Warped Narratives: Distortion in the Framing of Gun Policy

Every year in America, gun violence claims more than 35,000 lives, with gun-related injuries accounting for more than twice that number. Despite this staggering problem, the federal government has taken very little action since in the mid-1990s. How do we account for this policy stalemate and, some would say, failure on the part of public officials? The typical explanations focus on deepening political polarization and the power of the gun lobby (and the National Rifle Association, especially). While these factors are clearly significant, another aspect of the gun policy debate, reflecting a more general dysfunction of policymaking, deserves our attention: the framing of the policy issue.

Framing refers to the way politicians, interest groups, journalists and others talk about the problem of gun violence, including its causes and the people it affects. Scholarship in political science, psychology and other disciplines has shown that the framing of an issue can shape public opinion, motivate political participation, and influence the selection of policy solutions, among other effects.

In my book, Warped Narratives: Distortion in the Framing of Gun Policy, I argue that the framing choices of gun control and gun rights organizations contribute to a warped policy debate, meaning that advocates on both sides frame the issue in ways that diverge from reality. Gun control groups, for instance, highlight white victims, child victims, and mass shootings in suburban locales, while gun rights groups focus on self-defense shootings, emphasizing threats to “law-abiding” gun owners. The reality is that most gun deaths are the result of suicide, and most homicides occur in urban areas, affecting racial minorities.

While these framing choices make political sense in the short term—appealing to groups’ core constituencies, generating sympathy for victims—they may entail long-term negative consequences for policymaking and politics. In particular, warping can lead policymakers to focus on partial or ineffective solutions. The emphasis on gun crime, for instance, leads to solutions such as background checks, licensing, and registration, yet those policy tools are arguably much less effective in preventing deaths by suicide.

Warping may also spell political trouble for interest groups on both sides of the policy debate. By selectively highlighting some types of gun violence while downplaying others, each side limits its ability to build a broader coalition. For instance a focus on mass shootings involving white victims might capture public attention for a limited period, but it may alienate African Americans who feel that their trauma is being ignored. On the other side, by focusing on self-defense shootings (typically involving white homeowners), gun rights groups constrain their ability to build a more diverse movement.

To demonstrate the warping of the gun policy debate, I systematically analyze nearly 67,000 communications from nine gun control and six gun rights organizations. These communications include all of the groups’ Facebook posts, plus thousands of emails, press releases, and blog posts from 2000 to 2017. I use a combination of automated content analysis and in-depth reading of a subset of groups’ communications to identify groups’ framing choices, focusing on their characterizations of victims, perpetrators, and types of gun violence (e.g., mass shootings, suicides, self-defense shootings, urban violence).

Beyond the content analysis, I consider the prospects for policy change at the federal level, and my overall assessment is generally pessimistic. However, I suggest that there are some glimmers of hope, such as the student movement for gun control that formed after the 2018 mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The students leading that movement chose to include more diverse voices and perspectives in their framing.

I also suggest a few possibilities for breaking the gun policy stalemate, including reframing the gun debate. The options for reframing range from minor rhetorical shifts—e.g., substituting “gun injury and death” for “gun violence”—to major shifts in thinking about the causes of gun violence, focusing on systemic factors such as urban decay. Another possibility is the formation of new coalitions, such as with Black Lives Matter. Such an alliance might be mutually beneficial to gun control groups and Black Lives Matter activists, given their common goal of reducing violence. Alternately, gun rights groups could consider reaching out to groups advocating minority gun rights, such as the Black Women’s Defense League. While refocusing on the role of race in gun violence and otherwise reducing the distortion of the gun policy debate is no guarantee that meaningful policy change will follow, it’s certainly worth a try.