In June of 1999, two weeks after Rosie "The Queen of Nice" O'Donnell used her TV talk show to confront Tom "I'm the NRA" Selleck about gun violence, she was calling in to "Larry King Live" to promote gun control on CNN. Asked by King if she favored amending the Second Amendment to the Constitution, O'Donnell replied: "I think that we need to seriously consider that. Yes, I do, Larry."
The above may appear to some as evidence of gun bashers running amuck in the media, even favoring a rewrite of the Constitution. I submit it as evidence of just the opposite: how the National Rifle Association and gun lobby have dominated the terms of the media debate on gun control.
Indeed, media bias in favor of the NRA's view of the Second Amendment (as protecting individual gun ownership) is so pervasive that even many gun-control supporters seem unaware that the federal high courts have never found a gun law to have violated the Second Amendment.
The Amendment is only 27 words: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." While the NRA emphasizes only the last 14 words, the U.S. Supreme Court and appeals courts have focused on "well-regulated militia" and "security of a free State" to rule that Second Amendment rights are reserved to states and their militias - nowadays, the National Guards.
The truth is -- and one would hardly know it from the mass media -- that since the Supreme Court's unanimous Miller decision in 1939, all federal appeals courts, whether dominated by liberals or conservatives, have agreed that the Second Amendment does not confer gun rights on individuals. The NRA view, opposed even by such right-wing judges as Robert Bork, has been consistently rejected.
Unlike the average media consumer, Douglas Hickman knows this truth. In 1991, he invoked the Second Amendment in suing the City of Los Angeles after failing to get a permit for a concealed weapon. In keeping with dozens of cases since 1939, the Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously: "We follow our sister circuits in holding that the Second Amendment is a right held by the states and does not protect the possession of a weapon by a private citizen."
The Hickman decision, like most of the other decisions, went unreported in The New York Times, which once inaccurately reported that "the Supreme Court has never explicitly ruled" on the Second Amendment's meaning.
My point is not that the high courts are correctly interpreting the Amendment (some legal scholars, including liberals, say they're not), or that this unbroken 60-year pattern of decisions will go on forever (a Texas gun owner has found a lower federal court judge who endorses the NRA's view, and that case may one day reach the Supreme Court).
My point is journalistic, not legal: If you just learned that federal case law says the Second Amendment does not protect an individual's right to own guns, do you feel cheated that news outlets have allowed the NRA to impose its Second Amendment worldview on coverage, while marginalizing the federal courts? You're not alone: Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger referred to gun lobby propaganda on this issue as "one of the greatest pieces of fraud...on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime."
Howard Friel, editor of "Guns and the Constitution," studied news coverage on the issue for an article in Extra!, FAIR's magazine: "While the NRA's interpretation of the Second Amendment is repeatedly cited in newspapers and on TV, the federal judiciary gets virtually no coverage." When reporters matter-of-factly describe a politician as "a supporter of the Second Amendment," the well-established judicial view isn't even in the picture.
In complaining about bias, conservatives point to surveys indicating that most reporters are personally pro-gun control. But so are most Americans. A more revealing survey finding -- from the anti-gun control Second Amendment Foundation -- indicated that 69 percent of daily newspapers subscribed to the NRA's interpretation of the Second Amendment.
If mainstream journalism were intent on biasing the news in favor of gun control, would reporters be so credulous in accepting the NRA's view of the Second Amendment?
I've found that news coverage of gun control rarely fails to include "both sides." Reporting is usually balanced, often predictably so -- with gun advocates hailing their sacred Second Amendment rights pitted against gun control advocates arguing for incremental reforms like trigger locks and gun-show background checks that hardly address the enormity of the problem of firearms violence.
Even though nearly 40 percent of the American public favors banning the sale of handguns, according to recent polls, it's a proposal deemed too "extreme" for most mainstream media debates. A USA Today columnist dubiously asserted that "such a sweeping measure wouldn't pass constitutional muster." .
Conservatives complain of media bias against the NRA, especially in editorials and op-eds. In fact, the NRA has many allies among opinion-shapers, including some of the biggest voices in talk radio -- such as NRA echo chamber G. Gordon Liddy, who told listeners how to kill federal agents.
Given the inflammatory utterances from NRA leaders, toned down after the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed by ardent member Timothy McVeigh, the NRA has not fared all that badly in the media. One board member wrote that masked federal agents are "scarier than the Nazis" and should be "targets." Another declared: "The purpose of the 2nd Amendment is to threaten the government."
Only after Oklahoma City did national media notice official NRA rhetoric about the "storm-trooper tactics" of firearms agents, a.k.a. "jack-booted government thugs," who have the green light to "murder law-abiding citizens."
Gun advocates are right to gripe about the sometimes hysterical coverage, especially on television, that follows school, workplace or other mass shootings. They are wrong, however, to blame a pro-gun-control bias; the real culprit behind overhyped coverage is corporate-driven, ratings-hungry, tabloid-oriented media that have updated the "if it bleeds, it leads" slogan with a dictum more appropriate to the 24-hour news environment: "If they're dead, we're live."
In fact, given the quantity of coverage devoted to school shootings perpetrated by kids as young as 11, it's startling how little reporting has focused on the efforts of the NRA and the gun industry to market guns to youth. A Violence Policy Center report, "Start 'Em Young: Recruitment of Kids to the Gun Culture," offers graphic details of ads, catalogues and campaigns aimed at attracting kids, even preteens, to shooting. Until 1994, the firearms industry distributed a pamphlet, "When Your Youngster Wants a Gun," saying that "some youngsters are ready to start at 10" as gun owners.
It's basic journalistic instinct, not bias, that prompts reporters to point out that the gun-related crime and death rate in the U.S. is many times higher than that of any other advanced industrial country (in 1994, there were 142.4 gun deaths per million people in the U.S.; 4.1 in England and Wales; 0.5 in Japan). NRA supporters complain that reporters move too quickly from these stark statistical comparisons to differences in gun regulation -- relatively lax in the U.S., very strict in most advanced countries.
Frankly, a correlation between gun laws and gun deaths is too obvious to ignore. Mainstream journalists do often ignore another key factor contributing to our much higher violent crime rate: poverty. The U.S. is the only advanced industrial country with so much of it. But we'll leave media and poverty for a future debate.
A version of this appeared in Brill's Content (2/00).