The media will quickly forget about guns — unless Washington stops them

by Danny Hayes, The Washington Post  |  published on December 17, 2012

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Within hours of the murder Friday of 26 schoolchildren, staff and a principal in Newtown, Conn., the political debate had been joined. President Obama, speaking through tears, called for “meaningful action” to prevent future horrors like the one witnessed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Advocates of gun control have demanded new legislation, and now.

The challenges for gun control proponents are formidable. There is the influence of the gun lobby on Capitol Hill. And in particular, a public that in recent years has not only grown less supportive of more gun restrictions, at least in the abstract, but also doesn’t care about the issue. In a post-election Gallup survey, fewer than one-half of one percent of Americans said that guns were the nation’s “most important problem.”

One reason the issue lacks salience is that citizens tend to take their cues from the media. When news outlets devote significant attention to an issue – health care or national security, for example – the public comes to view those problems as pressing. With the deluge of economic news over the last year, it’s no surprise that 64 percent of the Gallup respondents said the economy was the nation’s most important problem.

But as Brad Plumer and Dylan Byers have pointed out, news coverage of gun control is rare and particularly sporadic, even in the aftermath of widely publicized mass shootings. And that makes the prospects for a renewed public debate over gun control dim, although not extinguished entirely.

Consider the graph below. It displays the number of news stories that contained the phrase “gun control” in the weeks surrounding three shootings: the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the January 2011 Arizona attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the July 2012 assault at a theater in Aurora, Colo. The data come from a search of more than 500 news outlets in the “U.S. Newspapers & Wires” index of LexisNexis.

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