Tag Archives: interest groups

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.]

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.

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.

Children, Gun Policy and School Shootings: A Lack of Action

In order to assess the linkage between news media coverage and subsequent policy proposals, the ‘CNN model’ is a useful starting point, allowing for the identification of “instances when media coverage comes to play a significant role in persuading policy-makers to pursue a particular policy” (Robinson, 2002: 37). The purpose of this blog post is to explore this in relation to the news media discussion around the Columbine (1999) school shooting. Findings indicate that the initial response to Columbine by the news media and politicians was framed around restricting children’s access to guns.

At the time when Columbine occurred, the previous spate of school shootings meant the conditions were optimum for a discussion about the problem of youth violence. Further, the ‘fear’ about children’s safety at school paved the way for a ‘something must be done about it’ mindset. Echoing the findings of Wondemaghen’s (2013) research, news media content contextualised the Columbine shooting within the wider trends of school shootings and youth gun violence more generally. Opinion polls from the public show a similar level of concern about youth gun violence.

The next stage of policy development was that the Clinton administration suggested ‘remedies’ (Entman 1993) centring on restricting children’s access to guns and increasing parental accountability. News media adhered to the ‘elite consensus’ scenario (Robinson 2002) by building support for a particular policy agenda. The selection of sources allowed the news media to ‘frame’ this issue: researchers in the field, advocacy groups for gun reform, and parents of survivors and those killed at Columbine were amongst the main voices to be heard. The ‘counter-movement’ of gun rights organisations and politicians strongly against gun regulation managed to dissipate the development of policy, as the proposals failed in Congress.

Paralleling Wondemaghen’s (2013) study, the news media then moved on to criticise the official response — in this case, a lack of action on children and guns — and suggested ‘alternative solutions’ to the problem: ‘closing the gun show loophole’ that allowed the Columbine perpetrators to procure their weapons. At the national level, this adhered to the criteria of ‘elite dissensus but policy certainty within executive’ (Robinson 2002), for the news media pressured the government to close the loophole but with no success. The common theme was that Democratic politicians were ‘afraid’ to take action on this issue because of the power of the National Rifle Association: this means that the ‘counter-movement’ to this form of social regulation was successful.

The ‘alternative solution’ to the lack of federal-level action on the ‘gun show loophole’ was for the voters to put the issue on the ballot in the state of Colorado; this is action which was driven by interest group Safe Alternatives to the Fifrearm Epedemic (SAFE), heavily supported by local media and received the backing of the Clinton administration. This resulted in legislation being passed in Colorado to close the ‘gun show loophole.’ These results build support for Robinson’s (2002) theory that news media has the greatest impact when policy is uncertain. Overall, the policy action was driven by the public and an interest group and thereafter supported by the media and the political actor who originally had suggested this regulatory measure as a ‘remedy’ to the problem (Entman 1993).

 

[This blog post was put together by tracking and analysing news media coverage and policy debates pertaining to the Columbine school shooting. Literature about policy framing was also utilised as a lens through which to assess findings. The next posting will continue this theme, by exploring the news media-policy linkage of the Virginia Tech school shooting.]

 

  • Entman Robert M. (1993) ‘Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.’ Journal of Communication 43(4), 51-58.
  • Robinson, P. (2002) The CNN Effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. London, New York: Routledge.
  • Wondemaghen, Meron. (2014) Media Construction of a school shooting as a social problem.’ Journalism 15(6), 696-712.

 

“There’s nothing stopping prohibited persons until we close that background check loophole”: Will universal background checks prevent school shootings?

The quotation in the title was said by one of my gun violence prevention (GVP) interviewees. This is due to a loophole in the federal-level law the Brady Bill (1994), allowing background checks to be foregone in private transactions between individuals (such as classified advertisements) and at places like gun shows and flea markets. My GVP interviewees pointed to a lack of transparency surrounding such sales as the main motivation for prohibited persons using them. Notably, a gun show is where the Columbine perpetrators obtained three of their weapons. Robyn Anderson, a ‘straw buyer’ for the shooters who purchased the guns and then transferred them, admitted that she would not have done so had there been paperwork to fill out One of the shooters, Eric Harris, had been legally old enough to purchase the three long guns obtained. Presumably, then the Columbine shooters went through the ‘straw purchase’ method with Robyn Anderson to avoid alerting anyone to their plans. The fact that it facilitated preparations for this particular school shooting makes one think closing the gun show loophole federally — which would then act as a baseline for all the states to compile with —should at least be considered as a policy option.

A number of research studies have pointed out that ‘closing the gun show loophole’ only goes a limited way to solving the problem, as it is only addressing a small portion of private sales. (1) Taking this argument further, the interviewee quoted in the titled explained that those prohibited from buying and owning guns could also use the internet, newspaper advertisements and personal connections to circumvent the restriction. With this in mind, my gun-related interviewees overall believed that universal background checks would reduce school shootings and the more commonplace gun violence deaths, meaning it is the law which will save the most lives.

The post-Sandy Hook grassroots momentum pertaining to background checks has been described by one of my interviewees as ‘palpable,’ with it “all coming down to ‘let’s do the background checks’” for all GVP groups, which should generate solidarity and improve their chances of success. Despite not having a clear link to background checks, Sandy Hook has mobilised public support for this policy measure. This is evident in the introduction of a universal background checks bill into the Senate in spring 2013 shows this issue has been identified and acted upon. The bill failed by a narrow margin; however, interviewees were hopeful this will be successful if reintroduced in future.

Universal background checks also get the highest level of public support than any other regulatory measure. A nationwide poll carried out by the Pew Research Center found that 85% of 1500 adults supported universal background checks. (2) This support is not particularly partisan either: 86% of Republican and 92% of Democrat supporters were in favour of universal background checks. (3) It seems, therefore, that despite its divorcement from the Sandy Hook shooting itself, background check support has increased as a result of it.

This measure appears to have a higher chance of gaining public backing because it does not affect gun owners in any way: it is about regulating who can buy and own guns, rather than controlling guns themselves. This is reflected in high, non-partisan levels of public support. To sum up, universal background checks appears to be an objective that all GVP groups and politicians can get behind because it focuses on the users of guns rather than controlling guns themselves.

[This blog was put together using material from interviews with GVP groups and attendance at related events, polls and information about the ‘Brady Bill’ legislation. The next blog will look at redefining the criteria for prohibited persons in relation to mental illness, which is a common factor in school shootings.]

(1) Webster, D. W., J. S. Vernick, E. W. McGinty and T. Alcorn. (2013) ‘Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through effective Firearm Sales Laws.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 109-121.
Wintemute, G.J. (2013a) ‘Comprehensive Background Checks for Firearm Sales: Evidence from Gun Shows.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 95-107.
(2) Cited in Page, S. (2013) ‘Poll spots activism in gun control debate.’ USA Today, 15th January, News 6A (hard copy).
(3) McGinty, E. E., D. W. Webster, J. S. Vernicle, and C. L. Barry. (2013) ‘Public Opinion on Proposals to Strengthen U.S. Gun Laws: Findings from a 2013 Survey.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 239-257.