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?
Assessing the likely life-saving implications of a ban on the sales of new assault weapons is even more problematic. According to that same congressional report, “Existing data do not show whether the number of people shot and killed with semiautomatic assault weapons declined during the 10-year period (1994-2004) that those firearms were banned from further proliferation in the United States.” In similar fashion, a 2004 academic study for the National Institute of Justice concluded, “The ban’s success in reducing criminal use of banned guns and magazines has been mixed.” There are, to be sure, some indications that making assault weapons more difficult to obtain did alter criminal behavior. As The New York Times argued in a late January editorial, “After the ban expired, 37 percent of police departments reported noticeable increases in criminals’ use of assault weapons, according to a 2010 report by the Police Executive Research Forum.”
With gun control likely to remain in the headlines for much of 2013, readers deserve to know what are the known knowns and the known unknowns about gun violence. Just because the available data does not fit into a neat ideological cubbyhole is not an excuse for neglecting to discuss it. It is quite likely that smart academics—both those in the midst of the political battles and those on the sidelines—have their own interpretations of existing statistics and their own theories about the real-world implications of passage of reform legislation. But while reporters are fond of balancing their stories with fire-breathing rhetoric from both the NRA and gun control advocates, quieter figures who have studied the issue remain almost invisible in the daily journalism from Capitol Hill and beyond.
The problem for reporters covering the torturous path of gun legislation through Congress is that no one on either side of the issue is apt to be honest about what can be achieved. Gun-control groups along with the Obama White House are so anxious for a victory that they would hail almost anything as a bold step towards halting gun violence. In contrast, the NRA and its conservative allies go to ludicrous extremes by conjuring the specter of totalitarian government in response to even the most limited attempts at gun legislation.
The roots of the problem of gun violence are, of course, the roughly 300 million firearms that are in private hands and are mostly legally owned. This existing arsenal combined with the Supreme Court’s broad interpretation of the Second Amendment means that any politically plausible gun-control legislation is apt to only work at the margins. Still, some lives undoubtedly would be saved. That is why reporters should work harder to give Americans a sense of which proposals are apt to be effective and which ones are likely to prove toothless. It is important to add a sense of realism to the coverage of efforts to reduce gun violence, since it seems unlikely that any reform will bring enough results to match the passion and the rhetoric of the reformers, including the president.
The wrenching tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School should not be an excuse to abandon journalistic inquiry and skepticism. Needed are more conversations with outside experts on gun violence—and fewer political set pieces about grieving survivors and hyperbolic NRA supporters. A renewed sense of seriousness about presenting the gun issue in all its complexity is what the children and the nation deserve after Newtown.