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Spending On Gun Policy Ads Soars Amid Widening Political Divisions

Ads like this one from the National Rifle Association are appearing more frequently since 2012, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins University.
Ads like this one from the National Rifle Association are appearing more frequently since 2012, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins University.

Spending on gun policy advertisements has risen sharply in recent elections, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have concluded, amid widening political divisions within the gun debate.

Over four election cycles from 2012-2018, the study, “Guns In Political Advertising Over Four US Election Cycles,” found that ads referencing guns increased from 1% of total candidate-related advertisements, to over 8% in the 2018 cycle.

A narrowing majority of these ads — 51% — made pro-gun references. Just under 30% were pro-regulation, and about 1% included references to both gun rights and gun safety policies.

About 20% of the analyzed ads had “no overt pro-gun rights or pro-regulation” references.

“Political advertising has caught up to public opinion, in the sense that gun regulation messaging is now part of the dialogue in political advertising,” said Colleen Barry, lead researcher on the gun ads study.

A November 2019 Gallup opinion survey found that 64% of Americans want stricter laws on gun sales. The same polling found a widening gap in Republicans’ and Democrats’ views on gun laws, rising from a 17-percentage-point divide between the two parties’ stances on guns to more than 50 percentage points since 2017.

That was no more evident than in the 2016 presidential election, which saw gun-owning voters support the Republican nominee, President Donald Trump, by 63% to 31%. Non-gun owners supported the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, 65% to 30%, according to the New York Times.

“The partisan identity is being associated not just with race, religion and education, as we knew, but the gun ownership question also is related to partisan identity,” said Jennifer McCoy, a professor of political science at Georgia State University who studies political polarization.

“We’ve become more polarized since the 1990s, with the parties becoming more homogeneous within each other,” McCoy said.

That idea is reflected in the Johns Hopkins University research, which found that relatively few ads mentioned specific policy recommendations.

Support for the Second Amendment was mentioned in 21% of gun-related ads. Eight percent mentioned support for universal background checks and support for assault weapons bans, respectively, and 5% mentioned restricting guns from dangerous people.

Smaller percentages made references to the right to guns as a form of self defense, restricting mentally ill people’s access to guns, concealed carry policies and other issues.

Spending on political advertising, including gun policy ads, is expected to reach nearly $10 billion this year, far eclipsing the $6.3 billion spent in the 2016 election cycle.

So far, gun safety organizations have spent more than $15 million in the 2020 contest. Gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, have spent just over $1 million in the same period, according to the election spending tracker website OpenSecrets.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

Copyright 2021 Guns and America. To see more, visit Guns and America.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.
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