Following the shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech last spring, there was a flurry of media attention on the issue of guns and gun control.
But much like Columbine nearly a decade ago or the Amish schoolhouse shootings last year, that attention seemed to be short-lived.
Contrary to the media notion of "If it bleeds, it leads," guns and gun control rarely get covered as a front-page story. "After Virginia Tech, there was a great deal of good investigative reporting, not [just] about local Virginia law and the background-check system," explains Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "The challenge for us is to hold that attention and get the press to work through us on these issues until what originate as good ideas actually become good policies."
Peter Hamm, communications director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says he's had success pitching gun control to police reporters in markets like Philadelphia. However, "there are some disadvantages on our side of this policy issue, and one is there is not a gun control beat, and there never has really been," he explains.
Frustration over media coverage of the gun debate isn't limited to advocates of stricter laws. "I don't think most reporters have a clue about guns," notes John Lott, senior research scientist at the University of Maryland and the author of The Bias Against Guns.
Lott, whom journalists often call for expert commentary, says, "They'll use terms like AK-47 and Uzi to describe guns impacted by the assault weapons ban, but they don't understand there are two versions of these guns and the civilian version has the same guts as a deer-hunting rifle."
Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association, adds, "When a tragedy occurs, we don't get a lot of in-depth analysis because the media is always looking for fresh angles. So the debate is constantly changing."
Arulanandam suggests coverage will continue to grow as the issue shifts from a federal debate to a state and judicial battle. But unlike other hot-button policy debates, the media will likely tread carefully around gun control, in part because of its complexity, but also because passions run so high on both sides.
Outdoor writer Jim Zumbo found that out the hard way. When he opined in a February blog posting that people shouldn't use military-style assault weapons for hunting, the outrage from gun owners caused him to lose his TV show on the Outdoor Channel, his Outdoor Life column and all of his endorsements.
Pitching... Gun control
The gun control debate is one where law enforcement holds a great deal of sway, so make sure you've got experts from police groups who can lend credence to your position
The easy story may be the gun-related tragedies, but the real issue is the legislative battle. Reporter education on current laws, pending bills, and lobbying can pay off
Don't just do reporter outreach; target editorial boards, as well