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.
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.