Closing the ‘gun show loophole’: Failure to Gain Policy Traction

The previous blog post discussed the legislative changes made after the Virginia Tech shooting as they pertain to mental health monitoring. Following these changes, claimants then began to describe the initial response to the shooting as inadequate. For instance, a TIME article published in April 2008 claimed that “the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by people who are not technically mentally ill” and so “sharing mental health data is not a comprehensive solution.” Conversely, the main issue trying to be pushed by the news media was ‘closing the gun show loophole’ in Congress. This post will discuss the reasons why this policy proposal failed to gain any traction following the Virginia Tech shooting.
Feature article writers surmised about the possibility that, had the mental health loophole not been in place in state law, the Virginia Tech shooter could have circumvented restrictions anyway by purchasing firearms from a gun show. The selections of voices utilised by the news media were relatives of survivors and those killed in the Virginia Tech shooting, with one stating “We are begging the Senate to pass this bill”; a Virginia Tech survivor and activist, Colin Goddard, tried to highlight this issue by himself going to gun shows in Texas, Ohio and Virginia and testing their system. Interest groups specialising in gun violence prevention, such as Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, were ‘selected’ and made their points that ‘easy access’ to firearms was facilitated by the ‘big loophole’ where private dealers can circumvent background checks. There was even a feature article written by a relative of a girl killed during the shooting, which made this point: “I look back over the past 1,097 days since my sister died and wonder how it is still legal for criminals and people with serious mental illness to buy guns without passing a background check.” He carried out a similar experiment to Colin Goddard and was able to purchase ten guns in less than an hour with no background check or identification needed: “It was as easy as buying a bag of chips at a grocery store; simple cash and carry.”
Adhering to the ‘elite dissensus but policy certainty within the executive’ scenario of Robinson’s (2002) model — where the news media puts pressure on the government to change but to no avail — political actors reshaped the debate away from the prospect of gun regulation. (1) At the time of the Virginia Tech shooting, there seemed to be the perception that any form of gun regulation would equate to political failure, particularly in key swing ‘purple’ states like Florida. What transpired after Virginia Tech was that Democrats were said to be ‘silent’ on this issue and, when they did respond, they adopted similar stances to Republicans. For instance, Rahm Emanuel, previously a top aide to Clinton and who had pushed the assault weapons ban, stated: “There are successful laws [already] on the books. They have to be enforced.” This is a way, therefore, for politicians to ‘take action’ to tackle gun violence, without any implementing anything.
Tracing the lack of action back to its origins, prior to Virginia Tech, there was a political climate where Democrats were reluctant to take any action on guns and instead proclaimed their support for gun owners’ rights. In their analysis of post 9/11 news frames, a study by Schnell and Callaghan found that there has been a shift to ‘pro-gun’ sentiment that attempts to deride existing gun regulations. (2) It, therefore, seems that the reason why the media-policy relationship fit the ‘elite dissensus but policy certainty within executive’ state as specified by Robinson’s (2002) model was the political climate at the point in time when Virginia Tech occurred.

[This post was put together by critically assessing a sample of feature articles published up to five years after the Virginia Tech shooting. Relevant studies informed the analysis. The next blog post will focus on the Dunblane Primary School shooting on its twentieth anniversary.]

(1) Robinson, P. (2002) The CNN Effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. London, New York: Routledge.
(2) Schnell, Frauke and Karen Callaghan. (2005) ‘Terrorism, Media Frames and Framing Effects: A Macro and Micro Level Analysis.’ In Karen Callaghan and Frauke Schnell. Framing American Politics. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 123-147.

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