Outlandish ideas are a gun rights strategy to deflect from real policy.
Gun rights activists proposed last week that one way to prevent school shootings is to arm teachers. President Trump gave his support to the idea in a speech last week.
To some media analysts, it was clear what was happening: This was how gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association were countering the teenagers who survived the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and were getting traction in the media with their pro-gun control message. As David Karpf, a scholar of political communication at George Washington University, tweeted:
So that brings us back to "arm the teachers." THE WHOLE POINT of this garbage proposal is to deflect and delay. Rather than being forced to defend the gun show loophole and their opposition to the assault weapons ban, they need us to talk about *something else.* (7/?)— davekarpf (@davekarpf) February 23, 2018
Usually, the NRA can wait for our attention to turn away from gun control. But teenage activists have dominated the news cycle and kept America’s attention on the issue.
So Karpf argues that this proposal to arm the teachers could be an NRA strategy to get us talking about something else.
In other words, the NRA and gun rights advocates were essentially starting a bigger fire elsewhere so the conversation would move away from the fire they really cared about.
So did it work?
CNN and MSNBC took the bait
On CNN and MSNBC, a relatively large portion of the coverage over the weekend was on arming teachers — significantly more than on Fox News.
Karpf tweeted that he thinks the best response is to quickly point out how ridiculous this proposal is and move on.
The best response to this gambit is to ridicule-then-pivot.— davekarpf (@davekarpf) February 23, 2018
"That's a stupid and unserious proposal, & we know they don't mean it because they haven't introduced it as actual legislation. There are real bills that congress can pass right now. Let's finally talk about them. 9/?
It doesn’t appear that this happened.
Gun rights activists were able to convince the public and these networks that arming teachers was a topic worth covering. It was tempting bait because it was exactly the kind of absurd proposal that paints gun rights activists as irrational.
Fox News didn’t stop covering gun control. It just reframed the debate.
There were several points in the days leading up to this weekend when Fox News focused more on gun control than the other networks.
This was the perfect opportunity for the network to reframe the narrative and go back to covering the gun debate using the old model: by focusing on its interpretation of the Second Amendment and doing mental gymnastics to find solutions that have nothing to do with actual gun control.
It started with Fox News repeatedly playing a portion of President Trump’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last Friday:
Don’t be complacent. Because if they get in, they will repeal your tax cuts. They will put judges in that you wouldn’t believe. They will take away your Second Amendment, which we will never allow to happen.
By the way, if you only had a choice of one, what would you rather have? The Second Amendment or tax cuts? Go ahead! [Trump points to audience.]
Second Amendment! [cheers]
Then Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who had signaled a willingness to push for new gun control measures in his state, made repeated appearances on the network, saying he wants to balance the Second Amendment with protecting kids, eventually saying he’s not interested in banning any weapons but rather banning certain people from getting guns.
And several talking heads, including former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, appeared on the network to say:
The Second Amendment is not going away. So I tell my Democratic friends: The Second Amendment is there for a reason — the right to bear arms to protect us from your ancestors, if you don’t mind me saying so. [Pointing to host Steve Hilton, who grew up in the United Kingdom but is of Hungarian descent.]
We can see this turn in the data, where a decent portion of the gun control conversation on Fox News shifts to gun rights and the Second Amendment:
This was a small detour, but America’s attention is still on gun control
But there truly is something different about this gun control debate. American attention on gun control normally fades quickly, but several data points, including Google search data, reveals that the current conversation has a long tail.
In addition, the network transcript data shows that the conversation around arming teachers is dying down; it had a good weekend run, but it appears gun rights activists are again on their heels and hoping the attention fades.
Last week, I wrote about the appalling coverage of the Florida shooting on Fox News, which tried to link the FBI’s failure in the Parkland shooting to the bureau’s credibility in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference. This week, comparatively, Fox News coverage looked downright normal.
But on the other networks, which serve as a proxy for how the media world reacts to these events in general, the gun control debate took a small detour. We’re still talking and thinking about gun control, but with America’s fragile attention span, gun control activists can’t afford too many more of these.