Tag Archives: policy debates

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Mental Illness, Gun Purchases and Policy Action

The debate around children and guns, as documented in the blog posted on 28/01/16, shifted onto another perceived ‘dangerous’ social group of the mentally ill after the Virginia Tech school shooting. The perpetrator of that attack had been issued with a temporary detention order a year and a half prior to the shooting, where a Virginia magistrate found him to present “an imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness.” Under Virginia law, however, because Cho was only “temporarily detained” rather than “committed,” he was able to circumvent the federal restrictions and be eligible to buy firearms.

After this massacre, school and other types of mass shootings were depicted as a problem by the news media via aggregations of those killed by such incidents. The ‘elite consensus’ stance (Robinson 2002) of the media — evident in them supporting changes to mental health criteria — paved the way for political actors to reframe the Virginia Tech shooting into an issue of mental health and needing to improve weaknesses relating to gun purchases in this area. The focus on mental health had more of a chance of gaining policy traction than other gun initiatives suggested by the relatives and survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting: renewing the assault weapon ban and closing the gun show loophole in Virginia and nationally. One ‘remedy’ to the problem (Entman 1993) was directly related to closing the loophole defining prohibited persons that allowed the shooter to legally procure his firearms in the state of Virginia, despite his having been detained at a mental institute. The Governor of Virginia acted upon this recommendation using executive order to change Virginia state law so it encompassed voluntary detainment and treatment by those found to be a danger to themselves and/or others.

The other idea was to improve the federal ‘background checks’ database by encouraging individual states to submit mental health records. There was support from the NRA — typically an opponent to gun regulations — with one anonymous source claiming “we have no problem with mental health records being part of the NICS” and its executive director, Wayne LaPierre, arguing “We’re strongly in support of putting those records in the system.” One ‘counter-voice’ was the gun-rights group Gun Owners of America, who were concerned the bill was “a denial of civil liberty.” Likewise, mental health organisations were concerned about it stigmatising people with mental illness. The chief executive of Mental Health America said the bill was “going to do harm” because it failed to consider that mentally ill people could be treated. The Virginia Citizens Defense League head said that it might discourage people from seeking mental health treatment. As it transpired, the president signed into law, the ‘NICS Improvement Amendments Act’ (2008), strengthening the ability of the Attorney General to procure information from federal agencies and departments regarding prohibited persons, requiring annual reports are provided to Congress, and authorizing incentives for states, tribes and court systems to provide records for the NICS. Financial grants totalling almost forty million dollars were divided up and awarded to twenty-five states from 2009-2011. The ‘counter-movements’ (Klocke and Muschert 2010) were not powerful enough to resist this action, likely because the ‘elite consensus’ scenario was in place where both the media and the government were in agreement about the actions to be taken (Robinson 2002), and had additional support from typical opponents like the NRA.

 

[This blog post was put together using analyses of news media coverage and policy debates around the time of the Virginia Tech shooting; alongside literature about policy framing and the ‘CNN model.’ The next blog post will continue this theme, by documenting the lack of traction on a particular gun policy after the Virginia Tech shooting.]

 

  • Entman Robert M. (1993) ‘Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.’ Journal of Communication 43(4), 51-58.
  • Klocke, Brian and Glenn W. Muschert. (2010) ‘A Hybrid Model of Moral Panics: Synthesizing the Theory and Practice of Moral Panic Research.’ Sociology Compass 4(5), 295-309.
  • Robinson, P. (2002) The CNN Effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. London, New York: Routledge.

 

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.