In the three months since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, daily coverage of the gun issue has become as predictable as a Hollywood script meeting. In fact, when it comes to most writing about guns and Congress, it is easy to conclude that there are only two styles of narrative—the emotional or the narrowly political.
Emotional: A recent tear-stained USA Today story about a Senate gun-control hearing began, “The father of a 6-year-old killed in last year’s Connecticut elementary school shooting wept as he urged a Senate panel Wednesday to pass legislation to prevent another gun massacre.” Equally wrenching was a Reuters dispatch earlier this month with the lede, “Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, returning to the site of the shooting rampage where she was gravely wounded, on Wednesday urged senators to ‘be courageous’ and support background checks for all gun buyers.”
Political: When bipartisan Senate negotiations over enhanced background checks between Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Tom Coburn broke down earlier in March, the Washington Post article included polling data showing that nearly 90 percent of voters support regulating sales at gun shows. Yet in its story, Politico theorized that, as a result of the impasse, the only proposal likely to win approval this year was a gun trafficking bill. That legislation, Politico explained, “is seen as far less important than the background checks proposal yet much easier to pass.”
Missing from these stories—and dozens like them—was policy context. Gun-control proposals are ranked based on the ferocity of likely opposition from the National Rifle Association rather than on the legislation’s potential ability to save lives. As a result, readers get the sense that an assault weapons ban would reduce gun violence more than expanded background checks, which in turn would be more effective than gun trafficking legislation. But this rock-paper-scissors hierarchy is entirely based on politics (what might pass Congress) rather what might prevent another massacre in an elementary school or movie theater.
Reporters on the gun-control beat often failed to offer evidence to suggest how many of America’s roughly 30,000 gun deaths per year would be prevented if any of these bills passed Congress—no way to judge or compare their value. Imagine if press coverage of the sequester never revealed that $85 billion in arbitrary cuts were at stake. Or if news stories on the withdrawal from Afghanistan forgot to mention that more than 2,100 American military personnel have died in that theater since 2001. Statistics like Congressional Budget Office cost estimates and think-tank calculations are a staple of policy debates in Washington in virtually every other arena other than gun legislation.
Granted, reliable statistics are hard to come by when it comes to firearms—in part because the NRA remains so adamantly opposed to effective record-keeping. As Slate acknowledges in its ongoing attempt to calculate the carnage since Newtown, “It seems shocking that when guns are in the headlines every day, there’s no one attempting to create a real-time chronicle of the deaths attributable to guns in the United States.” In a surprising and laudable article that led the March 10 Sunday edition of The New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff reveal that, based on academic polling, gun ownership in America appears to have dramatically declined in the last four decades. The Times reporters concede that “detailed data on gun ownership is scarce” and note that the Gallup poll shows a higher ownership rate and a more moderate decrease over time.
Still, the fragmentary nature of information on guns is not a valid excuse for fact-free journalism. There are available clues that reporters could seek out suggesting the practical limitations and possible results of popular forms of gun control legislation.
Take background checks. Buried in an invaluable Congressional Research Service report from last November is the fact that 1.6 million would-be gun buyers flunked federal background checks mandated by the Brady Bill from 1998 to 2009. Gun-control proponents probably see that as an impressive figure. Skeptics might note with equal validity that 98 percent of Americans who wanted to purchase firearms passed federal muster. What remains unknown is what the 1.6 million rejected gun buyers (mostly felons and those convicted of domestic violence) did next. Did they head for an unregulated gun show? Obtain an illegal firearm? Borrow one from a friend? Or simply abandon guns all together?