Gun control issue fosters disconnect between feds and states

Apr 30, 2013

The first class of National Newspaper Association Foundation News Fellows arrived in Washington, concurrently with the “We Believe in Newspapers Leadership Summit” to test their news literacy skills on one of the nation’s toughest subjects: gun control legislation.

Five college journalists sponsored by state press associations and journalism schools were selected for the inaugural news literacy program. They were paired with working community newspaper journalists and set up for a couple of key news briefings. Then they were on their own to roam Capitol Hill, the K Street lobbying corridor and other venues in the nation’s capital to try to find out who is shaping public opinion on gun control and how.

By Asha Anchan

University of Nebraska

At 9:33 a.m., I was giving a presentation in my Mass Media and Society class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I was discussing the ethical implications of social media and journalism all the while trying to keep my classmates’ eyes from drooping.

Twenty-four hours later, I was en route to Washington, D.C., to participate in the National Newspaper Association conference as a news fellow. The four other journalism students and I were met with the task of talking with state and national officials about the evolving gun control legislation.

With the tragic Newtown, CT, shooting only four months removed from the headlines, many were saying this event was the final straw for gun legislation. But it’s a conversation that continues to happen at the state and national level. It’s a conversation that is shaped by opinions as well as facts, by political leanings and varying upbringings. It’s an issue that can’t be ‘solved’ with one law or completely addressed after one incident. It’s complex and emotional.

One of the biggest hurdles I saw was the difference between state opinions and the source of pending legislation—Capitol Hill.

Being nearly 1,200 miles from Lincoln, NE, the disconnect between the national’s capital and my state capital quickly became apparent.

At 1:04 p.m. on March 14 our group showed up at Vice President Joseph Biden’s office to talk with White House officials about the pending gun control legislation.

I left the meeting with one word in my head: confidence. The official spoke on background only, and expressed that from the administration’s point of view, the political landscape is primed for action. There’s heightened awareness, there’s the momentum to pass legislation and there’s evidence of some bipartisan support, the official said.

The proposed plan, signed days before President Obama’s second inauguration, outlines 23 steps he intends to take immediately without congressional approval. These include improving the existing system for background checks, lifting the ban on federal research on gun violence, putting more counselors and “resource officers” in schools and better access to mental health services.

But at 3:58 p.m. in U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns’, R-NE, office, the Nebraska legislator’s thoughts seemed quite different.

“Overwhelmingly, Nebraskans feel very strongly about protecting Second Amendment rights,” Sen. Johanns said. “I think that’s especially true in rural areas.

“At the end of the day, you still come back to the fact that the Constitution gives us the right to bear arms.”

Johanns thinks taking a closer look at mental health and the impact of violence on children is a better method to deal with gun violence. He referred to himself as a strong believer in the Second Amendment, the same as many of his constituents. Although he said he didn’t want to minimize the Newtown shooting, he doesn’t see the administration’s proposed gun legislation as the answer.

“Every time there’s a tragedy, as tragic as it is, I can almost guarantee there will be a political response. Somebody will say, ‘This is an easy solution to this...’ but it is no solution to it,” Johanns said.

Nebraska Rep. Adrian Smith, R-NE, too, is wary of the swift actions “President Obama and others were quick to insist on new gun restrictions,” he wrote in a position paper on gun violence.

He went on to explain that the gun violence legislation stems from a universal goal—reducing violence—but he doesn’t see gun restrictions as the path for accomplishing this goal.

Smith and Johanns expressed confidence as well, just on the other end of this debate.

In Nebraska, four bills have been proposed in reference to gun control. They range from authorizing citizens to carry and conceal a firearm in vehicles to prohibiting federal restrictions on firearms, magazines and accessories, among other topics.

There are obviously two sides to this issue and there’s some common ground in between, namely, the desire to keep Americans safe. But why does there seem to be such a disconnect between conversations in Nebraska and the nation’s capital about the same issue?

I mulled this over between power-walks around the District of Columbia and for much of the plane ride back.

Why? And how is this fixed?

There’s no definitive answer to this, but I think there are some thoughts to consider.

There’s a cultural difference. Many people in Nebraska grew up around guns—if not in their homes—and many people have at least seen a gun, though on the East Coast that is less common. This may seem elementary, but even this level of comfort with guns plays in to a person’s beliefs about gun legislation.

There’s political spin. The right side of the aisle often attempts to scare people into thinking that any gun legislation means the government is going to start ripping guns out of the hands of its citizens. False. The government can’t do that. Additionally, the left side seems to jump on the sympathy bandwagon, asking the Second Amendment proponents questions like: “Don’t you want to keep your children safe?” “Don’t you want to get the guns out of the hands of killers?” None of these tactics accomplishes anything.

There’s media spin. When was the last time you read a story about the gun control debate and didn’t feel like there was some sort of slant? Either a local shooting is played up to reinforce a call to action or elements of the debate are overlooked and not addressed.

So what do we do with this information? What do we do with this churning pot of ideals, hopes and political jargon?

What do I do with this?

A week after my trip to Washington I was back in my Mass Media and Society class talking about ethics. It was then that the phrase, “Seek, speak truth and report it” came to mind.


More than just reading what’s out there, accepting what we journalists think might be “correct,” the challenge is to question what you know and what you’re hearing. Question politicians and statistics until you find the truth that will make the difference in a polarizing debate.