Let’s start with the assumption that no one thinks mass shootings are a good thing. Starting the conversation from a place of good intention is helpful when grappling with issues weighed down by historical context and ideological divide. The public debate around guns in America rarely starts from that place, and never ends there. The place where the gun debate ultimately ends is a fascinating case study in framing.
First, some recent history.
On July 20, 2012, James Holmes opened fire on a crowded movie theater in Aurora, killing 12 and wounding 70 others. Six months later, Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 kids at Sandy Hook. Six months after that Dylann Roof killed nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Almost exactly a year later, Omar Mateen killed 49 at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, making it the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in American history. That distinction barely lasted a month, when Stephen Paddock became the deadliest mass shooter in American history, killing 58 in Las Vegas. A month later, Devin Patrick Kelley walked into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and murdered 26. And of course, just a few weeks ago, 17 died in Stoneman Douglas High School at the end of Nicholas Cruz’s AR-15 assault rifle.
These events, not to mention the far more frequent gun violence in America’s cities, seem to carry with them the same mundane ritual as the one that came before. Our leaders offer their thoughts and prayers, and Americans take their sides in the gun debate. Those who champion gun reforms in America seek to transform the outrage into action. But why hasn’t it stuck? The answer lies, at least in part, in message framing by the other side.
After Aurora, while gun reform activists publicly called for a ban on the kinds of guns and high-capacity magazines used in the shooting, the public dialogue turned quickly to mental health. The shooter even presented himself to a jury as mentally incompetent, which the court rejected, but it didn’t stop the public debate from focusing on mental health services.
Six months later as the nation struggled to comprehend what happened in Newtown, and level-headed people everywhere thought for sure, this time, we will do something about guns, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre declared that the threat came from “people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them,” doubling down on its message that we should do everything we can to restrict gun access to the mentally impaired, even as they declined to support legislation in Colorado that sought to do just that.
Then came Charleston, where members of a Bible study group welcomed a stranger into their house of worship, who would open fire on them minutes later. Roof was found to be another emotionally unstable individual, as pictures surfaced on the internet portraying him as a violent white separatist. Almost immediately, Republican leaders, including South Carolina’s governor, called for the removal of the Confederate Flag from State House grounds, shifting the public debate away from gun access and toward racism.
The debate following the Pulse Nightclub shooting was hijacked by debate over the TSA’s No Fly list, a subject that is barely on the periphery in terms of its contributions to gun violence in this country, but that magically found its way to dominate the debate on the floors of Congress.
Las Vegas brought us a national dialogue on bump stocks, a term that didn’t exist in the public mindset the day before that shooting, but nonetheless gripped the nation. After Southerland Springs, the debate centered around the shooter and domestic abuse, not the more systemic issue of gun access and proliferation. Now, in Parkland, something different seems to be happening with the rise of student activists, but still gun proponents are doing their best to make the debate about mental health, again.
Gun rights groups are masterful at reframing the debate around guns to focus on a relatively small contributor to a much bigger problem. It is classic reclassification of the problem. By doing so, they define the terms of the debate. This is no longer about combat grade assault weapons. It’s about terrorism, or the mentally ill, or racists, or wife beaters. Those are smaller arguments to have, and can be had on grounds that have nothing to do with guns. Further, if the problem is successfully redefined and gun control advocates fight on this newly drawn playing field, even if the NRA loses, they would have lost a much smaller battle.
As gun control advocates introduce legislation, and filibuster and stage sit-ins on the House floor to have the legislation considered, they are ceding the debate before they even file the bill. So when the next mass shooting occurs and we shake our heads and think “What is it going to take?”, consider the possibility that the answer might be to stop accepting the framing from the other side. Take a lesson from the teenage leaders in Florida, who will march this Saturday in active defiance of the persistent, strategic, and entirely intentional reframing that takes place after each one of these incidents.
Public dialogue is not held in a vacuum, and it is not shaped by accident. Recognizing the manipulation that goes into diverting our attention elsewhere is the first step to refusing to fall victim to it again. Reclaiming the public narrative is the next step. Watch Saturday as the nation’s young people do just that.
Shaun Adamec is a communications professional, crisis planning expert, and recovering political operative. He is President and Founder of Adamec Communications, which helps those who seek to change the world find their voice.