In 2017, firearms were responsible for 39,773 deaths—the highest number of gun deaths in two decades. That statistic includes 23,854 suicides and 12,542 homicides, and the more than 3,000 people who died in mass shootings. High-profile mass shootings—notably the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 and shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada; Parkland, Florida; and Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017 and 2018—have sparked a national conversation about gun policy, and efforts to advance gun violence prevention have gained momentum.
The prominence of gun issues in electoral politics has grown in turn, with candidates discussing gun issues in debates, in political platforms, and in paid political advertising. In the 2016 election cycle, more than $6 billion was spent on political ads; spending during the 2020 election cycle is projected to reach $10 billion.
Television advertising offers political candidates a platform for communicating their views on contentious issues like guns, and tracking political advertising can provide important insights on how candidates view their stances on gun policy in their efforts to connect with the electorate.
To understand how the role of guns in political advertising has evolved over time, our study team led by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed more than 14 million broadcast television ads aired in 210 U.S. media markets. We studied candidate-related political ads airing in presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative races in the 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018 U.S. election cycles. (View sample videos: pro-regulation videos 1, 2, and 3, and pro-gun rights videos 1, 2, and 3.)
The data on broadcast television ads were collected by Kantar/CMAG, a campaign media analysis group, and comprise the most systematic and comprehensive political advertising data available. The dataset that formed the basis of this study was developed by the Wesleyan Media Project, a research center at Wesleyan University that tracks political advertising during elections.
This project represents a collaboration between Johns Hopkins researchers; the Wesleyan Media Project, under the leadership of Professor Erika Franklin Fowler; and collaborators at Cornell University and University of Minnesota. Our research team developed a 63-item instrument to code the visual and text content of political advertisements referencing guns over the four most recent election cycles.
Our aim was to identify trends in candidate-related election advertising that mentions guns, and to assess geographic variations across media markets. The findings were published in the February issue of Health Affairs.
Here are the highlights:
Political ads with gun references are increasingly common
Over the four election cycles analyzed, more than 721,000—or 5 percent—of the 14 million candidate-related ads aired included gun-related references. The share of political ads aired that referenced guns increased over time, rising from 1 percent of candidate-related television political ads aired during the 2012 election cycle to over 8 percent in the 2018 election cycle.
Pro-gun rights references are more common than pro-regulation references, but their share has decreased over time
In the past, political candidate advertising featuring guns was likely to be pro-gun rights; however, we found a significant shift, with a striking upswing in the number of political ads aired including messages focused on reducing gun violence.
Among televised political ads aired that referenced guns, the majority of gun-related references—51 percent—were pro-gun rights, with 29 percent pro-regulation. (One percent included both pro-gun rights and pro-gun regulation references, and an additional 20 percent were more neutral with no overt reference either way.) We found a decrease over time in the share of gun-related ad airings with pro-gun rights references—a drop from 86 percent in the 2012 election cycle to 45 percent, or less than half, in the 2018 election cycle. And we found a nearly threefold increase in the share of pro-regulation messages—from 10 percent in the 2012 election to 37 percent in the 2018 election.
Over the study period, 35 percent of ad airings with gun-related references referred to the NRA; however, over time their tone shifted from being overwhelmingly pro-NRA to being more evenly split between pro- and anti-NRA in the 2018 election cycle. Pro-NRA mentions dropped from 45 percent in the 2012 election cycle to 20 percent in the 2018 election, with the share of ads with anti-NRA mentions jumping from less than 1 percent in the 2012 election to 20 percent in the 2018 election.
Specific policies are not often mentioned in gun-related ad airings
Over the four election cycles, 21 percent of gun-related airings mentioned support for the Second Amendment, but no other specific policy topics garnered a large share of political ad airtime. Only 8 percent mentioned support for universal background checks, for example, and only 5 percent referenced support for laws that prevent people behaving dangerously from possessing guns. This is perhaps surprising, considering the recent efforts by state legislatures to pass extreme risk protection order laws that temporarily remove guns from people at risk of violence. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now have these laws on the books, and more are considering them.
Geographic variations are large, and big shifts have occurred across the country
We found significant geographic variation in the volume of candidate-related ad airings by media market. We identified four media markets in West Virginia and Montana that aired 10,000 or more pro-gun rights candidate ads, and four media markets with 10,000 or more pro-regulation airings: Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, and Washington, D.C.
The biggest increases over time in pro-gun rights airings were in the South. Five media markets that had seen no pro-gun rights ad airings in the 2012 election cycle saw more than 2,500 in the 2018 election cycle in media markets in Alabama, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Georgia. Equally dramatic were the increases in pro-regulation ad airings. During the 2012 election cycle, no media markets saw more than 1,000 pro-regulation airings. But, over the next three election cycles, the volume of pro-regulation gun-related ad airings increased in media markets like Denver, Colorado; Kansas City, Missouri; and many locations in Florida.
Americans are increasingly seeing gun-related political advertising—an indication of the growing importance of the issue of guns to political candidates and to voters. But, depending on where you live, you are likely to hear very different messages about the roles of guns in our society by candidates running for political office. As the 2020 election unfolds, it will be critical to watch how these trends in featuring guns in political advertising evolve. It will be equally interesting to see how these rapid shifts in political advertising featuring guns shape public action on gun issues.
"Guns In Political Advertising Over Four US Election Cycles, 2012–18" was supported by the Initiative. Download the paper from the Health Affairs website.