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Outgunned: How the Network News Media Are Spinning the Gun Control Debate

3. The Development of Themes

Reporters harped on several major themes in their coverage of gun policy stories over the last two years. The arguments most commonly advanced had one thing in common: guns are the problem. On the other hand, pro-gun rights themes were, for the most part, ignored.

GUN CONTROL THEMES

1. "Access to guns leads to shootings." The instinctive network approach focused more on the weapons than on the shooters. The day after the Columbine High School shooting, Katie Couric flew in to ask Colorado Governor Bill Owens outside the school: "A lot of people are asking about the accessibility of guns. Have you wondered about that yourself?"

Network anchors didn’t just single out guns, but a permissive "gun culture" as the culprit. After the Jonesboro, Arkansas shooting, Couric asked Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee on March 26, 1998: "Are you a proponent of the theory that somehow the fact that these school shootings have taken place in the South is indicative of a southern culture that, that might, I don’t know, be more permissive of this kind of activity or somehow encouraged by the acceptance of guns and hunting?"

Couric didn’t mention that cities with the most restrictive gun laws—New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.—account for 13 percent of the U.S. murders despite making up only five percent of the U.S. population.

2. "Concealed weapons laws will only increase the carnage." Another liberal argument advanced by the media is that passage of concealed weapons laws will equal more violence in the streets. But it was a responsible gun owner, assistant principal Joel Myrick, who went to his car to grab a gun to stop the Pearl, Mississippi shooter. How many networks told the stirring story of Myrick’s heroic defense of his students with a firearm? Just one. NBC mentioned it twice, in an October 2, 1997 NBC Nightly News story and an interview with Myrick on the October 3, 1997 Today show.

On the day after the Columbine killings, ABC’s Charlie Gibson asked Colorado Governor Bill Owens: "There is irony in this state. Right as this happens, the state legislature is debating a bill that would permit citizens of Colorado to carry concealed weapons. That’s a bill that you support or have supported and said you would sign. Does this change your mind? Does it change the political landscape? Does it now seem terribly ill-advised?"

In states that passed concealed-weapon laws, crime has decreased dramatically. Professors John Lott and David B. Mustard of the University of Chicago found that network reporters were pushing a liberal myth: "When state concealed handgun laws went into effect in a county, murders fell by 8.5 percent, and rapes and aggravated assaults fell by five percent and seven percent." [More Guns, Less Crime, John R. Lott, Jr., University of Chicago Press, 1998.]

3. "Gun makers are responsible for violence." When the gun control debate shifted from Congress to the courts with lawsuits against gun manufacturers, the media again shifted blame, this time from the criminals to the gun makers.

On February 12, 1999, Good Morning America co-host Charles Gibson hailed a victorious "landmark" ruling: "Late yesterday, the growing drive to hold gunmakers to account for the way their products are used had its first victory in a federal court in New York City. Both sides are saying this is just the beginning. And there is no doubt that in the end, communities across the nation will be touched by the debate. ABC’s Terry Moran has more on the landmark ruling."

Moran elaborated: "It is the moment every mother dreads and this mother will never forget. After her 18-year-old son, Damon, was gunned down in an elevator, Andrea Slade Lewis joined six other victims and sued 25 gun manufacturers to hold them responsible for, as one lawyer put it, dumping guns like toxic waste into the market."

Reporters overlooked the point that in product liability lawsuits, the plaintiffs have to prove that the product was defective or not used as it was intended. The guns did not malfunction, but performed the way they were designed. The problem came in the criminal intent behind the gun. The lawsuits also ignored the beneficial uses of guns like self-defense.

These points were made by gun-rights spokesmen but rarely were made by reporters. Out of 47 stories on the lawsuits, reporters mentioned one of the above points in only ten. Of the 47 stories, 33 of them were slanted against gun manufacturers, only two in favor of them, and 12 were neutral. ABC ran the greatest number of stories on the lawsuits with 20, followed by NBC with 12 stories, and six on both CNN and CBS. NBC was the most biased, with 10 of their 12 stories favoring the lawsuits. (The other two were neutral.) ABC closely followed with 15 of their 20 stories aimed against gun manufacturers, and five neutral ones. On CNN, five stories leaned in favored the lawsuits, three were neutral, and just one tilted against a lawsuit. CBS broadcast three stories promoting the lawsuits, two neutral, and just one against.

4. "Will Congress waste the momentum we created toward gun control?" All of this gun coverage led to a climate on Capitol Hill that something had to be done about guns or else congressmen, specifically Republican congressmen, would feel it at the polls next year. And once public officials started debating the issue, reporters were there to egg them on. There was no more blatant example of this than the following exchange between Charlie Gibson and President Clinton on June 4.

Gibson pleaded: "When you went to Littleton, a friend of yours, who supports you on gun control, said to me in the last 48 hours, the President, because as he said Littleton has seared the national conscience, the President had a chance to roar on gun control and he meowed, and that was a friend of yours. There are very basic measures that could be taken that people agree on. We register every automobile in America. We don’t register guns. That’s a step that would make a difference."

Gibson offered liberal solutions to the President: "But let me come back to you on that, the polls, I agree on that, the polls have shown that this country would accept registration of firearms and yet we don’t do that and we’re not fighting about regulation of guns. We regulate every other consumer product out there." After the President warned that many Democrats who voted for gun control were defeated in 1994, Gibson feared that NRA members, and not the press, were setting the agenda: "But hasn’t the NRA won the debate at that point? Once we say it‘s politically impossible, we can’t do it, we won’t propose it, hasn’t the NRA basically framed the debate at that point?"

Over on NBC, Today co-host Matt Lauer echoed Gibson’s lament that a golden opportunity to regulate guns was being wasted when he asked liberal Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) on June 16: "There is some fear among some people that now that school is out, and parents aren’t sending their children off into what they may view as harm’s way every day, that there’s gonna be some momentum lost on gun control. Do you agree with that?" Lauer’s Today show colleague Ann Curry also wondered where the media-generated momentum went in an interview with the Heritage Foundation’s Marshall Wittman on June 21: "But didn’t the public cry out for more gun control after the shootings, the tragedy, the massacre in Littleton, and what happened to the momentum that was building when this was before the Senate?"

PRO-GUN THEMES

1. "Increase prosecutions against criminals using firearms." The National Rifle Association argues that federal prosecutions of gun law violations have dropped significantly since 1992. In recent ads, the NRA has cited a Syracuse University study that found there has been a 46 percent drop in prosecutions of the criminal use of firearms from 1992 to 1998. While NRA spokesmen appearing as guests have made this point, network reporters and interviewers cited the Clinton’s administration’s failure to prosecute criminals exactly eight times.

On Good Morning America, co-host Lisa McRee asked Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell on June 9, 1998: "Yesterday we were joined by the NRA's new President, Charlton Heston, who said that it's not the guns, but rather the lack of the enforcement of the laws, and a lack of prosecution that is the real problem in this country. How do you respond?"

2. "When the program Project Exile increased gun prosecutions in Richmond, shootings were reduced." Reporters, for the most part, ignored one program that has successfully reduced shootings. The National Rifle Association’s support for Project Exile in Richmond, Virginia was noted a mere three times. According to the NRA, Project Exile "adopts a zero-tolerance for federal gun crimes, with federal, state and local law enforcement and prosecutors working hand-in-hand to prosecute each and every federal firearms violation." Once the program was implemented, according to the NRA, "the city’s homicides were cut nearly one-third, the lowest number since 1987." The only mentions of Project Exile were on the April 30, 1999, NBC Nightly News, and the November 30, 1998, and February 20, 1999, editions of ABC’s World News Tonight. CBS never mentioned it. CNN’s The World Today never covered Project Exile, but did find time to highlight a guns for Beanie Babies exchange program in Illinois [CNN’s The World Today, April 27, 1998].

On the bright side, NBC devoted a large part of a Nightly News program on April 30, 1999, to "Guns in America," and three of those stories were classified as favoring the arguments of gun owners. In one of those stories Pete Williams highlighted Project Exile: "Not long ago Richmond had one of the nation’s highest murder rates. But now under Project Exile here in Virginia, gun crimes are prosecuted under tough federal laws. Billboards and TV ads send out the message that using a gun brings a minimum five years in prison. Police say they can tell it's working and Richmond's murder rate is down 30 percent. But every night brings risk. 11 p.m., a report of a man shot. Sergeant Shamus searches but it's a false alarm. No man, no gun. And since Project Exile began, he says guns are now scarce on the street." Sgt. Mike Shamus told Williams: "They’re going to things like sticks, knives, bats, bottles. I mean, they're very creative in the tools that they use now."

Williams explained: "Pro-gun groups like the NRA support the project. Insisting more gun law enforcement, not more gun laws, will reduce crime. Richmond businessman Gary Baker says he is living proof. He says he’s here today because of his guns. Four years ago, as he opened his jewelry store, two men with guns stormed in and started shooting. He fired back, killing both of them." Baker claimed: "It enabled me to go home that evening to my wife and family. If, if we hadn't been able to defend ourselves, I truly think we would've been killed." Williams concluded: "Sergeant Shamus ends his shift, midnight. He believes his city is safer now, but nationwide the search goes on for ways to keep guns out of the wrong hands."

3. "Millions of people use guns every year in self-defense." In 1997, criminologist Gary Kleck estimated that over 2.5 million people a year defend themselves from an assailant or burglar by exercising their constitutional right to bear arms. Yet how many times did television networks report such acts? In the past two years, out of 653 gun policy stories, exactly 12 times. By making a blockbuster story out of several school shootings—while leaving out the millions of times citizens use guns to stop crime each year—they presented a very misleading picture to the average viewer that firearm use brings more harm than good, and thus should be limited or even banned.

One exception to this bias by omission came as part of that April 30 NBC Nightly News package, "Guns in America." Reporter Robert Hager talked to Ryland Moore, a 71-year-old man who foiled a teenager’s attempted robbery in a diner, who said: "Things happen all the time. You know people are attacked, robbed, killed, and I don’t intend to be a statistic if I can help it." He also presented Texas legislator Suzanna Gratia Hupp, who remembered "how her parents were killed with 20 others in a Texas cafeteria massacre in 1991. She says she had a shot at the gunman, but wasn't carrying her pistol because back then it was against the law." Hupp added: "Had my legislators not legislated me out of the right to protect myself and my family, we would have had a chance, at least a chance to protect ourselves."

Hager asked if someone with a concealed weapon could have stopped the killers at Columbine: "Seven states prohibit concealed weapons. But 43 states including Colorado permit them, licensing three million Americans to carry them. An outspoken advocate of concealed weapons, University of Chicago’s John Lott in a study claims in states that passed laws permitting concealed weapons murder rates declined nine percent, rape five percent, robbery three." Lott was countered by Joseph Sudbay of Handgun Control, Incorporated. Hager concluded: "A national debate sharpened now by the horror of Littleton and the possibility many others like Ryland Moore may now turn, in self-defense, to packing heat."

Another NBC Nightly News story portraying armed self-defense in a positive light came on November 10, 1998, in the wake of the shooting of abortionist Barnett Slepian in Buffalo. Tom Brokaw explained: "These continuing threats against doctors in America have forced many to go to extreme lengths to protect themselves." Mike Boettcher turned his spotlight on an Arizona abortionist: "In Phoenix, Dr. Brian Finkel, who performs abortions, reaches for protection. Why? Two of his colleagues were shot in New York." Finkel declared: "And I usually carry at least a Colt .45 with me." NBC showed his holstered side arm.

4. "Current gun laws didn’t stop shootings." Gun rights advocates argue that the utility of passing yet another gun law is questionable when the ones currently on the books didn’t prevent any of the shootings. This point was made on just five separate occasions, all in 1999. On NBC, it was mentioned on the April 22 and 23 Today shows and the April 23 Nightly News. There was a brief mention on the April 21 edition of Good Morning America and the June 6 The World Today on CNN. CBS never touched it. No one made the point more eloquently than the father of one of the Columbine victims.

Darrell Scott, who lost his daughter in the Columbine High School shooting, expressed doubt that one more gun control bill was the answer. However, Scott’s pleas barely made a wave in media circles. There was one mention on the May 27, 1999, Nightly News, and then the next morning on the May 28 Today, one story on the May 27 CBS Evening News, and one story on the May 28 This Morning. On the May 28 Today, NBC’s Gwen Ifill introduced the Scott soundbite: "Darrell Scott lost his 17-year-old daughter Rachel in the Columbine High School massacre, but he told Congress guns were not to blame." Scott declared: "No amount of laws can stop someone who spends months of planning this type of massacre."

Ifill reported: "Describing himself as a willing pawn in the gun control debate but not a gun owner or a member of the National Rifle Association, Scott said there should be more focus on prayer, less on blaming the NRA." Scott elaborated: "I was amazed at how quickly fingers began to be pointed at groups such as the NRA. I’m not here to represent or to defend the NRA, because I don’t believe they are responsible for my daughter’s death." Unfortunately, reporters didn’t share Scott’s view and demonstrated no qualms about scapegoating the NRA and gun owners across the country.