Skip to main content

How media lose interest in gun control

By Danny Hayes, Special to CNN
January 11, 2013 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
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
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT