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.]

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1 thought on “The Humanisation of Gun Violence Victims

  1. CalicoJack

    While humanizing gun violence is an effective way of mobilizing public opinion, it, obviously, has not been sufficient. The episodic framing approach is the reason that many were “hopeful” that after Sandy Hook, we could make significant progress towards some type of gun reform. Why didn’t it work? What could blunt the emotional impact of 20 first graders gunned down in their school while being protected by their teachers and principal?

    The NRA effectively closed the door on humanizing the impact by declaring it “too soon” to talk about gun violence, accusing the other side of using this emotional event to further their agenda, and suggesting that the real solution was a “good guy with a gun.” Each of their arguments countered a specific piece of the humanization effort. It gave permission to those suspicious of gun reform efforts to resist and hold back from seeing those children as the victims of gun violence and empathizing with their parents. It allowed their “followers” to mourn the children without thinking deeply about solutions — they gave a solution. They also effectively demonized the gun reform effort, meaning that their supporters needn’t listen to the gun reform advocates because they were just going to try and manipulate them.

    Gun violence in America is a very complex problem, but no more complex than many other politically charged problems. An insightful source of information that suggests a way forward is minority influence. Moscovici suggested four factors were necessary for the minority to influence the majority. Gun reform advocates would be doing well to follow some of these suggestions.

    Of course, I have two blog posts outlining minority influence and how it can be applied to social change. My blog is The Psy of Life: CalicoJack Explains Life & Everything Using Psychology & Snark (https://thepsyoflifeblog.wordpress.com/).

    The posts are, Sanders and Minority Influence (http://wp.me/p7vabV-dD) and Four Weird Tricks to Subvert the HeteroChristian Purist to the Gay and Black Agenda! (http://wp.me/p7vabV-n). Be warned though the blog is snarky, sacasiticky, and profaney.

    Reply

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