Tag Archives: policy solutions

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“The more rounds you can fire…the more victims you can create”: Restricting High Capacity Magazines

The quotation in the title was stated by one of the gun violence prevention experts to whom I spoke, highlighting the potential deadliness of high-capacity magazines. Due to their potential to fire off multiple rounds without the need to reload, these are commonly used in school shootings, as well as other incidents involving multiple deaths: for instance, the shooter in the Aurora cinema in Colorado, an event which killed 12 and injured 70, had a magazine that was able to fire off a hundred rounds. This blog post will advance the argument that the high death toll in school and other mass shootings is related to high capacity magazines.

The definition of a ‘school shooting’ denotes an intention to kill and injure as many people in an education institution as possible in a short period of time. It could, thus, be argued that high capacity magazines and semi-automatic weapons, allowing for multiple rounds to be fired, facilitate this process. For instance, the perpetrator of the shooting at Virginia Tech University — considered the worst mass shooting in the United States, due to its high death toll of thirty-two — used a magazine holding thirty bullets and shot his victims, both those killed and injured, multiple times. During the Columbine school shooting, the perpetrators fired almost two hundred rounds; other school massacres from Sandy Hook through to Red Lake have involved the use of semi-automatic weapons to allow for continuous firing. Having the potential to fire multiple rounds pertains exactly to the goals of a school shooter to murder as many as possible.

Another issue to be considered is that when a shooter has to change a magazine, this gives an opportunity for them to be stopped. An example of this is the 2011 mass shooting involving former Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, in Tuscon, Arizona, when the shooter was tackled by individuals when he ran out of bullets and had to change the magazine on his weapon. The Red Lake High school shooting involved a student both grappling with the perpetrator to retrieve his weapon and stabbing him in the stomach with a pencil, heroic actions which are believed to have saved the lives of others. It is unknown whether the shooter was changing magazines at this point; although if he had been, this would have provided the distraction needed to take forceful action against him.

Despite all this, legislative action on limiting high capacity magazines has been slow. President Obama put together a package following the Sandy Hook shooting, which included a proposal to limit magazines to ten rounds. This failed to gain any noticeable support in the Senate, so it was subsequently dropped. Conversely, there is actually a modest degree of public support for limiting large capacity magazines to ten rounds: 68% of those surveyed by McGinty et al. (2013), with 48% being gun owners and 19% members of the National Rifle Association (1). Notably, there was a law implemented in the state of Colorado in 2013 that limited gun ammunition magazines to fifteen rounds. This is particularly significant considering Colorado has suffered a number of mass shootings over the years, including the Columbine and Aurora Theatre incidents. Candidates in the 2012 Colorado election were  asked by citizens about what action they were prepared to take on gun violence, so this was clearly an auspicious moment to try to pass this kind of legislation. There were, however, counterchallenges to the Colorado legislation from Concerned Citizens for a Safer Colorado, claiming it violated the right to self-defence; this group unsuccessfully tried to overturn the magazine limit. In future, it may be the case that it will fall to individual states, rather than the federal government, to enact similar legislation around high capacity magazines.

 

  • 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.

 

[This blog was put together using results from interviews with gun violence prevention experts and further readings pertaining to school shootings and gun legislation. The next series of posts will explore ways to frame the gun violence debate in order to gain policy traction.]

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.

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.