Media Bias About Guns

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I often give talks to audiences explaining that research by me and others shows that guns are used much more often to fend off crimes than to commit them. People are very surprised to learn that survey data show that guns are used defensively by private citizens in the U.S. anywhere from 1.5 to 3.4 million times a year. A question I hear repeatedly is: "If defensive gun use occurs so often, why haven’t I ever heard of even one story?"

Obviously anecdotal stories published in newspapers can’t prove how numerous these events are, but they can at least deal with the question of whether these events even occur. During 2001, I did two detailed searches on defensive gun uses: one for the period covering March 11 to 17 of that year, and another for the period July 22 to 28. While these searches were not meant to be comprehensive, I found a total of 40 defensive gun uses over those two weeks. Some representative examples:

Clearwater, Florida: At 1:05 a.m., a man started banging on a patio door, beat on a family’s truck, then tore open the patio door. After numerous shouted warnings not to break into the home, a 16-year-old boy fired a single rifle shot, wounding the attacker.

Columbia, South Carolina: As two gas station employees left work just after midnight, two men attempted to rob them, beating them about the head and neck with a shovel handle. The male employee broke away long enough to draw a handgun from his pocket and shot at his attacker, who later died.

Detroit, Michigan: A mentally disturbed man yelled that the President was going to have him killed, and started firing at people in passing cars. A man at the scene who had a permit to carry a concealed handgun fired shots that forced the attacker to run away.

West Palm Beach, Florida: After being beaten during a robbery at his home, a home owner began carrying a handgun in his pocket. When another robber attacked him just two days later the homeowner shot and wounded his assailant.

Columbia Falls, Montana: A woman’s ex-boyfriend entered her home to sexually assault her. She got away long enough to get her pistol and hold her attacker at gun point until police arrived.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: At 5:45 a.m., a crack addict kicked in the back door of a house and charged the homeowner, who shot him to death.

Gainesville, Florida: A newspaper carrier was dragged from his car and beaten by five men at 3:15 a.m. The victim then shot one of the attackers in the chest with a concealed weapon.

Tampa, Florida: Two teenage armed robbers went on a four-hour crime spree, hijacking cars, robbing people, and hospitalizing one victim with serious injuries. They were stopped when one intended victim, a pizza-store owner, shot and wounded one attacker.

Charleston, South Carolina: A carjacking was stopped by a 27-year-old victim who then shot one of his attackers. The victim had paused to ask directions when several men, one with a lengthy criminal record, jumped into the car.

These life and death stories represent only a tiny fraction of defensive gun uses. A survey of 1,015 people I conducted during November and December 2002 indicates that 2.3 million defensive gun uses occurred nationwide in 2001. Guns do make it easier to commit bad deeds, but they also make it easier for people to defend themselves where few alternatives are available. That is why it is so important that people receive an accurate, balanced accounting of how guns are used. Unfortunately, the media are doing a very poor job of that today.

Though my survey indicates that simply brandishing a gun stops crimes 95 percent of the time, it is very rare to see a story of such an event reported in the media. A dead gunshot victim on the ground is highly newsworthy, while a criminal fleeing after a woman points a gun is apparently not considered news at all. That’s not impossible to understand; after all, no shots were fired, no crime was committed, and no one is even sure what crime would have been committed had a weapon not been drawn.

In other words, airplane crashes get news coverage, while successful take-offs and landings do not. Even though fewer than one out of 1,000 defensive gun uses result in the death of the attacker, the newsman’s penchant for drama means that the bloodier cases are usually covered. Even in the rare cases where guns are used to shoot someone, injuries are about six times more frequent than deaths. You wouldn’t know this from the stories the media choose to report.

But much more than a bias toward bad news and drama goes into the medias selective reporting on gun usage. Why, for instance, does the torrential coverage of public shooting sprees fail to acknowledge when such attacks are aborted by citizens with guns? In January 2002, a shooting left three dead at the Appalachian Law School in Virginia. The event made international headlines and produced more calls for gun control.

Yet one critical fact was missing from virtually all the news coverage: The attack was stopped by two students who had guns in their cars.

The fast responses of Mikael Gross and Tracy Bridges undoubtedly saved many lives. Mikael was outside the law school returning from lunch when Peter Odighizuwa started shooting. Tracy was in a classroom waiting for class to start. When the shots rang out, chaos erupted. Mikael and Tracy were prepared to do something more constructive: Both immediately ran to their cars and got their guns, then approached the shooter from different sides. Thus confronted, the attacker threw his gun down.

Isn’t it remarkable that out of 208 news stories (from a Nexis-Lexis search) in the week after the event, just four mentioned that the students who stopped the shooter had guns? A typical description of the event in the Washington Post. “Three students pounced on the gunman and held him until help arrived.” New York’s Newsday noted only that the attacker was “restrained by students.” Many stories mentioned the law-enforcement or military backgrounds of these student heroes, but virtually all of the media, in discussing how the killer was stopped, said things such as: “students tackled the man while he was still armed” “students tackled the gunman” the attacker “dropped his gun after being confronted by students, who then tackled him to the ground” or “students ended the rampage by confronting and then tackling the gunman, who dropped his weapon”

In all, 72 stories described how the attacker was stopped, without mentioning that the heroes had guns. Yet 68 stories provided precise details on the gun used by the attacker: The New York Times made sure to point out it was "a .380 semiautomatic handgun"; the Los Angeles Times noted it was "a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol."

A week and a half after the assault, I appeared on a radio program in Los Angeles along with Tracy Bridges, one of the Appalachian Law School heroes. Tracy related how "shocked" he had been by the news coverage. Though he had carefully described to over 50 reporters what had happened, explaining how he had to point his gun at the attacker and yell at him to drop his gun, the media had consistently reported that the incident had ended by the students "tackling" the killer. When I relayed what the Washington Post had reported, Tracy quickly mentioned that he had spent a considerable amount of time talking face-to-face with reporter Maria Glod of the Post. He seemed stunned that this conversation had not resulted in a more accurate rendition of what had occurred.

After finishing the radio show, I telephoned the Washington Post, and Ms. Glod confirmed that she had talked to both Tracy Bridges and Mikael Gross, and that both had told her the same, story. She, said that describing the students as pouncing, and failing to mention their guns, was not "intentional." The way that things had come out was simply due to space constraints.

I later spoke with Mike Getler, the ombudsman for the Post. Getler was quoted in the Kansas City Star as saying that the reporters simply did not know that bystanders had gotten their guns. After informed him that Glod had been told by the students about using their guns, yet excluded that information, Getler said, "She should have included it." However, Getler said that he had no power to do anything about it. He noted that readers had sent in letters expressing concern about how the attack had been covered. But none of these letters was ever published.

The Kansas City Star printed a particularly telling interview with Jack Stokes, media relations manager at the Associated Press, who "dismissed accusations that news groups deliberately downplayed the role gun owners may have played in stopping" the shooting. But Stokes "did acknowledge being u2018shocked’ upon learning that students carrying guns had helped subdue the gunman. u2018I thought, my God, they’re putting into jeopardy even more people by bringing out these guns.’"

Selective reporting of crimes such as the Appalachian Law School incident isn’t just poor journalism; it could actually endanger people’s lives. By turning a case of defensive gun use into a situation where students merely "overpowered a gunman" the media give potential victims the wrong impression of what works when confronted with violence. Research consistently shows that having a gun (usually just showing it) is the safest way to respond to any type of criminal assault.

It’s no wonder people find it hard to believe that guns are used in self-defense 2 million times a year: Reporting on these events is systematically suppressed. When was the last time you saw a story in the national news about a private citizen using his gun to stop a crime? Media decisions to cover only the crimes committed with guns — and not the crimes stopped with them — have a real impact on people’s perceptions of the desirability of guns.

To flesh out this impression with some data, I conducted searches of the nation’s three largest newspapers — USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times — for the year 2001 and found that only the Times carried even a single news story on defensive gun use. (The instance involved a retired New York City Department of Corrections worker who shot a man who was holding up a gas station.) Broadening my search to the top ten newspapers in the country, I learned that the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune each managed to report three such stories in a year.

To gain further perspective, I did deeper searches comparing the number of words newspapers published on the use of guns for committing crimes versus stopping crimes. For 2001, I found that the New York Times published 104 gun-crime news articles — ranging from a short blurb about a bar fight to a front-page story on a school shooting — for a total of 50,745 words. In comparison, its single story about a gun used in self-defense amounted to all of 163 words. USA Today contained 5,660 words on crimes committed with guns, and not a single word on defensive gun use. The least lopsided coverage was provided by the Washington Post, with 46,884 words on crimes committed with guns and 953 words on defensive stories — still not exactly a balanced treatment.

Moreover, the few defensive news stories that got coverage were almost all local stories. Though articles about gun crimes are treated as both local and national stories, defensive uses of guns are given only local coverage in the rare instances they run at all. In the full sample of defensive gun-use stories I have collected, less than 1 percent ran outside the local coverage area. News about guns only seems to travel if it’s bad.

This helps explain why residents of urban areas are so in favor of gun control. Most crime occurs in the biggest cities, and urbanites are bombarded with tales of gun-facilitated crime. It happens that most defensive gun uses also occur in these same big cities, but they simply aren’t reported.

This imbalance isn’t just limited to newspapers. Take the 1999 special issue of Newsweek entitled "America Under the Gun." Though over 15,000 words and numerous graphics were provided on the topic of gun ownership, there was not one mention of self-defense with a firearm. Under the heading "America’s Weapons of Choice," the table captions were: "Top firearms traced to crimes, 1998"; "Firearm deaths per 100,000 people"; and "Percent of homicides using firearms." Nothing at all on "Top firearms used in self-defense," or "Rapes, homicides, and other crimes averted with firearms." The magazine’s graphic, gut-wrenching pictures all showed people who had been wounded by guns. No images were offered of people who had used guns to save lives or prevent injuries.

To investigate television coverage, I collected stories reported during 2001 on the evening news broadcasts and morning news shows of ABC, CBS, and NBC. Several segments focused on the increase in gun sales after September 11, and a few of these shows actually went so far as to list the desire for self-defense as a reason for that increase. But despite slightly over 190,000 words of coverage on gun crimes, merely 580 words, on a single news broadcast, were devoted to the use of a gun to block crime — a story about an off-duty police officer who helped stop a school shooting. Not one of the networks mentioned any other defensive gun use — certainly not one carried out by a civilian.

Another place where the predilections of reporters color the news about guns is in the choice of authorities quoted. An analysis of New York Times news articles over the last two years reveals that Times reporters overwhelmingly cite pro-gun-control academics in their articles. From February 2000 to February 2002, the Times cited nine strongly pro-control academics a total of 20 times; one neutral academic once; and no academic who was skeptical that gun control reduces crime. Not once. The same pro-control academics were referenced again and again: Philip Cook of Duke, Alfred Blumstein at Carnegie Mellon, Garen Wintemute of the University of California at Davis.

This imbalance in experts interviewed cannot be explained away by an inability to find academics who are dubious about most gun control laws. Two hundred ninety-four academics from institutions as diverse as Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, the University of Pennsylvania, and UCLA released an open letter to Congress in 1999 stating that the new gun laws, being proposed at that time were "ill advised." These professors were economists, lawyers, and criminologists. None of these academics was quoted in New York Times reports on guns over a two-year period.

Polls frequently serve as the basis of news stories. While they can provide us with important insights about people’s views, polls can also mislead in subtle ways. In the case of weapons, poll questions are almost always phrased with the assumption that gun control is either a good thing or, at worst, merely ineffective. The possibility that it could have bad results and even increase crime is never acknowledged.

Consider these questions from some well-known national polls:

  • Do you think that stricter gun control laws would reduce the amount of violent crime in this country a lot, a little, or not at all? (Pew Research Center/Newsweek)
  • Do you think stricter gun control laws would reduce the amount of violent crime in this country, or not? (ABC News/Washington Post)
  • Do you think stricter gun control laws would, or would not reduce violent crime? (CBS News)

I reviewed 17 national and seven state surveys and found that all asked only whether gun control laws reduce crime; not one offered respondents a chance to consider whether gun control might increase crime. This notion apparently never entered the pollsters’ minds.

The omission in such polls of a "would increase crime" option creates a bias in two different ways. First, there is an "anchoring" effect. We know that the range of options people are offered in a poll affects how they answer, because many respondents instinctively choose the "middle ground." By only providing the choices that gun control reduces crime somewhere between "a lot" to "not at all," the middle ground becomes "a little."

Second, when the possibility that gun control could cause crime is removed from polls, this affects the terms of national debate. When people who hold this view never even hear their opinions mentioned in polls and news stories, they begin to think no one else shares their view. Repeated surveys that imply gun control either makes society better or has no impact gradually acculturate Americans to accepting the view that is constantly presented.

There are other subtle biases in the construction of these surveys. When a survey questions whether gun control will be "very important" for the respondent at the voting booth, the media often hear a "yes" answer as evidence that the person wants more gun control. Rarely do they consider that someone might regard a politician’s position on gun control as important because he or she opposes it. This same blurring of opposite positions in one question causes gun control to be ranked more highly as an election issue than it should be. Polls typically compare issues such as "increased defense spending" (which captures supporters on just one side of the issue) with questions on "gun control" (where both anti- and pro-control partisans say the issue is important, yet believe entirely different things).

A final area strongly affected by the media’s anti-gun bias is that of accidental shootings. When it comes to this, reporters are eager to write about guns. Many have seen the public service ads showing the voices or pictures of children between the ages of four and eight, implying that there is an epidemic of accidental deaths of these young children.

Data I have collected show that accidental shooters over-whelmingly are adults with long histories of arrests for violent crimes, alcoholism, suspended or revoked drivers licenses, and involvement in car crashes. Meanwhile, the annual number of accidental gun deaths involving children under ten — most of these being cases where someone older shoots the child — is consistently a single digit number. It is a kind of media archetype story, to report on "naturally curious" children shooting themselves or other children — though from 1995 to 1999 the entire United States saw only between five and nine cases a year where a child under ten either accidentally shot themselves or another child.

The danger of children stumbling across guns pales in comparison to many other risks. Over 1,260 children under ten died in cars in 1999. Another 370 died as pedestrians hit by cars. Accidents involving residential fires took 484 children’s lives. Bicycles are much more likely to result in accidental deaths than guns. Fully 93 children under the age of ten drowned accidentally in bathtubs. Thirty-six children under five drowned in buckets during 1998. In fact, the number of children under ten who die from any type of accidental gunshot is smaller than the number of toddlers who drown in buckets. Yet few reporters crusade against buckets or bathtubs.

When crimes are committed with guns, there is a somewhat natural inclination toward eliminating all guns. While understandable, this reaction actually endangers people’s lives because it ignores how important guns are in protecting people from harm. Unbalanced media coverage exaggerates this, leaving most Americans with a glaringly incomplete picture of the dangers and benefits of firearms. This is how the media bias against guns hurts society, and costs lives.

John Lott [send him mail] is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This article is adapted from his new book The Bias Against Guns.

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