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

- December 19, 2012

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.