Changing Frames and Changing Public Opinion about Gun Laws

To begin, here are several findings about public opinion and gun control:

  • Support for gun control in the abstract has declined, even as many specific gun control policies are favored by majorities of Americans.

  • On its face, this declining support for gun control in the abstract might appear odd.  Gun ownership is strongly associated with opposition to gun laws, and if fewer people own guns, then shouldn’t opposition to gun laws shrink?  Perhaps not, given that the trend in violent crime, and thus the apparent “need” for stronger gun laws, is also declining.

  • But tragedies like today’s shooting in Newtown, CT, seem to be increasing for unexplained reasons.  Shouldn’t those make people more supportive of gun control laws?  They do not appear to.

But the frames that people use to discuss gun control do matter.  In a 2001 article, University of Kansas political scientists Donald Haider-Markel and Mark Joslyn tested the effects of frames on support for allowing people to carry concealed handguns and on how people explain a mass shooting—in this case, the Columbine massacre.

Haider-Markel and Joslyn (HMJ) framed concealed weapons in terms of rights (“law-abiding citizens have a right to protect themselves”) or public safety (“laws allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns threaten public safety because they would allow almost anyone to carry a gun almost anywhere, even onto school grounds”). The reference to school grounds is obviously relevant in light of Newtown.  HMJ found that the public safety frame reduced support for concealed handguns by about 20 points, relative to the rights frame.  The effect of the frames was larger among independents and Republicans than among Democrats (who were, unsurprisingly, more opposed to allowing concealed weapons to begin with).

HMJ also found that people were quite suggestible in terms of explaining a mass shooting.  Simply mentioning any particular factor in the survey question—HMJ’s survey mentioned weak gun control laws and violence in the media—was enough to increase the percentage of people blaming Columbine on that factor.  Obviously, which factor you blame has implications for whether any policy response is necessary and, if so, which one.  But people tended to respond to frames that they were already predisposed to agree with.  Thus, mentioning weak gun control laws affected only the explanations offered by Democrats, whereas mentioning media violence affected only independents and Republicans.

What should we conclude from this study?  First, the arguments that people will make about gun control and gun rights in the wake of the Newtown shooting can matter.  Second, those arguments might be more successful in preaching to the choir rather than converting the opposition.

The open question—and one for future study—is what happens when different frames are allowed to compete directly with each other.  Would a rights frame “beat” a public safety frame?

Over the next weeks and months, we might get to observe a real-life answer to that question.

10 Responses to Changing Frames and Changing Public Opinion about Gun Laws

  1. Alemitu Kassa December 14, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    Unstable people will always be with us Decreasing gun violence can be achieved only by having strict law of the type of gun people purchase and strict rules with regulation of gun sales. Our rights to bear arms is not about the murder kids

    • Mike December 15, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

      Problem is you are blaming the gun,which is just a tool, for the crime. Politics aside, we need to find a way to reduce violence. I believe one way to do that is to stop glorifying violence. We have become a nation addicted to violent movies, books, and video games.
      More laws won’t help a thing. We already have over 20,000 laws dealing with firearms alongside those concerning killing people by whatever means. We don’t need another law(s) about shooting people, if these crazies aren’t stopped by the laws we have now what makes you think they would obey any new laws? In fact, had one of the teachers or administrators been armed, they could have stopped this little crazy before he killed so many.
      Let’s all join in and condemn the killer, condemn violence and focus on changing our culture to one with less condoned violence and stop the stupid distraction of gun control – you can’t control them.

      • vickie December 15, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

        Lets look at some facts: gun violence is highest in the US, as is gun ownership. gun vioilence is low in countries (like great britain) that have very strict gun control laws. Abstract concepts of a more “violent” culture don’t cut it as an explanation, for example I don’t believe that we are a more violent nation by nature, and if you took away our guns we would just be knifing away at each other in substitution. Take away the guns, and the 30K+ deaths/year from firearms will be gone, and reach what other countries have which is about 30 deaths/year. To advocate that the solution is to put guns around little kids (in the teacher’s desk for example?) is about the craziest thing I can think of, more gun deaths are due to mishandling from children finding them than any crazy person can impose in a year.

  2. Joyce Burke December 15, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    Enough talking and studying the problem, it’s time for congress to get off their butts and start legislating some stricter gun control laws. when the original amendment with the right to bear arms was passed all they had were muskets for God’s sake, now with these milltary guns out there , semiautomatic war machines it is senseless. Our forefathers had no idea of these weapons when they passed that law. It is time for the present congress to ACT and act swiftly. Forget closing for the holidays,, too many people are suffering through the holidays over these senseless killing because congress doesn’t have the backbone to act on this, or much else for that matter.

  3. Jim December 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm #

    A .22 long rifle is hardly considered a war machine and backround checks won’t stop those without felonies and those who steal guns. Increased mental health services is the only way to stop this sort of senseless violence short of tearing up the constitution.

    • Scott Monje December 16, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

      Have you checked the caliber of an M-16 lately?

  4. ivyalumnyc December 16, 2012 at 6:56 am #

    Let’s look at the facts. Thomas Hamilton murdered 16 children in 1996 in Dunblane, and post that horrific event the UK eventually banned all handguns. Subsequent to enacting those laws, there has been not a single mass murder in the UK by a private citizen using a handgun.

    Guns fighting guns is not the solution. We place the trust of protection in law enforcement and enable those citizens to carry guns as they owe society a fiduciary responsibility for the safety of society. If you propose guns in schools, malls, airplanes, bathrooms is necessary in today’s world given the proliferation of guns in the hands of criminals/mentally ill people, then you are effectively dismissing the trust you have in law enforcement. And if you are claiming so, then why not dismiss the trust in the Federal Reserve and the US Banking system and hide your cash under your bed, or better yet convert all your US currency into gold and store it in your backyard as you sit on your porch protecting your assets with your semi-automatic.

    We will never be able to properly identify mentally ill people, mental illness is not a physiological disease like cancer, determined through a binary blood/imaging test. Tseung-Cho passed all the background checks and he was quite mentally ill. Our number one priority for the overall safety of society is to prevent the mentally ill and criminals from gaining access to guns.

    The 2nd amendment exists to protect citizens from a breakdown/failure in government. However today it is a foolish vehicle through which citizens in our country are gaining easy access to these deadly weapons when their mental state or criminal background should bar them from doing so.

    Sandy Hook marks a death in the life of the United States. However, what saddens me more is that how many other mentally ill teenagers/young adults are going to bed tonight with access to similar guns and the power to execute another tragedy on the utmost innocence and purity of this society.

  5. Sue December 16, 2012 at 9:24 am #

    In 1974 after terrorists killed children in a school, Israel armed teachers and started having armed parents and grandparents patrol the schools and grounds. They haven’t had a killing st a school since they did that.

    Making our schools gun-free zones turned them into killing zones. Had teachers been armed and armed parents been on patrol the skell would be dead instead of the kids. It’s time to do what works and has a 38 year track record of success.

    We must follow Israel’s example or be prepared to have more of these avoidable killings.

    • Scott Monje December 16, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

      Gee, I guess if the guy’s mother had been a gun collector, then none of this would have happened.

  6. jeffG December 19, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    All of this talk of guns and gun control is just a distraction. The real issue should be how do we identify, treat and when necessary incarcerate the severely and dangerously mentally ill. In all of these mass shootings there seem to be plenty of warning signs that were ignored. I am sure that will be the case in Conn. For anyone who hasn’t read it, I suggest that everyone read “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” on the internet by Liza Long.