Home»Commentary»Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue: Understanding Thematic Framing & how Conservative focus on Mental Health Contributes to the Problem

Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue: Understanding Thematic Framing & how Conservative focus on Mental Health Contributes to the Problem

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Gun owners have their work cut out for them. Despite recent Supreme Court rulings that seem to tip the balance in our favor, the push for gun control is relentless and is alarmingly taking on a more aggressive demeanor. Hints at all-out confiscation are being heard as freedom, according to our so-called vice president, cannot exist without safety. Something that our founders warned us about as Benjamin Franklin famously stated, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Government is not capable of providing security for everyone. They are arguing that a disarmed society would be a safer society while ignoring the reality of mass shootings taking place where no one is armed and the government failed to protect anyone. Still, as popular as the second amendment has become, the majority of Americans, and this includes a large number of gun owners, do not understand the amendment’s significance and are susceptible to the way the argument is being framed.  If Americans wish to maintain the second amendment and pass on the blessings of liberty to future generations, they must pay close attention to the messages being directed toward them. Within each one is a carefully constructed frame designed to shift the opinions of those who might not be rooted in their ideological worldviews.

What is a frame? According to an article entitled Guns, Culture, or Mental Health? Framing Mass Shootings as a Public Health Crisis, framing is a way to make a perceived reality more salient in a media message. It is a way of giving certain aspects more weight, and if done correctly, can influence the attitudes and beliefs of the intended audience. Defoster and Swalve (2018) discuss framing from the perspective of mass media and something called the agenda-setting role. According to McCombs and Reynolds (2008), the agenda-setting role of the media defines what the general public is thinking about. Framing an issue from the perspective of those pushing it is the first step towards changing the opinions of the masses and gaining compliance with agenda items that may otherwise be rejected. To look at it from another perspective, Nelson, Oxley, and Calwson, in their 1997 article entitled. Toward a Psychology of Framing Effects, describe framing as a “subtle, yet important manner in which political communications shape popular thinking about politics.”

“Frames tell people how to weigh the often conflicting considerations that enter into everyday political deliberations. Frames may supply no new information about an issue, yet their influence on our opinions may be decisive through their effect on the perceived relevance of alternative considerations.” (Nelson, Oxley & Clawson, 1997)

The gun control argument is being framed from the perspective of gun violence being a public health threat. The targeted audiences are those gun owners, along with the general public that doesn’t own guns, that would be susceptible to the messaging. For example, a large number of gun owners in America do not own AR-15-style rifles. While they are by far the most popular sporting rifle, a lot of gun owners own your common bolt or lever action hunting rifles, along with popular shotguns used for duck hunting or skeet shooting. The idea of the second amendment as a means of preventing tyranny is foreign to many of these people and as such, they are not as informed, or ideologically rooted in their beliefs. This is significant because Defoster and Swalve (2018) note that the targeted audiences are generally those sophisticated enough to understand a communicated text, but not sophisticated enough to know how or why to refute it. This is huge when it comes to persuasion or effectively framing a message because much of it is dependent upon what the audience already believes. The hard-core second amendment advocates – which this author identifies himself as – are not likely to be persuaded into accepting any gun control proposals because they are informed and spend a great deal of time studying the issue. This includes understanding the ineffective laws which currently govern the issue, and do nothing to stop gun violence as it is. Therefore, the targeted audience is  gun owners who believe the second amendment is for hunting, and society should have “reasonable gun laws.”

Framing the gun control argument is done from the perspective of something called moral foundations theory. This is done by targeting the moral foundations of a specific target and framing the argument within those parameters. Two examples of using this theory are the articles, “I am an AR-15 Owner and I have had Enough”, and “Georgia gun shop owner shutters store after mass shootings targeting children.” Both of these articles portray the positions of men who claim to be staunch second amendment advocates, yet because of their consciousness, can no longer support the owning of AR-15-style rifles. They both take the position that second amendment concerns, and gun rights in general, should be set aside in favor of the safety issues being caused by easy access to guns and mental health. Another example is the interview given by Steven Spainhouer after the mall shooting in Allen Texas. He also framed the issue from the perspective of a concerned gun owner who has come to his senses and realizes that, in the name of public safety, something has to be done about AR-15s. The unfortunate reality about moral foundations theory is that it is effective in inducing attitude change. In fact, according to the article Shifting Liberal and Conservative Attitudes Using Moral Foundations Theory, conservatives are far more likely to shift their opinions to the left, than liberals to the right, when the issue is framed correctly. This isn’t always the case but to put it into context, what is more likely? Shifting the opinions of some gun owners, commonly referred to as Fudds, to accept some gun control, or getting the left to accept and support the second amendment? This is why we are constantly hearing about the overwhelming number of “gun owners who support common-sense gun reforms.” It is part of the propaganda.

When framing the issue as a public health crisis, second amendment advocates need to understand that they are contributing to the work whether they realize it or not. The points made in the above paragraph are examples of how the media is framing the issue as a public health crisis. When they relate the relevance of mass shootings to mental health issues, they are setting up the public health frame because the so-called mental health crisis is connected, and leading to, the high rate of mass shootings. Defoster and Swalve (2018) admit that the mass shooting issue is being used as the agenda-setting role of the media, meaning that this is what they want the public to think about. When conservatives argue that the issue is mental health they are contributing to the overall gun control narrative in two ways. One, it is already illegal for someone deemed by a court to be incompetent to purchase a firearm. I argued in my article, Mental Health, and Gun Control: Two Arguments Leading to the Same Conclusion, that mental health is not only a misunderstood concept but something that objectively, is difficult to define. As Thomas Szaz argued in The Myth of Mental Illness, the term mental does not denote a physical, biological existence but a process of thinking and interpreting worldviews and beliefs. An illness cannot exist in that manner. There is nothing that can be absolutely defined as an illness within a thinking process that does not ultimately come down to being viewed as a defect of the personality or an error in the worldview and thinking process. Two, they are keeping the issue of mental health, which is also framed as a rising public health problem, in the forefront of people’s minds as they are forced to consider the ramifications of mentally ill people legally acquiring firearms. That is how a frame functions, by placing a weighted emphasis on a certain aspect of a message that is already known to exist in the minds of the targeted audience. Simply by the virtue of keeping this debate in the minds of Americans, whether from a gun control or mental health perspective, the media can continue to frame messages and push the intended audience further toward the desired direction of supporting gun restrictions in the name of public safety. Does it work? If the right audience is targeted.

What is the solution? The gun control train isn’t slowing anytime soon and despite the Supreme Court rulings which in all reality, should have stopped it cold,  is driving on with increasing velocity. It is easy to pinpoint little feel-good solutions like ensuring the right candidates are running for office, educating people who are sitting on the sidelines and even holding elected officials who violate their oaths accountable. None of those are effective because most people are unaware of the work being done to understand the effects of framing and persuasive messaging on the public. We are fighting this battle against an educated elite who has the jump on us all in their understanding of human behavior and our responses to their carefully constructed messages. While many people reading this article are likely firm in their beliefs and unlikely to yield to persuasive messaging concerning gun control itself, many staunch second amendment advocates take the bait and argue the mental health aspect hoping to shift the attention away from the right to bear arms as an individual right to something that is considered a larger societal problem. The masters of opinion engineering have a name for this as well. It is called “Thematic Framing” (Nelson, Oxley & Clawson, 1997) and is used to do exactly that. Force the recipients of the message to think about the “broader social, political, and economic forces,” (Nelson, Oxley & Clawson, 1997) which are contributing to the problem. Gun violence is a symptom of a larger sociocultural problem of mental health. To prevent mentally ill people from acquiring firearms, which the media portrays as something that happens legally every time there is a shooting, society must consider the possibility of restricting gun rights. I have argued this before and I will argue it again, you can not develop solutions to a problem that isn’t understood. Understanding how this works, and what they know about constructing messages is vital in this fight.

Article posted with permission from David Risselada


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