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Dangerous People or Dangerous Guns: The Effects of Policy Frames on Mental Illness Stigma and Support for Gun Control Policy


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Principal Investigator(s):

Emma McGinty
Johns Hopkins University
Email:emcginty@jhsph.edu

Sample size: 3000
Field period: 04/08/2012-06/12/2012

 

Abstract:

Objective: In recent years, mass shootings by persons with serious mental illness (SMI) have received extensive news media coverage. We test the effects of news stories about mass shootings on public attitudes about persons with SMI and support for gun policies, and examine whether news coverage of proposals to prevent persons with SMI from having guns exacerbates the public’s negative attitudes about this group.

Method: We conducted a survey-embedded randomized experiment using a national sample (N=1,797)from an online panel. Respondents were randomly assigned to read one of three news stories or to a no-exposure control group. News stories described: (1) a mass shooting by a person with SMI; (2) a mass shooting and a SMI gun restriction proposal; (3) a mass shooting and a large capacity magazine (LCM) ban proposal. Outcome measures included public attitudes about working with or living near a person with SMI, perceived dangerousness of persons with SMI and support for SMI gun restriction and LCM ban policies.

Results: Compared to the control group, the story about a mass shooting heightened respondents’ negative attitudes about persons with SMI and raised support for SMI gun restrictions and banning LCMs. Including information about the SMI gun restriction policy in a story about a mass shooting did not heighten negative public attitudes about SMI or raise support for the restrictions.

Conclusions: The aftermath of mass shootings, like the tragedy in Newtown, create an opportunity to garner support for gun control policies, but also exacerbate negative attitudes toward those with SMI.

Hypotheses:

1. News media coverage of violent acts by persons with serious mental illness exacerbates negative public attitudes about the population with serious mental illness.

2. Messages promoting gun control policies targeting persons with serious mental illness heighten negative public attitudes toward this group.

3. Messages promoting gun control policies targeting "dangerous guns" will be more effective at garnering public support for gun control than messages promoting policies targeting "dangerous people."

Experimental Manipulations:

Control group: No Exposure

News Story 1: Mass shooting event news story
The gunman who opened fire in an Indianapolis park yesterday morning has been identified as Indianapolis resident Jake Robinson, age 30. According to police, the shooter has a history of serious mental illness. Mr. Robinson’s motivation for opening fire in Smith Park in central Indianapolis is unclear. Witnesses said Mr. Robinson arrived at the park around seven-thirty am and appeared agitated, pacing up and down and talking to himself. At approximately 8:15 am, Mr. Robinson took a gun out of his bag and began to shoot. Three adults passing through the park on their way to work were shot and killed. Three more adults and two children were wounded. The police officer leading the investigation said that Jake Robinson used a semiautomatic weapon to shoot about 30 bullets in a row before he was tackled by a security guard from a nearby building. Little is known about Mr. Robinson, who lived alone and appears to have no immediate family. Mr. Robinson’s cousin, who lives in South Carolina, said Mr. Robinson was hospitalized for mental illness last year.

News story 2: Mass shooting event + serious mental illness gun restrictions story:
The gunman who opened fire in an Indianapolis park yesterday morning has been identified as Indianapolis resident Jake Robinson, age 30. According to police, the shooter has a history of serious mental illness. Mr. Robinson’s motivation for opening fire in Smith Park in central Indianapolis is unclear. Witnesses said Mr. Robinson arrived at the park around seven-thirty am and appeared agitated, pacing up and down and talking to himself. At approximately 8:15 am, Mr. Robinson took a gun out of his bag and began to shoot. Three adults passing through the park on their way to work were shot and killed. Three more adults and two children were wounded. The police officer leading the investigation said that Jake Robinson used a semiautomatic weapon to shoot about 30 bullets in a row before he was tackled by a security guard from a nearby building. Little is known about Mr. Robinson, who lived alone and appears to have no immediate family. Mr. Robinson’s cousin, who lives in South Carolina, said Mr. Robinson was hospitalized for mental illness last year.

Yesterday’s shooting in downtown Indianapolis left residents looking for solutions to the problem of gun violence. According to the Indianapolis Coalition against Violence – a group whose membership includes city lawmakers, law enforcement officials, researchers, advocacy groups and citizens concerned about violence in Indianapolis – gun violence in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. “With more than 65,000 Americans shot in an attack last year, we have to do something to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” said Kim Jones, the spokesperson for the group. One proposal currently being considered by Congress is a good start, Jones said. Congress is considering legislation to require states to enter people with serious mental illness into a background check system used by gun dealers to identify people prohibited from buying guns, or face a penalty. According to Kim Jones, “Getting this law in place is one way to protect the public from dangerous people.”

Story 3: Mass shooting event + large capacity magazine ban story:
The gunman who opened fire in an Indianapolis park yesterday morning has been identified as Indianapolis resident Jake Robinson, age 30. According to police, the shooter has a history of serious mental illness. Mr. Robinson’s motivation for opening fire in Smith Park in central Indianapolis is unclear. Witnesses said Mr. Robinson arrived at the park around seven-thirty am and appeared agitated, pacing up and down and talking to himself. At approximately 8:15 am, Mr. Robinson took a gun out of his bag and began to shoot. Three adults passing through the park on their way to work were shot and killed. Three more adults and two children were wounded. The police officer leading the investigation said that Jake Robinson used a semiautomatic weapon to shoot about 30 bullets in a row before he was tackled by a security guard from a nearby building. Little is known about Mr. Robinson, who lived alone and appears to have no immediate family. Mr. Robinson’s cousin, who lives in South Carolina, said Mr. Robinson was hospitalized for mental illness last year.

Yesterday’s shooting in downtown Indianapolis left residents looking for solutions to the problem of gun violence. According to the Indianapolis Coalition against Violence – a group whose membership includes city lawmakers, law enforcement officials, researchers, advocacy groups and citizens concerned about violence in Indianapolis – gun violence in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. “With more than 65,000 Americans shot in an attack last year, we have to do something to keep dangerous guns off our streets,” said Kim Jones, the spokesperson for the group. One proposal currently being considered by Congress is a good start, Jones said. Congress is considering legislation to ban large ammunition clips, which are military-style high capacity magazines that can shoot 30, 50, or 100 bullets without requiring the shooter to stop and reload. According to Kim Jones, “Getting this law in place is one way to protect the public from dangerous guns.”

Story 4: Serious mental illness gun restrictions story:
Yesterday’s shooting in downtown Indianapolis left residents looking for solutions to the problem of gun violence. According to the Indianapolis Coalition against Violence – a group whose membership includes city lawmakers, law enforcement officials, researchers, advocacy groups and citizens concerned about violence in Indianapolis – gun violence in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. “With more than 65,000 Americans shot in an attack last year, we have to do something to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” said Kim Jones, the spokesperson for the group. One proposal currently being considered by Congress is a good start, Jones said. Congress is considering legislation to require states to enter people with serious mental illness into a background check system used by gun dealers to identify people prohibited from buying guns, or face a penalty. According to Kim Jones, “Getting this law in place is one way to protect the public from dangerous people.”

Story 5: Large capacity magazine ban story:
Yesterday’s shooting in downtown Indianapolis left residents looking for solutions to the problem of gun violence. According to the Indianapolis Coalition against Violence – a group whose membership includes city lawmakers, law enforcement officials, researchers, advocacy groups and citizens concerned about violence in Indianapolis – gun violence in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. “With more than 65,000 Americans shot in an attack last year, we have to do something to keep dangerous guns off our streets,” said Kim Jones, the spokesperson for the group. One proposal currently being considered by Congress is a good start, Jones said. Congress is considering legislation to ban large ammunition clips, which are military-style high capacity magazines that can shoot 30, 50, or 100 bullets without requiring the shooter to stop and reload. According to Kim Jones, “Getting this law in place is one way to protect the public from dangerous guns.”

Key Dependent Variables:

1. Would you be willing to have a person with serious mental illness start working closely with you on a job? (definitely unwilling, probably unwilling, neither, probably willing, definitely willing)

2. Would you be willing to have a person with serious mental illness as a neighbor? (definitely unwilling, probably unwilling, neither, probably willing, definitely willing)

3. People with serious mental illness are, by far, more dangerous than the general population. (strongly disagree, disagree, neither, agree, strongly agree)

4. Most people with serious mental illness can, with treatment, get well and return to productive lives (strongly disagree, disagree, neither, agree, strongly agree)

5. Would you support or oppose increasing federal funding to pay for a background check system to identify people with serious mental illness in order to prevent them from purchasing a firearm? (strongly support, somewhat support, neither support nor oppose, somewhat oppose, strongly oppose)

6. As you may know, high-capacity magazines or clips can hold many rounds of ammunition, so a shooter can fire more rounds without manually reloading. Would you support or oppose a nationwide ban on the sale of high-capacity gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition? (strongly support, somewhat support, neither support nor oppose, somewhat oppose, strongly oppose)

Summary of Findings:

News media portrayals of mass shooting events by persons with SMI appear to play a critical role in influencing both negative attitudes toward persons with SMI and support for gun control policies. The news story describing a mass shooting event heightened desired social distance from and perceived dangerousness of persons with SMI. The same story raised public support for both SMI gun restrictions and a LCM ban. Study findings do not support the mental health community’s contention that messages about SMI gun restriction policy worsen negative attitudes about persons with SMI. However, results have potential implications for the advocates and policy makers who promote gun control policy responses to mass shootings. While news media messages about banning dangerous guns with LCMs raised support for a LCM ban, messages about preventing dangerous persons with SMI from possessing guns failed to raise support for SMI gun restrictions.

References

McGinty EE, Webster DW, Barry CL (2013). Effects of news media messages about mass shootings on attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness and public support for gun control policies. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170: 494-501.


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