No Longer Helpless: A Change of Policy Image the Guns Debate

This is a guest post by Bryan Jones, J.J. “Jake” Pickle Regent’s Chair in Congressional Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.  His previous guest post is here.


In an interview last year, I suggested that gun control was a policy ripe for rapid change.  I thought so at the time because the policy was firmly lodged in interest-group politics and one side had won so much its demands were devoid of any relationship to reality and common sense.   As Patrick Egan shows, as gun laws were weakened at the state level and in federal law, the violent crime rate declined and gun ownership fell.  Acquiescence by the public, seemingly lack of harm in the policy, and a one-sided interest group contest all pointed to continued dominance of the gun lobby—if one uses standard approaches to prediction.

But breakdowns often occur when one side seems to have won the policy battle—in a sense by taking too much.  By overextending, groups have to defend essentially indefensible policies.  It makes them more vulnerable, and that vulnerability may be traced by focusing on what Frank Baumgartner and I called a policy image—a summary of the general prevailing understanding of an issue’s basic character.  Simplified policy images stem from basic human psychology and the social phenomenon of contagion.  They can be very resilient, but they can also collapse quickly in the right circumstances.

That an issue rises in collective attention is important (and often that can be fleeting), but even more important is how the issue is characterized when it is raised.  Baumgartner, de Boef, and Boydstun demonstrate that support for the death penalty declined only when the prevailing policy image as discerned from careful analysis of press coverage shifted toward a frame focusing on executing innocent people.

Newtown has stimulated a likely change in the prevailing policy image governing how people think about the gun issue.  Previously the causal story circulating among the more attuned public and pushed by the gun lobby was this: the availability of guns had not affected the crime rate negatively and indeed may well have caused part of the general decline in the rate.

For mass killings, which have not declined and may have increased, a different story was told: people kill people and anyway, nothing can stop determined or mentally unbalanced people from obtaining guns and using them in horrific ways (apparently unless all other citizens are armed). Because government can’t ameliorate the problem, it should not intervene.  These are events that happen, part of life, and they cannot and should not be addressed through policy.  Let’s call this the helpless frame. 

The conception that nothing can stop the slaughter may be breaking down. President Obama’s speech to the Newtown grieving directly addressed the helpless frame.  The helpless frame is being challenged by the availability of guns frame, in which the simple availability of guns to dangerous people becomes the preferred explanation.

If the problem is reconceived, government solutions are within the pale.  Just what policy solution might be attached to the problem is unclear, but the lowest hanging fruit (where the gun lobby’s policy victories have exceeded the bounds of common sense) include an assault weapons ban, a high-capacity magazine ban, and improved background check procedures for gun purchases.  Both of these respond to the availability of guns frame in a manner consistent with common sense.

5 Responses to No Longer Helpless: A Change of Policy Image the Guns Debate

  1. Woodnsoul December 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    Any gun control legislation will still have to either start or go through the House. And do it some months after Newtown – January or February at the earliest. The momentum for change, unless there is another horror, will likely fade – availability frame or no.

  2. Mark Nadel December 19, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    I hope that you are right, but the fact that even Republicans with presidential ambitions like Gov. Bob McDonnell in Virginia advocate arming school principals shows that the NRA frame still has staying power (or is perceived by ambitious politicians as too big to buck).

    Also, an interesting contrast from an electoral perspective is offered by Charlie Cook in today’s National Journal:
    He points out that only 15 of the 234 Republican House members were elected from districts carried by Obama, and so they don’t have to worry about Democrats if they oppose restrictions on firearm lethality. I would add that they do have to worry about being primaried on their right, a threat which greatly increases if the NRA goes after them in typically low turn-out primary elections.

  3. MG December 19, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    Gun control is a good idea….but the weapons that were used in the Newtown, CT tragedy were LEGALLY owned and I suspect that gun owner never thought her legal guns would be used against her. Personally I would never own a gun, I see no need as I am not a hunter nor do I feel that being “armed” makes me any safer in the end (again, ask the mother who was killed in Newtown by her own gun).

    I will also say that one needs a license to drive a car and you have to pass a government test to get that license….why is it that with a simple background check one can walk out with a gun. Most guns are “supposed” to be registered but I know that there are many that are not. There are not enough safeguards in this area and the whole thing needs an overhaul.

    • Crash December 19, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

      If the gun control laws were stricter than some, if not all, of the guns and ammo used in Newton would not have been legally owned.

      Unfortunately you’re arguing against a psychotic lobby which has vowed to fight ANY such restrictions and has actively chipped away at any law which puts up even the mildest barrier between a wannabee Dirty Harry and his precious firearm. Just last month the NRA pushed a law in Texas to reduce the number of training hours needed to get a concealed carry permit to 4. That’s right: according to the NRA, gun laws in Texas are too restrictive, and you should be able to wake up and get a concealed carry permit before lunch.

      And don’t even get them started on gun registration, which they insist is the first step on the road to the revival of the gulag and the end of all freedoms as we know it.

  4. woodnsoul December 20, 2012 at 12:48 am #

    If a person is crazy enough to commit and act like mass murder. Will any laws work to keep them from doing it? Laws only work for those who obey them.

    I am definitely not a fan of the NRA, and I still think this is a complicated issue and one for which there is likely no real solution,only placebos to make us think we have some sort of control over insanity.