Tag Archives: gun reform

Reducing Gun Violence: The Importance of Interest Groups

The last two blog posts documented some of the ways in which interest groups can frame gun violence for it to gain traction in the policy sphere. It now needs to be highlighted why gun violence prevention interest groups are so important to the process. Further to this, the occurrence of a highly publicised event like a school shooting or other form of mass shooting allows for suggestions around changes needed to gun legislation to be made by these groups. This blog post will explore both of these points in further detail.

 

In a democratic society like the United States, citizens are pertinent to the policy-making process through a number of activities: lobbying/campaigning, engaging in debates, pressurising politicians to take action and submitting a request for a bill to be passed. Interest groups provide a space for citizens to engage in ‘policy advocacy,’ promoting change on a particular issue(s). These organisations can also act as ‘conduits,’ passing information between members of the public and lawmakers.

 

When the focus of an interest group is specific and narrow in nature, such as gun policy, it means that positions tend to be polarised. Taking the example of the Virginia Tech University school shooting elucidates this point. An interest group focusing on gun rights, such as the Gun Owners of America, claimed that arming students would have prevented the high death toll. Conversely, the gun violence prevention groups like Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence pushed for action on gun legislation, indicative of the shooter being able to purchase weapons despite being temporarily detained at a mental health facility.

 

The actions, resources and membership of an interest group are, therefore, predicated on its ideological facets: “…many ideologies [are] developed precisely in order to sustain, legitimate, or manage group conflicts, as well as relationships of power and dominance” (1). Members of an interest group may propagate their interests in the political sphere, by working with political actors to draft legislative bills and endorsing and, sometimes funding, candidates who will support their goals for state and local campaigns.

 

The real power from interest groups comes when they are actually able to influence public opinion and mobilise action on policy action. This is more likely to occur following a ‘focusing event’: something which is rare, unexpected and shocking (2). A school shooting fits this criteria, as an incident which is actually quite atypical within the wider rubric of gun violence; yet allows for ‘gun violence’ to appear on the political agenda and influence public sentiment. Illustrating this is what occurred in Colorado, where gun violence prevention interest groups lobbied for landmark gun laws, including reducing magazine sizes to ten rounds and universal background checks for all sales. This state had previously suffered from some high-profile incidents: the Columbine school shooting, the hostage situation at Platte Canyon High School and the mass shooting at the movie theatre in Aurora. Although the issue of gun violence had already been on the minds of voters for the 2012 election, it was the Sandy Hook school shooting that put the issue on the agenda for the Colorado Legislature in 2013. As documented in the blog post published on the 30th of April 2014, the Sandy Hook school shooting had also allowed for a nation-wide debate on gun reform. Without the mechanism of interest groups to convey information to the public, work with political actors, and lobby for particular changes to law, it would be more difficult to try and gain policy traction when high profile incidents occur.

 

  1. van Dijk, T. A. (1998) Ideology: a multidisciplinary approach. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Birkland, T. A. (1997) After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy and Focusing Events. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press; Kingdon, J. W. (1993/2004) Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (second edition). New York: Longman.

 

[This blog post was the final in a series around gun policy. It was put together using literature around interest groups, focusing events and social policy. The next post will look at thwarted school shootings that are said to have been ‘inspired’ by the Columbine shooters.]

 

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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.]

How Sandy Hook Changed the Political Landscape for Gun Reform

On the 16th March 1996, a school shooting took place in Dunblane, Scotland, which irrevocably changed the United Kingdom’s relationship with guns: private firearm ownership was revoked, except in circumstances where individuals could demonstrate ‘good reasons’ for needing them, such as ‘pest control’ and sports shooting. On the 14th December 2012, a school shooting paralleling the Dunblane incident occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut: adult male perpetrators carried out the attacks; similar ammunition (hollow point bullets) was used; the majority of victims were young children aged five and six. Similar to Dunblane, the horrific Sandy Hook shooting acted as a ‘focusing event,’ putting the issues of gun violence and school shootings back on the policy agenda. In the United States, the cultural and historical values attached to guns and constitutional parameters means that the policy debate Sandy Hook triggered was of a different nature to the one in the United Kingdom after Dunblane; although, it was in no way less significant.

Until that day in 2012, prospects for gun reform in the United States had stalled. Calls for action on gun laws were made following a mass shooting in July 2012 at a late night screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, which killed twelve people and wounded fifty-nine others. With 2012 being an election year, no action was taken by the Obama administration on this occasion. After the Sandy Hook school shooting, however, re-elected President Obama gave a very emotional press conference and appointed a team headed by vice-President, Joe Biden, to put together gun reform proposals. A bi-partisan bill was put together in early 2013 requiring background checks for gun show and internet sales; this failed to pass the Senate by five votes.

This does not mean, however, that policy action in this area has stalled. The political action committees Mayors against Illegal Guns and Americans for Responsible Solutions are funding gun reform campaigns. Other prominent groups like Moms Demand Action, whose particular focus is preventing children becoming victims of gun violence, have emerged. A number of political actors are now on board for change. Public support for universal background checks for all gun sales in polls is high and not particularly partisan in nature. A number of states have managed to introduce background checks bills into their legislatures, with Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland and New York passing landmark laws. All these factors, coupled with the risk of future school shootings occurring, strongly suggest that the tragic Sandy Hook (2012) incident will continue to generate policy responses in future.

[The statements made here are taken from the research findings of my doctoral thesis about the news media and policy responses to school shootings, as well as further background reading.]