Tag Archives: ideological struggles

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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“I think we should forget about more gun control, what we need is bullet control”(1): Could regulation of bullets reduce school shootings?

A neglected aspect of the gun debate in the U.S. is the notion of ‘bullet control’: this would take the form of conducting background checks for buying ammunition. The selling point is if someone owned a gun and became ineligible after committing a felony, this would prevent them from buying ammunition for that gun. Since ideology has been defined as an interest-linked perspective, there exists a ‘struggle for legitimacy’ (i.e. confirmation of that particular ideological perspective) predicated on existing divisions within society (2). Something like ‘bullet control,’ therefore, could possibly depoliticise the issue away from the debate on ‘gun rights’ and ‘gun control.’ A number of my interviewees, however, were sceptical about this being a way to circumvent the politics of gun regulation, believing the National Rifle Association would fight against it.

Ammunition regulation used to be a part of the federal-level ‘Gun Control Act’ (1968) prohibiting mail order sales and requiring a log of ammunition sales. This ended, however, in 1986 due to the ‘Firearm Owners’ Protection Act’ diluting elements of the 1968 law. This means it will now fall to individual states to make decisions regarding the regulation of ammunition. California, for example, has just implemented a law mandating: the marking of bullets, background checks for purchases, and recording buyer information. Notably, the gun violence prevention groups to whom I spoke indicated that California was the progressive ‘model’ for gun regulations to aspire to, as this state is able to take further steps than the rest of the nation. As a whole, California, District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York require licenses to purchase or possess ammunition.

Suggestions were made from gun violence prevention groups about regulating the quantities of bullets able to be sold. This seems particularly applicable to school shootings since the Virginia Tech shooter carried almost four hundred bullets with him; whilst the Columbine perpetrators fired almost two hundred rounds and wore utility belts containing clips of 9mm bullets. Taxation of bullets was dismissed as a viable strategy, however, since mass shooters are unlikely to be deterred from their goal based on the cost of ammunition. An alternative strategy is perhaps New York’s recent law requiring logs of purchases, so the police can be informed if someone is stockpiling bullets.

Another recommendation was restricting bullets that increase the severity of wounds. There seems to be a link between harm-inducing bullets and school shootings. The Virginia Tech shooter used 9mm ‘hollow point bullets,’ which penetrate further parts of the body rather than exiting it and are designed to inflict higher levels of damage than ordinary bullets. Similarly, the Sandy Hook shooter used bullets the same size as those used by military troops designed to tear bone and tissue apart. Tighter regulations of these could, at the very least, serve to reduce the severity of injuries in a school shooting situation; henceforth, framing the problem in terms of medical costs. Furthermore, a legal scholar (3) claimed that limiting certain bullets, such as .50 calibre ones, would be constitutional because it would not affect self-defence; meaning this is definitely something which could viably be pursued as a legislative goal.

[This blog was compiled through a number of sources: interviews with gun violence prevention groups and other experts in matters relating to gun legislation; studies by legal scholars; data about state laws. The next blog post will look at using YouTube as a tool to analyse school shootings.]

(1) The quote in the title appeared in episode ‘2162 Votes’ (2005) in season seven of the fictional television show The West Wing.
(2) Philo, G. (2007) ‘Can Discourse Analysis Successfully Explain the Content of Media and Journalistic Practice?’ Journalism Studies 8(2), 175-196.
(3) Volokh, E. (2009) ‘Implementing the Right to Keep and Bear Arms for Self-Defense: An Analytical Framework and Research Agenda.’ UCLA Law Review 56, 1443-1549.