Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Humanisation of Gun Violence Victims

The statement that gun violence is a problem within the United States is irrefutable. The statistic of thirty-two deaths every day from gun violence — the equivalent of an incident like the Virginia Tech University shooting occurring three hundred and sixty-five times — provides evidence of its prevalence. Despite this, it can be difficult for policies aimed at reducing gun violence to gain traction. The ‘human interest approach’ to gun violence is one way to persuade people of the significance of the problem. The purpose of this blog post is to advance the arguments around why this technique is likely to work.

 

The discrepancy between the high levels of gun violence in the United States contrasted with lower levels of public concern may be explained by the idea that statistics are representations of “people with the tears dried off” (1). To clarify, whilst statistics document the extent of the problem, the idea that these alone can motivate change now seems to be redundant. This might be explained by a number of theorists who have examined the way news and other forms of stories are ‘framed.’ Putting the issue of gun violence into context by citing statistical evidence is a form of ‘thematic framing,’ addressing the larger trends involved. Since thematic frames do not, however, “provide specific characters at which receivers may direct their emotional reactions,” they can struggle to engage an audience. (2) Conversely, ‘episodic framing,’ which looks at individual stories, is more likely to elicit emotional reactions of sympathy and pity. (3)

 

Applying framing arguments to gun violence finds that a ‘human interest approach’ of representing the victims as real and identifiable people will have a greater chance of engaging the audience. (4) For interest groups working in the field of gun violence prevention, it seems a more persuasive technique would be to firstly use the emotional argument to engage people and then use statistical evidence to document the severity of the problem. Another way is to hear about the experiences of the relatives of victims. An example of this is the sister of Vicky Soto, a teacher killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, telling an audience at a Mayors Against Illegal Guns activism event about her loss and why this has motivated her to campaign for stronger gun laws. Other people who have lost children or other family members in school shootings have also become involved in campaigning for gun safety, speaking out about their personal experiences.

 

Taking this into consideration, it certainly seems that combining stories of individual gun violence victims with the voices of those affected by this loss would be compelling enough to generate a powerful emotional reaction. In order to create policy change, however, action would need to be taken quite expeditiously, for there is a strong possibility that this intense response would only be short-term in nature and the public would move onto something else. This highlights the need for sustained and engaging debates after high profile incidents of gun violence covered extensively in news media coverage, alongside the constant reporting of the thirty-two victims killed every day in ‘smaller’ incidents.

 

  1. Gardner, D. (2008) Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. London: Virgin Books Ltd, 94.
  2. Aaroe, Lene. (2011) ‘Investigating Frame Strength: The Case of Episodic and Thematic Frames.’ Political Communication 28(2), 210.
  3. See, for instance, the following studies: Aaroe, Lene. (2011) ‘Investigating Frame Strength: The Case of Episodic and Thematic Frames.’ Political Communication 28(2), 207-226; Entman R. M. (1993) ‘Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.’ Journal of Communication 43(4), 51-58; Gross, K. (2008) ‘Framing Persuasive Appeals: Episodic and Thematic Framing, Emotional Response and Policy Opinion.’ Political Psychology 29(2), 169-192.
  4. Galtung, J. and M. Ruge. (1965/1973) ‘Structuring and Selecting News.’ In SCohenand J. Young (eds.) The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance and the Mass Media. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 62-72.

 

[This blog was put together by using empirical research with activists in the field of gun violence prevention and reading literature around framing. The next blog post will discuss the role interest groups play in the process.]

Rights and Responsibilities: A Way to Improve Gun Safety?

As mentioned in previous blogs, the advocacy work of gun violence prevention groups is invaluable to passing gun legislation. What can be problematic, however, is when an interest group has a singular focus like gun policy, positions tend to be polarised into extreme opposites. The reaction to the Sandy Hook school shooting is the perfect illustration of this: gun violence prevention groups claimed that tighter gun restrictions were needed to prevent future incidents; gun rights organisations purported that the reason why so many had been killed was the teachers had not been armed with firearms. The purpose of this blog post is to elucidate a way in which the two can work together to achieve progress on gun safety.

 

One of my interviewees previously acted as an advisor to a GVP interest group and found that the fact that many of these advocates do not own guns makes it harder for gun owners to trust them and their motives. Given there are high levels of public support in the United States for the right to bear arms, GVP groups cannot hope to persuade people by disregarding it. In fact, ignoring such a ‘common sense’ (1) — for those who believe in it — interpretation of the second amendment would likely result in a ‘hegemonic struggle’ (2) for the domination of the ‘individual rights paradigm,’ denoting that every individual has the right to own firearms. An alternative strategy is to instead incorporate a message of a right to the bear arms but there is also a responsibility to ensure that criminals and the mentally ill do not obtain guns. This also means that GVP groups should not shy away from discussing rights, freedoms and the constitution.

 

This reshaping of ideologies would also involve getting gun owners on board. An activism event held by Mayors Against Illegal Guns in late 2013 had gun owners speaking in favour of universal background checks for all sales (including those at gun shows and private transactions). Notably, those who spoke claimed that universal background checks was a non-partisan issue, appealing to both Republicans and Democrats; it also would not stop law-abiding gun owners procuring firearms. The gun violence prevention groups I interviewed and MAIG are all coalescing on universal background checks. It was claimed that this has the most public support, which is backed up with the results of polls, and also is a relatively ‘uncontroversial’ regulatory measure that politicians and gun owners are more likely to endorse. The ‘rights and responsibilities’ message can be seen clearly in this policy proposal: those who wish to own a gun and meet the criteria will still have the right to do so; whilst there is still a degree of responsibility in ensuring prohibited persons are unable to procure weapons.

 

[This blog post was put together using the results of interviews with GVP interest groups and other experts in gun policy/framing, as well as participant observation of the MAIG event. Literature about framing was also used to make sense of the findings. The next post will focus on another framing approach that should have some impact.]

  1. Fairclough, N. (1995) Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited.
  2. Fairclough, N. (1989) Language and Power. London: Longman.