‘Where Have You Been’ On Gun Violence? How This Time Might Be Different


Then-ABC News Chief White House Correspondent (soon to be CNN Anchor/Chief Washington Correspondent) Jake Tapper caused quite a stir when he asked President Obama, at a press conference announcing a task force on gun violence, “Where’ve you been” on the issue. The President reacted defensively, and his supporters cried foul, but embedded in their reaction was proof of the question’s fairness. “Where have you been?” they asked Tapper. That’s also a fair question, but Jake Tapper isn’t on the Jake Tapper beat, he’s on the White House beat. A lot of people need to be asked where they’ve been on this issue, especially if we hope to end up somewhere different this time.

“Well, here’s where I’ve been, Jake,” the President replied, with obvious pique, “I’ve been President of the United States dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse, two wars. I don’t think I’ve been on vacation.”

What he should have said, but couldn’t, was “I’ve been president of a country that has consistently refused to care enough about this issue to do anything about it, and which I would not have been president of for long if I’d pushed for any gun control measures.”

Think what you will of that pragmatic approach, of whether the President should have died on that hill anyway, but die on it, he would have, and with it, the accomplishments that he listed in his response to Tapper. However, a look back at where the White House has been on gun control. pre-Sandy Hook, reveals some disturbing patterns.

In order to examine the treatment of gun control by the White House, and to find out “where” the White House press corps has “been” on the issue, I aggregated every mention of the issue from transcripts of White House briefings and press conferences. We’ll get to the press’ treatment of the issue in a minute, but the White House responses read disturbingly close to what we heard from gun apologists in the wake of Sandy Hook. There are the standard “too soon” reactions, the stock references to “enforcing existing law,” and the consistent effort to frame guns as only a small part of the problem. Former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and current Press Secretary Jay Carney also used the President’s “support” for a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban as a talisman of sorts, but the devil is in this Nov. 26 exchange, just weeks before Sandy Hook, between Carney and Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev:(emphasis mine)

Q And the assault weapons ban?

MR. CARNEY: Well, the President has long supported the reinstatement of that. When he’s asked about this — and was not that long ago — made clear that Congress — that there are issues here in dealing with Congress on taking those kinds of measures.

This is significant for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the difference between being on the right side of an issue, and leading on it. In addition to the standard “look away” talking points on guns, these transcripts are rife with references to the lack of political will in congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban, or any gun laws. Whether or not you think the President could have pushed that boulder to the top of the hill, pre-Sandy Hook, taking the “right” position on the assault weapons ban seems to have been an inoculation against not trying to.

More than that, though, Carney’s response to Talev highlights this disturbing fact: until Tapper’s polarizing question, the President simply wasn’t asked about it. In fact, even at that press conference, which was about gun control, the press corps spent the first half of it asking about the fiscal cliff. Until then, the White House press corps conducted its inquiry about gun control exclusively through White House spokesmen. One of the most important functions of the press is to hold government accountable in real-time, to represent the American people, to tell those in power what’s important to the people, even as their editorial choices tell the people what’s important to them. This is not the same as advocacy; no one is suggesting that Jake Tapper is suddenly a gun control activist. However, the mere act of asking a question tells the President, and the people, that the subject is of importance to the public, and the message on gun control is clear.

Even in those exchanges with White House spokesmen, the pressure on gun control was largely pegged to the immediate aftermaths of mass shootings, and a large chunk of it came from reporters on the “professional left,” rather than the broadcast and cable news networks. It’s worth noting, however, that the only reporter to ask the White House about gun control before the mass shooting in Tucson was Jake Tapper, who asked Robert Gibbs “will the administration seek legislation that would allow the government to block firearm sales to people that are on the terror watch list?”

To give this some frame of reference, I also aggregated White House transcripts on the subject of the “Fast and Furious” so-called “scandal,” a favorite hobby horse of the pro-gun right, who fantasized about some grand conspiracy to confiscate guns by… not confiscating guns (again, it’s worth noting that Jake Tapper pushed back hard on this notion in an interview with Rep. Darrel Issa [R-CA]). The comparison is instructive. Over a 14-month period, the White house press corps gave Fast and Furious about the same amount of attention (word count: about 10,200) it gave gun control (word count: about 11,200) during the nearly four years preceding the Sandy Hook shooting, and even managed to ask the President about it twice. There’s also a huge difference in the types of questions, and who was asking them. While a large chunk of the gun control questions came from online outlets and AURN’s April Ryan (in addition to some print and TV reporters, including Jake Tapper), the Fast and Furious questions came mostly from television and mainstream print outlets, and the exchanges from them were much more adversarial.

You can judge for yourselves the relative merits of these lines of questioning, whether Fast and Furious deserved the attention it got, or whether it was handled fairly, but the difference in intensity is unmistakable. With four mass shootings in less than three years, and an epidemic of gun deaths that claims over 30,000 lives per year, it’s reasonable to conclude that gun regulation, pro or con, is at least as important as an imaginary conspiracy to confiscate guns, and is definitely not four times less important.

But that is not to say that the White House press is to blame for neglecting gun control. Their treatment of the issue largely mirrors that of the mainstream media, which pays attention to the issue after mass shootings, and quickly loses interest. For example, according to the TV Eyes transcription database, there were 636 mentions (including repeats) of “gun control” on cable TV between October 1 and December 14, the day of the Sandy Hook tragedy. That’s about 8 mentions per day, and that includes the huge kerfuffle over Bob Costas’ remarks on Sunday Night Football.

In the 18 days following the shooting, there were 2,615, or about 145 mentions per day. That sounds like a lot, and relatively speaking, it is, but over that same time period, there were almost 9,000 mentions of the term “fiscal cliff.” Many people are hoping that this latest tragedy will change things, that the interest in this subject will be sustained long enough to translate into meaningful action, but in order for that to happen, we have to understand where we’ve been, and how we got there.

It’s easy to blame the media, and/or the President, and/or the National Rifle Association, all of whom share varying degrees of responsibility, and there’s an attractive case for doing so. One fact that’s been highlighted anew by the Sandy Hook shooting is that gun owners overwhelmingly support certain gun regulations. Polling on the expired assault weapons ban has consistently shown 60% or more support for reinstating it, dating back years, and when the ban was about to expire in 2004, even 72% of Republicans favored continuing it. Polls on gun registration consistently show about 70% of Americans support for a national gun registry. How can the President and the media be so out of step with the American people, and the NRA with its own membership?

There are two very good answers to that question, at least one of which is partially the fault of the media and the NRA. Polling on specific “common sense” gun regulation produces starkly different results than polling on gun control more generally. When you ask Americans if we need stricter laws, the support drops to around 50%, or much lower, depending on how you ask the question. Part of the problem is that people are annoying and stupid, and can simultaneously think “I support a ban on assault weapons, but I don’t think we need stricter gun laws.”

However, some of this can be chalked up to the fact that most Americans think gun laws are more strict than they actually are. One poll found that 70% of Americans think there is already a national firearms registry in the U.S., when there’s actually been a federal law against such a registry since 1986. I haven’t seen any polling on this, but I guarantee you that most Americans aren’t yet aware that our current definition of “strict” gun control allows for the ownership of assault rifles with grenade launchers. The NRA has successfully campaigned on the idea that gun laws are choking freedom, but the news media has utterly failed at informing the public about the true state of gun regulations.

Popular culture plays a role, as well, reinforcing the myth of tight gun control rules with police who can always trace ownership of firearms, while also supporting a key NRA talking point: that gun bans don’t work because criminals ignore them. It’s common knowledge that machine guns are regulated to within an inch of a total ban, yet film and television feature copious use of the weapons by criminals, when in real life, the regulation of machine guns works really well. That’s a good thing, because imagine if one of these guys, who used machine guns to rob a bank in 1997, and wounded 18 police and civilians in the ensuing 44-minute firefight, had chosen, instead, to engage in a mass shooting like the Aurora movie theater massacre. Mass murderers don’t eschew machine guns because they don’t like them, but because they can’t get them.

Now, imagine if the Aurora shooter, or the Sandy Hook Elementary killer, had been just as unable to acquire a semiautomatic weapon that fires more than ten shots without reloading. That’s what Sen. Dianne Feinstein‘s proposed assault weapons ban will do, requiring all banned weapons already on the market to be registered in the same way that machine guns are today:

  • Requires that grandfathered weapons be registered under the National Firearms Act, to include:
    • Background check of owner and any transferee;
    • Type and serial number of the firearm;
    • Positive identification, including photograph and fingerprint;
    • Certification from local law enforcement of identity and that possession would not violate State or local law; and
    • Dedicated funding for ATF to implement registration.

Now, journalists like Jake Tapper, or Wolf Blitzer, or Brian Williams, don’t have a duty to take a position on gun regulation, but they do have a duty to inform the public that our current definition of “strict gun laws” isn’t strict at all, that truly strict federal gun regulation is very effective, and that relying on local laws in high-crime areas is like trying to ban water from the middle of a bathtub. The people they serve can then make whatever judgments they’d like to.

That leads to the chicken-or-egg question of why those people don’t care enough about the issue (or didn’t, pre-Sandy Hook) to force something to change. If so much of the polling is so overwhelmingly in favor of gun regulations, why has that not translated into a demand for action? In an October Up with Chris Hayes segment about polling in the presidential race, former Gallup pollster David Moore touched on the answer:

Simply put, while polls clearly show a preference for more gun regulations, the average person doesn’t (or didn’t) care nearly enough about the issue as the NRA and a small group of extremely vocal gun owners care about blocking any and all gun control measures. Part of that is a function of the media’s failure to inform them, but people have to take a measure of responsibility for that, too. They see the all-too-frequent reminders of our gun culture in action, but their interest fades under the din of pro-gun noise. There is (or was) no reward for political action on gun regulation, only risk.

There’s also no reward for responsible media coverage of this issue, only punishment. When merely questioning the possible need for more (read: any) gun regulation in the face of such horrors is seen as an example of political bias, there is little incentive for mainstream journalists to treat the issue with the urgency and emphasis it deserves. If 20 children had been poisoned by school lunches, no one would consider it “bias” to ask if tougher food safety laws were needed. The NRA has so successfully politicized gun policy that journalists are expected to ignore this significant threat to public safety, or treat it with a false “balance” that gives equal weight to nonsense, or pretend that every other issue surrounding gun violence is more important than the guns.

There are activists on the side of gun regulation, but they are badly outgunned by the NRA, both in financing and intensity of support. They’re also nearly absent from the media conversation. In the past three months, the term “Brady Campaign” was mentioned 134 times on cable TV. The NRA? 2,591 mentions. This conversation is occurring between pro-gun activists and the normally disinterested.

None of this absolves the average American from sharing the responsibility for this problem. Gun violence, particularly the mass-shooting variety, is not a secret, and it is reasonable to expect people to connect the dots, even without the media’s help. Until now, they have not. In order for anything meaningful to happen, they must connect them now, they must care as much about this as they do about not being annoyed by their gun-nut uncle.

The media must also change, and not succumb to the gravitational pull of false objectivity or neutrality. If the American people won’t care, journalists must make them care. 30,000 people a year are dying, and we must decide whether those lives are worth it. This is not about the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms. That the federal government can regulate the sale and possession of firearms is a settled matter. This is not about advocacy, although if journalists provide the public with all of the facts, those facts will speak for themselves. This is about exercising good editorial judgment, in the public’s interest.

That’s where we have all been on gun control these past four years, and while it may or may not be fair to damn President Obama for failing to single-handedly reverse the tides, it is fair to look at where he’s been, and expect that he not retreat there now, no matter who else turns and runs. Hopefully, the media won’t be among them.

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