To begin, here are several findings about public opinion and gun control:

  • Support for gun control in the abstract has declined, even as many specific gun control policies are favored by majorities of Americans.
  • On its face, this declining support for gun control in the abstract might appear odd.  Gun ownership is strongly associated with opposition to gun laws, and if fewer people own guns, then shouldn’t opposition to gun laws shrink?  Perhaps not, given that the trend in violent crime, and thus the apparent “need” for stronger gun laws, is also declining.
  • But tragedies like today’s shooting in Newtown, CT, seem to be increasing for unexplained reasons.  Shouldn’t those make people more supportive of gun control laws?  They do not appear to.

But the frames that people use to discuss gun control do matter.  In a 2001 article, University of Kansas political scientists Donald Haider-Markel and Mark Joslyn tested the effects of frames on support for allowing people to carry concealed handguns and on how people explain a mass shooting—in this case, the Columbine massacre.

Haider-Markel and Joslyn (HMJ) framed concealed weapons in terms of rights (“law-abiding citizens have a right to protect themselves”) or public safety (“laws allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns threaten public safety because they would allow almost anyone to carry a gun almost anywhere, even onto school grounds”). The reference to school grounds is obviously relevant in light of Newtown.  HMJ found that the public safety frame reduced support for concealed handguns by about 20 points, relative to the rights frame.  The effect of the frames was larger among independents and Republicans than among Democrats (who were, unsurprisingly, more opposed to allowing concealed weapons to begin with).

HMJ also found that people were quite suggestible in terms of explaining a mass shooting.  Simply mentioning any particular factor in the survey question—HMJ’s survey mentioned weak gun control laws and violence in the media—was enough to increase the percentage of people blaming Columbine on that factor.  Obviously, which factor you blame has implications for whether any policy response is necessary and, if so, which one.  But people tended to respond to frames that they were already predisposed to agree with.  Thus, mentioning weak gun control laws affected only the explanations offered by Democrats, whereas mentioning media violence affected only independents and Republicans.

What should we conclude from this study?  First, the arguments that people will make about gun control and gun rights in the wake of the Newtown shooting can matter.  Second, those arguments might be more successful in preaching to the choir rather than converting the opposition.

The open question—and one for future study—is what happens when different frames are allowed to compete directly with each other.  Would a rights frame “beat” a public safety frame?

Over the next weeks and months, we might get to observe a real-life answer to that question.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.