidents responsible for 97 deaths and injuries. 2009 also had 4 mass shootings with 77 dead and injured, and the 12 month period from April 2007 (the Virginia Tech shooting) through March 2008 included 111 killed or injured in five incidents. In other words, 2012 is horrific, but not unprecedented.

The Mother Jones story points out that there have been 60 mass murders in the US since 1982. The vast majority – more than three quarters – of weapons used in the shootings were obtained legally by the killers. This last point is an important one. It’s not uncommon for gun rights advocates to argue that gun control is a law enforcement matter – that preventing the more than 11,000 annual firearm homicides in the US is a matter of keeping criminals from obtaining guns illegally. In the case of mass killings, it’s clear that better law enforcement could not have prevented these tragedies – we would need to change our firearms laws.

A few days ago, I had dinner with some old friends and we found ourselves talking about gun control in the United States. One friend, originally from Bangladesh, found it unbelievable that two mass shootings within a month wouldn’t spark meaningful debate in the US about gun control. The other three of us, all born in the US, agreed… but argued that there was no chance these two tragic incidents would meaningfully shift the national conversation.

My main interest as a media scholar is “agenda setting” – what topics enter our media and our national debate, and which remain off the table. Elected officials have an agenda-setting role, choosing to speak about some issues and not others, as does the media, when it entertains a topic like the validity of Obama’s birth certificate ad nauseum.

I’m deeply influenced by the ideas of Daniel Hallin (Jay Rosen offers an excellent introduction to his work on agenda setting), who suggests that media coverage of political ideas sorts those ideas into three spheres: consensus, legitimate controversy and deviance. We don’t bother arguing about consensus ideas: democracy is good, free markets allocate resources better than central governments. Other ideas are too “far out” to be considered: reallocating wealth so that there’s a much smaller gap between rich and poor is exiled into the sphere of deviance by being labeled “socialism”. What remains between these spheres – not too widely accepted, nor to radical to consider – is what dominates newspaper headlines and the Sunday talk shows.

One implication of Hallin’s theory is that you can often achieve political change not by winning an argument in the sphere of legitimate controversy, but by keeping your ideas in the sphere of consensus and your opponents’ in the sphere of deviance. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announces in the wake of the Aurora shootings, “…this is just not the appropriate time to be grandstanding about gun laws. Can we at least get through the initial grief and tragedy for these families?”, we should read his apparent compassion, in part, as an attempt to keep gun control out of the sphere of legitimate controversy.

This theory also helps explain why the NRA fights all attempts to limit firearm ownership, including apparently common-sense legislation like a proposed ban on high-capacity magazines for pistols. If the NRA finds itself debating how many bullets a handgun should be allowed to hold for reasonable self-defense purposes, gun control has entered the sphere of legitimate controversy. Better to fight any attempts to restrict weapon sales as an assault on the Second Ammendement and keep all talk of control in the sphere of deviance.

If elected officials, advocacy organizations and media “gatekeepers” fought for control of agenda setting twenty years ago, the battle now includes individuals who produce and consume media, “the people formerly known as the audience”, to use Dan Gillmor’s term. Bloggers and other social media users have figured out that they can create media that questions ideas in the sphere of consensus, at advocates for ideas in the sphere of deviance. Most of the time, these ideas get ignored; sometimes they get amplified and end up influencing policy. Yochai Benkler uses the term “the network public sphere” to refer to the media environment that includes and is influenced by bloggers and others, and sees the successful fight against SOPA/PIPA as evidence that the general public can change political agendas despite a process that all too often appears captured by lobbyists and corporate interests.

There’s another form of agenda setting powers individuals have: aggregated interest. One of the reasons that media outlets cover reality television star and existential philosopher Kim Kardashian is that we appear to have an insatiable appetite for stories about her. News websites can and do monitor the traffic to each story they run and some optimize their content to ensure we get more coverage of what we collectively show interest in. If we collectively decided we were no longer interested in Kim Kardashian, she would disappear – not necessarily corporeally, but as a focus of media attention. If we showed as much interest in gun control as in reality TV, it’s likely we’d see more press coverage of the topic.

A blunt but effective tool to measure aggregated interest is Google Trends, which shows how popular a search is on Google over the course of weeks or months. A search on Google Trends for “gun control” shows a peak in interest in that search topic over the past few weeks, while the Aurora shooting has dominated the news. It’s not the highest peak in interest, though – that happened after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. And Google Trends suggests that there roughly as much interest in gun control around the 2004 presidential election as there is was in the wake of Aurora.


Click image to enlarge

I created a simple mashup of two data sets – Google Trends data on “gun control” and data from the Mother Jones researchers on mass shootings. Many mass shootings correlate to surges of interest in “gun control”, but not all. The shootings at Fort Hood, TX in late 2009 were committed by an Army major – it’s unlikely that any gun control proposals on the table would keep arms out of the hands of military personnel. (And it’s likely that the shooting, by a man of Palestinian descent who was in communication with extremist clerics, sparked conversation about controlling the spread of “radical Islam” instead.) But we can see peaks in search interest around the Virginia Tech shootings, a shooting late that year at a mall in Omaha, Nebraska, around the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson Arizona, and now around the shooting in Aurora. (Naunihal Singh’s contention in the New Yorker that the media treated the shootings in Oak Creek with less interest than those in Aurora is echoed in the Google data – there’s no major surge in interest in gun control around the second shooting, while there’s a dramatic peak associated with Aurora.) It’s worth noting that there’s a surge in search interest in “gun control” in November 2008 that doesn’t correlate to any shootings: it appears to be a response to the election of Barack Obama and may reflect a widespread (though misplaced) fear that Obama was likely to pass strong legislation restricting gun ownership.

In other words, Chris Christie is being absurd when he demands that gun control advocates desist from their work in the aftermath of a shooting for using the aftermath of a shooting – this is precisely the moment for advocates to seize, as there simply won’t be nearly as much interest in the topic in a couple of weeks.

It takes an enormous amount of effort to bring a novel issue into the sphere of legitimate debate. One of the reasons Invisible Children generated so much conversation around their Kony2012 video in media cricitism circles is that they did something very, very difficult: took an issue that most Americans didn’t know existed and made it a topic for debate for a few weeks. Raising attention “ex nihilo” is pretty rare (and Invisible Children did it by leveraging a cadre of youth who were paying attention to this issue for months or years). It’s more common to find a phenomenon that’s attracting attention and reframe the issue to suit your advocacy goals.

Trayvon Martin’s parents worked very hard to bring attention to his story once the “news window” had closed. Once the story was the center of widespread media attention, we might have expected a surge of search interest in “gun control”. (Google’s data shows no surge.) Instead, MoveOn.org and other progressive organizations took advantage of the attention to Trayvon and shifted the frame to focus on the American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafted legislation that became Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. ALEC has lost 28 corporate members since the Trayvon case, which suggests that the advocacy campaign was successful. But it’s possible that a campaign against civilian handgun ownership might also have been successful, had advocates attempted to steer attention towards that framing of issues.

Attention to the Aurora and Oak City shootings is turning into advocacy for stronger gun control in some corners of the US. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has announced that curbing gun violence will be a major priority for his next legislative session. New York, however, already has some of the nation’s strongest gun laws, and it’s far from clear that other governors will react in the same way. The Brady Campaign, one of the US’s leading gun control organizations, has announced a campaign to pressure Presidential debate host Jim Lehrer to ask Obama and Romney a question about gun control.

In other words, with 97 dead or injured in mass shootings in 2012, the Brady Campaign recognizes that gun control is so far in the sphere of deviance that it could take a petition campaign to get either Presidential candidate to address the topic. That’s the power of agenda setting.

At our dinner party, the three of us born in the US tried to persuade our Bangladeshi friend that one consolation to the American system is that the principle of state’s rights ensures that some states will be saner on gun control than others, and that Massachusetts has very tough gun laws. (They’re tough enough that I can’t accept a gift of a shotgun – which I use to shoot skeet when in Texas – from my father-in-law until I complete a 16 hour hunter education course. And, inconvenient as this is, I think it’s a good policy.)

Of course, the toughness of those state laws is under attack as well. “Concealed-carry reciprocity” is a major legislative priority for the NRA, which seeks to ensure that a person licensed to conceal a handgun in a state with loose gun restrictions can do so in states with stricter laws. Writing in Businessweek, Paul Barrett predicts that this issue will come up in the Vice Presidential debate, as Paul Ryan is a supporter of reciprocity legislation. So perhaps we can hope for debate about gun control in the US… but the debate is likely to be about less control, not more.

17 Responses to “What would it take to start a gun control debate in the US?”

  1. Matt says:

    Great post. I need to point out the obvious here, which you already hinted at: the lack of any changes or even expectation of changes to our more cavalier gun laws is a direct result of the NRA’s political dominance. They are very, very well funded, and also have a huge membership base. Some of that money and membership comes from providing useful direct services to members, like gun trainings. But that combination allows them to exert a lot of influence in Congress, where you’ll find yourself on their enemies list even if you agree with them 88% of the time.

  2. Tory II, Illinois says:

    Antigun laws don’t reduce crime or make us safe, they do the opposite, they increase crime and they make us less safe.

    If antigun laws were effective, Chicago and D.C. would’ve been the safest of all cities, they completely banned handguns, and they had many other very restrictive weapon laws. The end result was very high crime rates for both cities.

  3. Sevesteen says:

    One of the problems with ‘honest debate’ about gun control is that honest people will seek out facts and adjust their opinions to match. From talking with people who support gun control, much of their belief is based on mistaken ideas of guns and gun laws, often deliberately encouraged by gun control advocates. Confusion between ‘semi-automatic’ and ‘machine gun’, thinking that dealers at gun shows have different legal requirements than when they are in their shops, that some states give out carry licenses to anyone and those licenses are often abused. Even legislators–look up Carolyn McCarthy’s ‘shoulder thing that goes up’ clip on Youtube.

  4. Robert Cottrell says:

    These three categories of Daniel Halin’s — consensus, legitimate controversy and deviance: Aren’t they really two categories — consensus and legitimate controversy? What is “deviance”, if not the flip-side of “consensus”? Democracy is a consensus value in the US; arguing against it would be deviance. Similarly, if we categorise gun control as a “deviant” argument, that implies there is a consensus against it. It owuld be truer, if less mobilising, to say that gun control already lies within the sphere of “legitimate controversy”, as it surely does, but that it needs to be command broader popular suppoer.

  5. Andrew W says:

    I’d point out that there’s a parallel “local consensus” that’s very much in favor of gun control, so you should include the role of the federal judiciary too.

    For example, D.C. had consensus about gun control, the opposite of the one framed by gun rights advocates. So did Chicago. But District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago overturned that local consensus.

  6. Adrian says:

    When you say:

    “2012 has been a bad year for gun violence in the United States.”

    You mean that 2012 has been a bad year for mass shootings in the United States. I could only find official stats to 2009 but the trend line over the last 20 years for gun violence has been overwhelmingly positive. Mass shootings account for very few homicides in the US compared to the general homicide (handgun, single victim, known relationship). A handful of mass shootings in 2012 will have a very minor effect on gun violence and homicide stats for the year.

    http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/data/table_01.html (firearms are generally two thirds of murders)

  7. Diz Pareunia says:

    We could start by REQUIRING states to participate in the national crazy-people database, which many reportedly don’t do.

  8. Ethan says:

    Adrian, I’m not sure I agree. It’s been a very bad year for gun violence in Chicago, for instance: http://gawker.com/5934608/chicagos-shootings-didnt-happen-in-a-movie-theater-but-its-still-the-worlds-deadliest-city And in general, gun violence in the US is extremely high in comparison to levels of gun violence in other nations. So yes, the anomaly I’m addressing in this piece is a spike in mass shootings, but I’m not so sanguine that gun violence in general is falling sharply.

  9. johne says:

    Including certifiably-insane people in a national database might be a start, but little more than that: most violence is perpetrated by the sane. And worse, many of the mass shootings have been by people with no previous history that would bring them to the attention of authorities, even at the local level. In any case, it is ironic that the supposed rugged individualism embodied in the right to bear arms results in more and more Americans being consigned to databases.

    But concern for “the initial grief and tragedy for these families” seems specious on its face: as much as to say, “looking for measures of prevention would only increase the pain of the bereaved.”

  10. Dave Freeze says:

    Part of the problem is that the people who commit these crimes do not get the punishment they deserve. They should be executed with in 6 months of their crime. Maybe this type of punishment might give people reason to think about what they are going to do. Unless you each person in the US followed by someone from someone from a government agency you will never eliminate incidents like these. Control is not the answer, punishment is the answer. Death if you deliberately kill someone. 25 years if you kill someone in fit of rage. 10 years if you accidently kill someone. These sentences should be mandatory.

    The injuries and deaths in Colorado were terrible yes. What if he went down to the local gas station bought five gallons of gas, put a rag into the spout, lit it and threw it into the theatre. Would there be gas control?

    I should be allowed to have as many guns as I would like to own. However the first time I do something illegal with one of my punishment should be quick and harsh.
    Y

  11. Diz Pareunia says:

    BTW, if gang-bangers and other criminals-shooting-criminals are deducted, the statistics look quite different.

  12. Sara Baker says:

    “What would it take to start a gun control debate in the US?”

    Wake up and smell the coffee, Ethan. We’ve been having that debate for decades, and the gun-controllers have consistently been on the losing side. The culmination was the Heller decision.

    That was pretty much “game over,” Ethan. Maybe a future court will offer the gun-controllers a new opportunity to restrict the Second Amendment.

    For now, the debate is over and the door is closed.

  13. Dana Charbonneau says:

    You want to deviate from the natural right of (effective) self defense and the Constitutional protection thereof.

  14. Sevesteen says:

    As far as blogs go, there aren’t all that many real debates, because there are so few on the gun control side willing to actually debate. The Brady Campaign talks about ‘Reasoned Discourse’, but that phrase has become a joke among second amendment advocates–”Started out ok, but reasoned discourse broke out”, meaning that the blog in question either quit accepting comments contrary to their opinions, or shut down commenting altogether.

    So why don’t you host an honest gun control debate? Set some rules, enforce them reasonably fairly, and maybe solicit some help for the gun control side? If you are even halfway fair, you won’t have any problem getting participants from the gun rights side.

  15. michael_pdx says:

    It’s always seemed to me that we ought to be able to distinguish between grandpa’s hunting rifle, and kids with Glocks. The fact that there doesn’t look like much common ground between Ted Nugent and me doesn’t excuse us from trying to find some.

    Suppose we approach responsible gun owners along these lines: We have no problem with guns in the hands of people who are trained and careful about them, but we absolutely need to raise the bar for the privilege of carrying. We need a serious training and licensing program for people who can’t get along without packing, and a zero-tolerance enforcement program for people found with a gun who haven’t demonstrated they can be trusted to carry one. Something like: jail time if you’re found with a gun when you aren’t qualified to hold one.

    Stop right there for a second. Yes, I’m qualifying what some people see as a in the 2nd Amendment. Just like we have historically qualified and clarified every other right outlined in the Consitution. I’m also seriously raising the question: are you really opposed to trying to figure out how to prevent irresponsible, irrational, and sick people from having guns?

    What I have in mind is shifting the conversation a bit to see gun ownership as a right, but one that has such significant consequences that it’s reserved for people who can demonstrate they will be accountable for the sober, responsible exercise of that right. By strengthening the respectability of “good” gun ownership, maybe we could pave the way to a serious effort to limit “bad” gun ownership.

    We do this kind of thing all the time with dangerous technology that civilians do have access to. Consider that you don’t have a right to fly a plane or drive a tractor-trailer just because you feel like it – there’s actually a series of hoops one has to jump through to gain the privilege.

    This is is not a panacea, obviously. There is a flood of guns in the US, and millions of them are in the hands of people who aren’t so good at following rules. So enforcement and implementation would deserve some real thought, and yes, some conversation with pro gun folks (at least the ones who aren’t beyond conversation). But the fact that it wouldn’t get every gun out of the hands of every person likely to do mischief with it in the first 90 days is a pretty weak argument against trying something that could make real headway toward a society where my kids are less likely to get shot dead for no reason.

    Baby steps count here. Part of this was motivated by an article in Harper’s a couple years ago by a left-leaning guy who explored the concealed-carry world for himself, and I was struck by how seriously many gun-lovers take the responsibility. I think we could build on that, appeal to people’s sense of the commonweal and just plain common-sense. Apologies for the repetition, but again: can you really argue against at least TRYING to limit access to guns for people who clearly have no business with one?

    Two other policy thoughts that might be helpful here:

    1) How about a truly hefty tax or deposit (you bring back the casings, and you get your money back) on ammunition? Maybe we’re too focused on the delivery vehicle, and paying more attention to the payload might be a better route.

    2) What about mandatory insurance for every gun, just like you have to insure your car, and for exactly the same reasons? You’d have the same actuarial approach, so an adult with a clean record and training certification would pay a lot less than a 20 year old with a history that indicates he or she is a higher risk. Again, it’s an approach to validating and “professionalizing” gun ownership. Notice too how this re-frames noncompliance: just because some people end up driving without car insurance doesn’t lead us to throw up our hands and say it’s pointless to require it!

  16. Sevesteen says:

    Why do we need to raise the bar for the ‘privilege’ of carrying? People with carry licenses already have an astonishingly low rate of gun misuse-much better than police. The problems we have with gun violence (or violence in general) for the most part aren’t caused by people who are allowed to carry guns, it is people who are already prohibited from carrying. Adding more rules to the law abiding is the same sort of logic that wants to solve drunk driving by lowering the speed limit or raising license plate fees.

    You say you want more training–An ammo tax impacts training by orders of magnitude more than it would misuse. Insurance isn’t going to cover deliberate misuse of guns, again addressing the wrong part of the problem–unless the actual goal of all this is to make gun ownership a hassle.

    Back to mass shootings–If we are looking for evidence-based solutions, there are some very interesting facts to consider. I am unable to find a single case where a civilian defending against a mass shooter injured an innocent. Almost all mass shootings have occurred where carrying guns is illegal. Based on 93 shootings, the average number of people killed in mass shootings when stopped by police is 14.3, while the average number of people killed in a mass shooting when stopped by a civilian is 2.3. (this is likely because speed of response is the most important factor in reducing the victim count, and the armed civilian doesn’t have to wait to be notified then drive across town)

  17. David Freeze says:

    The problem is not gun control,it is enforcing the existing laws. I live in Indiana,recently two men were arrested for murder. Both of them had been convicted of murder, both of them were released after ten years in jail! So much for rehabilitation. Why would should these men have been released?

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