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 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT