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Gun Control Has Faded From The Newscycle And The Political Conversation

Gun Flag

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:

Gun Control Stories

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.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    This country is awash in guns – Americans love guns, and we’re willing to put up with occasional annual mass shootings. it’s that simple.

    What’s interesting is that Zimmerman has received much support from gun rights groups – evidently they feared ,and still fear, that liberals will try to use his case to weaken SYG laws.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. stonetools says:

    In due course, there will be another massacre by another nut to focus attention again. It’s a feature of the current dysfunctional system.
    I’m certain that some nut has already walked into a gun store and is buying guns and ammunition the way I buy candy, all the while busy planning the next “unprecedented”, “isolated” massacre.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  3. C. Clavin says:

    Everyday some idiot shoots him, or her, self with an under-regulated gun. But the NRA is running the show…not our elected legislators. So there you have it. There is a major problem that will not be solved because the money won’t allow it to be.
    Cowards and weenies will continue to run around with lethal weapons they are incapable of handling, because they make them big and brave…like Zimmerman for instance.
    And on that note…cue the cowards and weenies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 6

  4. fred says:

    Of course it has, because DEMs and Pres Obama have no spine to stand up to the NRA even in light of the appalling death stats by guns. DEMs will lose the senate too because the DEMs leadership in the house but mostly in the senate is incompetent. Where are the folks who have the responsibility to get DEMs elected in the house and senate? Never a word from them. If DEMs can’t keep the senate and win the house back in the next election it is going to be a very long time before they ever do.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  5. Pinky says:

    This is good. This is what representative democracy is supposed to look like. The public panics over an issue, and it gets press coverage, but if the legislators can’t come up with a good response, they don’t have to pass a bad response.

    The one thing I disagree with, and it comes from the Post, is this: “The media’s interest in policy debates generally lasts only as long as politicians are willing to spar in front of the cameras.” In truth, the press is more than willing to ignore politicians sparring in front of cameras, and is more than willing to cover a story that no one’s arguing about. It’s weird.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  6. Tyrell says:

    Right now Washington is awash with scandals. Congress is dug in hoping that they are not a target or some of their mail or txts do not come out in public, or that they do not wind up on an IRS
    list. Holder is busy investigating a lot of things while he is being investigated himself. The president has Syria, Egypt, Iran, and the ever mischievous North Korea to worry about, plus the economy, slack job growth, Federal Reserve chairman, and the on going gas price problem. He is
    also trying to figure out what to do with the so called “affordable health care” plan that will probably be postponed to sometime like 2050. Experts have told him that the figures won’t work, and even some Democrats are wanting changed or delayed until they can retire and get out of there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  7. C. Clavin says:

    “…He is also trying to figure out what to do with the so called “affordable health care” plan that will probably be postponed to sometime like 2050…”

    What nonsense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  8. C. Clavin says:

    A man in Los Angeles is dead after he accidentally shot himself in the eye at a party while drunk early Monday morning. A group of people were drinking at a home when police say “a handgun joins a party,” according to The Los Angeles TImes. “It’s basically, ‘I have a nice gun. Do you guys want to take a look at it?’” Lt. Perry Griffith told the Times. Witnesses said that the gun owner apparently became nervous as the drunk partygoers passed the gun around, and tried to take it away as it made its way to one partygoer. “It’s basically, ‘No, I got it.’ And the gun goes off,” Griffith said, referring to how the partygoer was shot. The gun owner was taken into the police for questioning and the incident is currently under investigation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. Pinky says:

    @Tyrell: I get what you’re saying, but it isn’t like there’s only one person (or one department) in Washington. If an issue requires work, there are staffers to work on it, and political capital is always available for a meritorious policy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Tyrell says:

    My doctor said that it would be better and cheaper to pay the penalty and not have insurance, pay as you go. If you have to go to the hospital just arrange a time payment plan. I have looked at sample monthly rates for the AHC and it would run about $400 or more. Now I can shop around and get better rates, but that choice may end if private insurers drop out.
    See Ramesh Pommuru’s informative “Flaws that eill bring down Obama’s affordable health care plan”, (Bloomberg)
    Why is it that every doctor I talk to says that they are retiring?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  11. C. Clavin says:

    So Tyrell is one of those free-riders that costs the rest of us $900 a year in added premiums…a major reason for the PPACA. Figures.
    You do realize Pommuru is an opinion writer, correct?
    Maybe you should look at Massachusetts and California where it is actually working…instead of only listening to opinions that match your pre-concieved notions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  12. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin: Sounds like Darwin was right to me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. David M says:

    @Tyrell:

    My doctor said that it would be better and cheaper to pay the penalty and not have insurance, pay as you go. If you have to go to the hospital just arrange a time payment plan.

    Something tells me you’re in for quite the rude awakening if you do go to the hospital.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. bill says:

    and it should, many democrat run states are atop the list of 2nd amendment protectors. it’s not the gun, it’s the user.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0