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Gun policy challenges—messaging and politicians

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President Barack Obama’s recent executive orders concerning guns illustrate two important points: the difficulty with messaging gun policy, and the gap between what Americans favor and how politicians vote.

First, let’s look at the issue of messaging. If you watched the CNN town hall meeting two weeks ago, you heard the president talk about background checks, adding more agents to the FBI, and the benefits of “smart gun technology.”

One of Obama’s executive orders mandates that everyone engaged in the business of selling firearms will have to employ the already existing background check system. As it stands, a number of sales are made without background checks. The president didn’t say a word about adding new layers of steps in the purchase of guns from licensed dealers, nor have news agencies revealed anything that will impede a “law-abiding citizen” from owning a gun.

Still, here’s the second question Obama was asked: “So why can’t your administration see that these restrictions that you’re putting to (sic) make it harder for me to own a gun?”  The woman who asked the question is not alone in how gun advocates respond to changes in gun policy.

How can there be such a disconnect between what the president said and what some people think they hear? Likely, the answer is that of frames, those subconscious structures within us that shape how we see the world and determine what we see as good or bad.

If you believe gun ownership is a good thing and any regulations concerning gun sales are a bad thing, you approach the issue of gun policy—especially if the phrase “gun control” is used— with a certain set of frames. Similarly, if you believe guns are too plentiful and that society is at risk as a result, you approach the issue of gun policy with different frames. What resonates with those frames will be accepted; what doesn’t will be rejected.

What’s the takeaway? The more highly charged the subject, the more you have to think about your audience’s frames and how you should craft your message so that it resonates with your audience. Even then, certain messages won’t get through. It’s this way for all emotionally charged issues.

Here’s a second interesting aspect concerning guns: while most Americans favor expanded background checks, politicians are fighting the idea.

Last September, a Quinnipiac University poll found 93% of voters, including 93% in households with legal guns, support “requiring background checks for all gun buyers.”  A CBS News-New York Times poll  conducted last October found that “nearly nine in 10 Republicans favor background checks on all gun buyers, similar to the views of Americans overall.”

A CNN poll conducted earlier this month revealed similar findings, as evidenced by the following questions and answers:

“As you may know, this week Barack Obama announced several executive orders that change the nation’s gun laws so that background checks are required for more gun purchases online and at gun shows, and which make it easier for the FBI to complete background checks efficiently. Overall, do you favor or oppose these changes?”

Favor                67%
Oppose             32%
No opinion          2%

“When it comes to gun control laws, do you think Barack Obama has gone too far, has taken about the right amount of action, or has not gone far enough to change the nation’s gun laws?

Gone too far                       38%
About the right amount       31%
Not gone far enough           30%
No opinion                             1%

If the majority of Americans favor expanded background checks, why did the Senate vote down two bills last December— expanded background checks and prohibiting people on the federal “no-fly” list from obtaining a gun?  Answer: follow the money.

In 2014, gun right groups donated $3.77 million to federal office candidates and spent $12 million on lobbying.  The top Senate beneficiaries in 2014 from these groups were John Cornyn, R-Tx, and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, who received $65, 225 and $58,800, respectively.  Take a look at OpenSecrets.org to see who makes things happen in D.C.

Cornyn said the bill that dealt with the no-fly list was “un-American.” He couldn’t afford to say otherwise.

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Jack D’Aurora writes for considerthisbyjd.com

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Discussion

  1. Steve Adams  January 18, 2016

    Jack: Or, maybe they voted against expanded background checks because they believe in the constitution. Also, as you know, we are a democratic republic. In a democracy, people vote and majority rules. In a republic, people vote for representatives and they may or may not vote with the majority. Just because the majority thinks it is right doesn’t make it so. The majority of Nazis thought it was okay to exterminate the Jews. Personally, if the government is going to spend money on this issue, I feel it would be more effective spending it on mental health issues such as medication, counseling, and treatment centers. Most shootings appear to be drug related or someone with a history of mental illness.

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    • jdaurora@behallaw.com  January 18, 2016

      Your comment suggests that anything dealing with guns must be handled through Congress. I don’t think that’s the case. The administration of existing laws can be handled through executive order. Of course, there is a limit to what a president can do through executive orders. I’m not an expert on constitutional matters, and so I listened to a podcast concerning the subject. One of the speakers was David Orentlicher, professor of constitutional law at Indiana University. His opinion is that President Obama acted within his authority. Here’s the link: http://www.wfyi.org/programs/no-limits/radio/gun-controllegislation?utm_source=delivra&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Jan

      As for the Senators who voted against the two bills, I don’t see what constitutional impairment existed with the bills. I don’t believe the existing background check system has ever been cited as a violation of the Constitution, and so expanding the system to all gun dealers would seem to pass constitutional muster. As for the bill that dealt with the “no-fly” list, we already exclude certain people from owning guns, and so I don’t see how the bill infringes on the Constitution.

      Now, let’s take a look at why background checks are important. Would you be surprised to know that about 34 percent of gun buyers did not go through a background check? Here’s the link for this information: http://www.thetrace.org/2015/10/private-sale-loophole-background-check-harvard-research/

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      • Steve Adams  January 19, 2016

        I am not suggesting that everything dealing with guns is handled through congress. I am simply saying that some members voted the way they did because of what they believe the constitution says. I was also trying to point out that the majority is not always right. I never mentioned anything about executive order or background checks. And again let me point out that I believe this is a mental health issue.

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  2. Dave H  January 18, 2016

    Jack,

    While I may have many thoughts about the issue, I’d like to reflect on one of your comments…”How can there be such a disconnect between what the president said and what some people think they hear?” Since when is anything the president says clear or straightforward? One must always read between the lines and besides what actual words you hear, you must also reflect on how it is said and especially what is NOT said. Many times, if not most times, the critical points are very obscure. I for one, do not trust anything this president says. I look only to his actions, lack of action and the results of both. I say his record is miserable. As a side note, I feel doubly negative about Ms. Clinton.

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    • Paul R  January 21, 2016

      Dave H, I believe you are demonstrating very effectively what Jack was saying about “Frames,” with your simple assertion that you “…do not trust anything this president says.” Several times during the town hall, President Obama had to repeat what he’d already said to questioners who simply did not get that “he wasn’t coming for their guns,” or working to make it more difficult for anyone to legally acquire weapons. While you did also say you would “look only to his actions,” that you believe his record to be “miserable” indicates the framework within which you will be examining actions – that is, from a preconceived notion of the president’s not acting to your satisfaction.

      So what can we imagine you will say within that framework? New data, that contradicts the old? Or will you impose the pattern you believe to already be there upon new actions? Both sides do this – we all expect our opponents to be liars and thieves; and we all expect those on our side to be pure and honest (more or less, of course). The “gun debate” isn’t a debate, so long as no one listens to each other. And that works to the benefit of those in Congress who get money from the gun lobby to keep guns legal for all comers, including those certified as dangerous to our nation. When we close our ears, we divide our nation (we do this ourselves – not our leaders).

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  3. Dan McCormick  January 18, 2016

    It would also be interesting to see how the response goes if you take the name “Obama” out of the question. Both sides get into the rhetorical push and, following the money, helps with fundraising on both sides. Also, as SteveAdams points out above, Constitutional matters shouldn’t be based on the mood of the day. There is an element (both sides) that go on an instant attack even when you challenge by asking clarifying questions. Having been on the receiving end with accusations that questioning the effectiveness of “just doing something” you can be accused of promoting the shooting of children as your Constitutional right. Similar rhetoric revolves around abortion limits (if against drastic limits to funding or policy you’re a “baby killer and if for limits you’re participating in the “war on women”).

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  4. David Wood  January 18, 2016

    Jack:

    1) Banning people on the no fly list is a great sound bite but how do you get on that list? Americans have the right to due process so you should not lose a Constitutional right until you have the chance to challenge your status.
    2) Who Knows if guns are good or bad? The media does not report on the many times crimes are stopped by law abiding citizens with guns. I hate to walk into a building that claims it is a gun free zone. Might as well put up signs for the unbalanced among us to come in and shot us.
    3) People don’t like Obama. The President has used the Justice Department and IRS to close down conservative organizations. He refers to Republicans as Terrorists, Hostage takes, Evil. Hell after writing this I might go out and buy a gun.
    4) Time and again it’s proven that the government does not have an effective screen in place to keep out those Muslims that mean us harm. The average police time to reach you is at least 15 minutes. A lot of people can die in 15 minutes thanks to semi automatic weapons. Buy a gun and get a concealed carry permit.
    5) Most of the gun crime is in cities with the toughest gun laws. Can you draw any conclusions? Maybe.
    6) There is as much money on the anti gun side as the pro gun side. I would call it a wash. If Republicans went to a few of these hedge fund guys that fund the Dems I am sure they could match any money the NRA gives them. Maybe Republicans really do believe in the right to bear arms.
    7) There are too many people without mental health services. We are in the dark ages when it comes to helping people with mental problems. Often they self medicate with drugs and alcohol. Great combination right? Mental illness, drunk and armed.
    8) Dems have put a target on the back of every police officer. It really does suck to be a policemen these days. You are better off waiting until the crime is over than getting involved in a situation where you might end up on a murder charge or kicked off the force and lose your pension. Wait till the bodies pile up then come in and fill out the paperwork. Seems to be what is happening in Baltimore these days.
    9) I believe the Country is tied of executive orders. Maybe the President should at least try to work with Congress to get stuff done rather than constantly demonizing them. I get it. He would have to put in a full days work.
    10) For one week let’s see the anti gun lobby elites do without armed body guards and see how that works. See if Hillary can go without her protection detail for a week. And that my friends is my last thought. The professional politicians keep passing laws for the rest and exempting themselves. The first thing the Dems did was exempt themselves from Obamacare. People are tired of them vs. US. That is the real reason nothing gets done on guns.

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