Skip to main content

How media lose interest in gun control

By Danny Hayes, Special to CNN
updated 10:01 AM EST, Fri January 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Danny Hayes: After Newtown shooting, it seemed time was ripe for new gun control laws
  • But congressional opposition has not wilted, Hayes says
  • He says after mass killings, media attention surges, public follows; both quickly drop
  • Hayes: Pattern same with Newton, and gun control opponents count on it

Editor's note: Danny Hayes is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University and the co-author of the forthcoming book "Influence From Abroad: Foreign Voices, the Media, and U.S. Public Opinion."

(CNN) -- Less than a month ago, gun control seemed destined for its day in Congress.

In the wake of the shooting of 20 schoolchildren and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut, a major revision to the nation's gun laws appeared, to many observers, inevitable -- a sure thing, even.

"This awful massacre has changed where we go from here," longtime gun rights supporter Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, tweeted three days after the shooting.

Danny Hayes
Danny Hayes

"I think," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, "we could be at a tipping point."

Indeed, with bullet-riddled bodies of 6- and 7-year-olds being carried from a first-grade classroom, opposition to tighter gun laws could hardly seem to withstand the deluge of media attention and outrage from a horrified public.

Yet congressional opposition has not wilted. And this week, as the grim one-month anniversary of Newtown approaches, Vice President Joe Biden signaled that the White House might be prepared to enact reforms through executive order rather than risk a fight for comprehensive legislation on Capitol Hill.

To look at the polls, opposition in Congress seems puzzling. Although support for an assault weapons ban is not high, clear majorities of Americans support a variety of other measures proposed by gun control advocates. In a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, 92% said they favored a law that would require background checks at gun shows. More than six in 10 Americans support a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips. Even many gun owners embrace reforms.

The political influence of the National Rifle Association, which strongly opposes any new gun laws, helps explain why some members of Congress don't support measures that large majorities of Americans want. But the dynamics of media and public attention are also crucial to understand what's happening.

The gun control debate illustrates what is known as the "issue-attention cycle." This occurs when a dramatic event -- in this case, the Newtown shooting -- causes the media and public to become intensely interested in a policy issue for a brief time, before moving on to other problems.

NRA president: Focus on mentally ill
Gingrich: Biden should go to Chicago
Ben Shapiro: Weapons resist tyranny

Following high-profile mass killings in the United States, there often is a surge in news coverage about gun control. But within a few weeks, coverage reverts to where it was before the shooting. This was evident following the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and last year's attack at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

Newtown, for all its unique dreadfulness, has so far been little different.

In the week beginning a day after the tragedy -- from December 15 through December 21 -- 2,472 stories in the nation's newspapers mentioned gun control. These data come from a search of more than 500 news outlets indexed in the LexisNexis "U.S. Newspapers and Wires" database. In the next week, the number of gun control stories fell by more than half, to 1,192. The week after -- from December 29 through January 4 -- it was down to 962.

Meanwhile, journalists found a new object of attention. From December 29 through January 4, the LexisNexis database included 3,636 stories mentioning the fiscal cliff -- nearly four times as many as mentioned gun control in that same week. The economy didn't tumble over the cliff, but gun control did.

These patterns have consequences for public opinion, which tends to take its cues from the media. Without sustained attention to gun control, Americans are not likely to view the issue as particularly salient. Even in a Gallup Poll fielded in the days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, just 4% of Americans said guns were the country's most important problem. Most mentioned the economy, which has dominated the news for months.

As a result, there is less pressure on gun control opponents, most of whom are Republican, in Congress to strike a deal with those seeking stronger gun controls, most of whom are Democrats. Opposing gun reforms that might be popular with Americans, but not important to them, may be less risky for many politicians than running afoul of a powerful interest group such as the NRA.

This doesn't necessarily mean that gun legislation is moribund. Perhaps the efforts of the anti-gun violence organization founded by Giffords -- a decidedly compelling advocate for gun control -- may sustain the media's attention. That could make the issue more important to voters, which might create a greater incentive for Congress to act.

But with the coming political fight over the debt ceiling, media attention to guns may remain in relatively short supply, especially as Sandy Hook recedes in the rearview mirror. The reality of the issue attention cycle suggests that gun control advocates' best hope may lie in executive action, not the legislative process.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Danny Hayes.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT