On the back of a rising number of mass shootings and gun-related homicides, many American political candidates are now more inclined to include gun policy in their campaign platforms. This is reflected in the growing number of political ads mentioning firearms. According to a new study, over the past four election cycles, gun-related TV political ads increased eightfold.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University analyzed 28,946 unique political ads that were aired on television 14 million times in 210 U.S. media markets over four election cycles in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018. The advertisements promoted candidates running for president, U.S. Congress, governor, and state legislature.
The authors concluded that the number of political ads referencing firearms increased by 369,500. In total, there were eight times more ads mentioning guns in 2018 (8% of all ads) than there were in 2012 (1% of all ads).
However, while the absolute number of political television advertisements mentioning guns has increased substantially, the message itself has become much more polarized.
In 2012, just 10% of the broadcasted advertisements reviewed by the study were gun regulation-orientated. This figure jumped to 37% in the 2018 election, more than triple the number in 2012. Meanwhile, pro-gun rights messages decreased from 86% of all gun-related political ads aired during the 2012 election to 46% in the 2018 election.
“In the past, if guns were mentioned in political ads about candidates, it was in a pro-gun rights context,” says lead author Colleen Barry, the Fred and Julie Soper Professor and Chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Our study indicates that a real shift has occurred in political discourse over the role of guns in our society. The upswing we are seeing in gun regulation messaging in political ads aimed at reducing gun violence is striking.”
During the analysis, Barry and colleagues grouped the campaign ads as pro-gun rights, pro-gun regulation, both, or neither. Additionally, they also quantified the number of ads mentioning the National Rifle Association.
Some of the study’s key findings include:
- 5% (721,238) of the aired campaigns had gun-related references;
- Overall, 51% were gun rights references, 29% were gun regulation messages, and 20% were more neutral in tone.
- 35% of the ads mentioning guns included in the study referenced the NRA. This share remained relatively stable over the course of four electoral cycles.
- By far, the most commonly referenced policy was support of the Second Amendment, mentioned by 21% of gun-related ads.
- Only 8% of the ads mentioned support for universal background checks. Another 8% referenced a ban on assault weapons and even fewer ads, about 5% of all gun-related political adverts, referenced support for restricting guns for dangerous individuals.
- The volume of gun-related candidate ads varied wildly depending on the geographic location. For instance, Alabama, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Georgia had the biggest increases in gun rights political ads aired over time. Meanwhile, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Miami represented media markets with 10,000 or more gun regulation ads aired on television.
“We were surprised to see so few ads focused on keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” says Barry. “Extreme risk protection order laws temporarily removing guns from individuals at risk of gun violence have now been enacted by state legislatures around the country in the past couple of years. However, this approach to reducing gun violence has not yet become a major theme in political candidate advertising.”
“We see substantial geographic differences in whether and how guns are mentioned in candidate-related political ads,” he added. “Depending on where you live, you are likely to hear very different messages from candidates for political office about the role of guns in our society.”
The findings were published in the journal Health Affairs.