Gun Control Has Faded From The Newscycle And The Political Conversation
In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut last December, many people had argued that the shootings had changed the debate over gun control forever, in no small way because it was an incident involving small children in a place where we expected them to be safe. In their wake there were calls for changes to the nation’s gun laws on a wide variety of levels. In some cases, such as new laws passed in states like Connecticut and New York, those efforts were successful for the most part. Nationally, however, it was another matter. It quickly became apparent that major gun legislation, such as a renewel of the ban on so-called “assault weapons” was not going to pass even the Democratic Senate and, in April, the Senate failed to pass an amendment offered by Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey to expand and tighten background checks for gun purchases despite the fact that it enjoyed widespread support among the public.
At the height of the post-Newtown gun control push, I observed that it was unlikely that the political momentum we were seeing at the time was going to last, and that even though the public strongly supports things like background checks, it was even less likely that it would turn into a political movement that would have a major electoral impact because gun control remained, even after Newtown, a low priority issue for most voters:
Even at the height of the post-Newtown political push, only 6% of Americans considered gun control the most important problem facing the nation. That’s a far cry from the vast majority of voters who say that they support the various gun control measures that have been advocated over the past four months.
This isn’t the first indication that gun control is a low intensity issue among American voters. Back in January, just one month after Newtown, a similar Gallup poll showedthe same results that we see in this month’s release. At that time, Ipredicted that it would be difficult for gun control advocates to get the most ambitious parts of their agenda through even the Senate, but I thought at the time that at least something would be passed. In part, I thought this because it seemed as though the post-Newtown attention paid to the issue was going to make it inevitable and that a low-priority issue like background checks would be something that Congress could pass to make it appear that they’re doing something, even though in reality the Manchin/Toomey bill would have done little to stop the massacres that have garnered much attention over the years. As it turned out, the politics of the issue were far more complicated, and public intensity on the issue of gun control was far less than many thought it might be after the events of Newtown.
Once you understand where the politics of gun control actually stand, the behavior of Republicans and red state Democrats becomes completely understandable.
Over at Wonkblog, Danny Hayes adds in another factor, which is the disappearance from the news cycle of gun control as an issue in the wake of the defeat of Manchin/Toomey:
Gun control coverage spiked with the shooting, and then again in January when President Obama announced 23 executive actions designed to curb gun violence. Throughout the next two months, however, coverage dropped significantly. By the week of March 15, gun control stories had dropped by two-thirds compared to the January peak.
As momentum for a Senate vote picked up, gun control surged back into the news. The week of the April 17 vote, there were 1,584 stories in the Lexis-Nexis database.
But when the Manchin-Toomey background check bill failed to surmount a filibuster, the media’s attention span began nearing its end. A month after the bill died, there were 465 gun control stories. And just last week, the number was down to 371. That was still twice as many as the week before Sandy Hook, but nothing like what front-burner political issues tend to receive. (Even last week there were 532 stories about Edward Snowden, owner of the Guinness record for the world’s longest layover.)
The inherent newsworthiness of an event – such as the nearly unfathomable slaughter of 20 first-graders – is not enough to sustain the media’s interest. If it were, we’d still be reading front-page stories about Newtown: Nothing that has happened in Washington in the last seven months has been more horrifying, tragic, or gripping than what took place on that Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Neither can the crusade of an activist, no matter how compelling, achieve what a good dust-up on Capitol Hill can. It’s possible that Giffords’ weeklong national tour earlier this month, designed to (re)mobilize support for expanded background checks, arrested the decline of gun control coverage. But despite a photo-op of the former congresswomanfiring a pistol at a Las Vegas range – about as close as you can get to journalistic catnip – there is no evidence that it regenerated the media’s interest.
The media’s interest in policy debates generally lasts only as long as politicians are willing to spar in front of the cameras. And although Democrats have pledged to continue pursuing stricter gun laws, the prospects for meaningful legislation – and thus a meaningful battle – appear uncertain.
This chart of gun control stories in the media tells the tale:
The idea that the media would move on to another story isn’t at all surprising. There are only so many stories you can do on the same topic if there isn’t actually anything happening, either in Congress or elsewhere to advance the story. Writers and television hosts, such as much of the evening lineup on Fox and MSNBC, might be able to bring the subject over and over again because they have an agenda to promote, but reporters looking to write about the events of the day are always going to go looking for the story of the day rather than focusing on something that pretty much died as a story when the Senate failed to break a filibuster in April. Moreover, almost as soon as the Manchin/Toomey bill died, the Senate moved on almost immediately to immigration, and it was the immigration bill that became the focus of news on Capitol Hill while the IRS targeting story, along with Edward Snowden and the NSA’s surveillance programs popped up at nearly the same time to grab the media’s attention. Add into this the fact that, even after Newtown, gun control is still a very low priority issue among voters and it likely to remain so, and you see why the media has basically stopped paying attention to the story.
So, there are two lessons here. The first is that a tragedy like Newtown can boost interest in and passion for something like gun control where there are strong opinions and low priorities, but that interest and passion is going to be temporary. Yes, it’s true that media coverage of gun control now is at a higher level than it was prior to December 14, 2012, but it’s far off the peak of where it went in the immediate aftermath of the shootings and is likely to continue to decline. The second lesson is that absent a permanent change in the importance that voters place on an issue like gun control, it’s next to impossible keep up the momentum for that issue for a sustained period of time. This last point is important because it suggests that those activists who believe that they can turn gun control into some kind of decisive issue in the 2014 elections are likely to be disappointed.