The Bias Against Guns. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2003. Copyright © 2003 by John Lott. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
John R. Lott Jr. has published more than ninety articles in academic journals and is the author of several books about crime, guns, and gun control laws. He was a senior research scholar at Yale University's School of Law and has held positions at the University of Chicago, Stanford University, UCLA, the Wharton Business School, and Rice University.
According to some studies, the widespread ownership of guns in the United States has actually made the country safer. In fact, it is estimated that every year over 2 million crimes are prevented by law-abiding citizens who brandish guns at would-be attackers. However, news stories concerning guns omit this statistic. Newspapers, magazines, and especially TV news shows run thousands of stories in which guns are used to murder while never mentioning that guns are more often used in self-defense. On nearly every major news show, interview subjects calling for more gun control far outnumber those who advocate making guns more readily available. This bias in favor of gun control ignores evidence that suggests that more firearms restrictions will make the United States a more dangerous place.
To investigate television coverage [of gun issues], I collected stories reported on the evening news broadcasts and morning news shows on the three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) during 2001. In 2001 there were several segments discussing the increase in gun sales after September 11, and a couple of these shows went so far as to give the desire for self-defense as a reason. But despite slightly over 190,000 words of coverage on gun crimes, merely 580 words were devoted by one news broadcast to an armed off-duty police officer who helped stop a school shooting. None of the three networks mentioned any other defensive gun use—certainly not one by a civilian.
ABC's Good Morning America program is fairly typical of broadcasting in the way it treats gun stories. It unquestionably leads its competitors in terms of the sheer volume of stories it does on guns, with almost 77,000 words spent on stories discussing gun crimes. Guests supporting gun control included Rosie O'Donnell, Randy Graves [whose son was severely wounded during the April 20, 1999, shooting spree at Columbine High School], an academic from Emory University urging people to "remove the guns from the home," and Representative Carolyn McCarthy from New York, whose husband was killed in Colin Ferguson's 1993 [shooting] rampage on the Long Island Rail Road. Not one single guest provided an alternative viewpoint. Twelve segments covered the Santana High School shooting in Santee, California, where two students were killed [in 2001]. Eight segments examined the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, shooting, where one student was wounded. And four segments were devoted to an attack at a California Community College, where a student was caught before he could act out his plan.
Other topics on Good Morning America during 2001 included a September discussion of school shootings that had taken place during previous academic years, the second anniversary of the Columbine attack, a town meeting on school violence, a mother who shot her six-year-old son, celebrity shootings allegedly involving [actor] Robert Blake and rapper Sean "Puffy" Combs, Texas prison escapees who were committing crimes with guns, a former IRS employee who shot at the White House, and the murder of a Dekalb County, Georgia, sheriff.
ABC's other news program, World News Tonight, covered many of the same topics as well as a few others. Among the additional stories were two different shootings where a man killed someone at a plant and then committed suicide (in Indiana and Illinois), some general pieces on school shootings, and an examination of "Secret Service Techniques Used in Threat Assessment." Even a story about the mentally ill managed to raise the issue of crimes committed with guns.
Media's support for gun control
If I were a TV news director, I admit I would probably also cover many of these same stories. Yet, while a murder/suicide at a plant in Indiana or Illinois is interesting, does it really merit coverage on the national evening news? A mother who shoots her son is also important, and so is the murder of a Georgia sheriff. But surely at least one defensive gun story ... would also be as newsworthy. Within just the randomly selected two-week period ... a killer in Michigan was stopped from firing his gun at passing cars by a concealed permit holder. In other cases not covered on television news, multiple lives were saved—more lives than were lost in some of the stories that made the national news.
The imbalance of viewpoints on television news is even more difficult to explain than the choice of stories covered. Of the morning show hosts, only Katie Couric interviewed NRA president Charlton Heston (March 13). One interview with Charlton Heston by the Today Show doesn't balance extensive interviews with Rosie O'Donnell, Million Mom March founder Donna Dees-Thomases, multiple parents who had lost their children to gun violence, and an extensive discussion about how people should try to convince their neighbors not to own guns. Not one person, including Heston during his brief interview, suggested that gun control could increases crime. If stories on lives lost by guns are interesting, why not interview a heroic youngster who saved lives with a gun? If asking neighbors to stop owning guns makes for interesting television, it ought to be equally interesting to interview researchers whose work shows that increased gun ownership saves lives.
The television media's support for more gun control in news reports is often quite explicit and frequently takes the form of lobbying. Take a segment on CBS's Early Show:
Diana Olick (reporter): When shots rang out in the halls of Santana High last week, they fell, some say, on deaf ears in the halls of Congress....
Representative Carolyn McCarthy: I've had an awful lot of members say to me, "Carolyn, I wish I could vote with you. I can't." That's how powerful the NRA is.
Olick: But the facts don't support the fear. In Election 2000, five new senators won their seats running on the gun issue. And according to the Million Mom Organization, five out of seven congressional candidates won with strong positions on gun control.
Ms. Donna Dees-Thomases (Million Mom Organization): I believe that some of these elected officials, quite frankly, are just cowards. They are afraid of the gun lobby. But shame on them.
Olick: ... Representative Carolyn McCarthy says that in the next few months she'll introduce another bill trying once again to require background checks at gun shows. Such a bill did not pass in the last session. Julie.
Julie Chen (anchor): All right. Thanks, Diana. Diana Olick on Capitol Hill. And just ahead, we'll hear from the mother of one of the victims of the Santana High shooting.
As the quotes at the beginning of this section also indicate, anchors and reporters always assume that more gun control is the answer.
Their bias shows up in the questioning of guests. A challenging interviewer would ask gun control advocates about the strongest objections provided by their opponents. Opponents of controls should of course face the same critical questioning. Instead, gun control advocates are frequently pushed to support more restrictions than they are currently advocating. All too typical was Bryant Gumbel's questioning of Senator John McCain when Gumbel asked what McCain would do if his current gun control efforts on gun show regulations failed. Gumbel didn't ask whether McCain would reconsider his support of control. Instead, Gumbel wanted to know "Could you see your position reaching the point where you might support registration; where you might support longer waiting periods?"
Television anchors encourage gun control advocates in ways one could never imagine them treating gun control opponents. Katie Couric worried aloud about the charges of hypocrisy Rosie O'Donnell faced when her bodyguards applied for concealed handgun permits: "And you were demonized by the people who believe in the right to carry guns."
However, there is a notable exception to all this one-sided coverage on the television news. I concentrated on the major networks simply because they have by far the largest audiences, but since the late 1990s the Fox News Channel has been providing an alternative approach. Even though Fox provides extensive live coverage of bad events involving guns, at least several news stories during 2001 and the first half of 2002 have explicitly discussed defensive gun use by citizens.
Whatever the motivation for this imbalance by the networks, the constant bombardment of bad news about guns has an impact on people's views.